Is There a Downside to High Achievement Standards?

“High achievement standards” is a buzz-phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the ed-reform debate. Unfortunately, because it’s a buzz-phrase not enough attention is paid to its actual substance. For example, what do high standards entail? How do they affect students?

A new study on truancy rates conducted by a group of German researchers provides some interesting answers. The study found that although “high standards” lead to less truancy, poor instructional pace can lead to more truancy.

High achievement standards were associated with a lower truancy rate at both the student and the class level, whereas fast instructional pace was associated with more truancy at both levels. A perception of the workload as being too low was an additional predictor of high truancy at both the student and the class level.

The problem for the “high standards” chorus is that holding students to high standards often involves cramming as much material as possible into the school year. Although the display of confidence implicit in the standards could initially benefit students, the accelerated classroom pace could leave them worse off.

The lesson is that people need to have a more nuanced view of “high achievement standards.” It doesn’t matter how perfectly crafted or widespread a set of standards might be; little will be accomplished if those standards are not enforced in a productive way.

The study also points to the promise of a true blended learning environment (think Rocketship on steroids.) When a single teacher attempts to teach a room of 30 students it’s impossible for each student to learn at his ideal pace. It takes a great teacher to even maintain a pace that works for half the kids. But if each student is guided by a computer tutor finely calibrated to his skill level and pace, the student can reap the benefits of high standards without the drawbacks of a classroom that doesn’t move at his speed.
Sälzer, C., Trautwein, U., Lüdtke, O., & Stamm, M. (2011). Predicting adolescent truancy: The importance of distinguishing between different aspects of instructional quality Learning and Instruction DOI: 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2011.12.001

4 Responses to Is There a Downside to High Achievement Standards?

  1. Cynic says:

    I don’t really agree or follow this:

    ‘The problem for the “high standards” chorus is that holding students to high standards often involves cramming as much material as possible into the school year.’

    I guess this is true if you are primarily interested in having students memorize knowledge — higher standards, being reflected by cramming more knowledge in. If your objective is, say, achieving a solid math foundation, it’s just the opposite… The higher your standards, for any given concept, the more different approaches and applications you want your students to recognize, and the higher % correct you require at test time.

    If you’ve taken upper engineering or hard science classes, some will grade softly on a curve and allow 4 questions out of 20 to be a B+. Other professors will have no qualms about failing entire sections.

    Anyway, I could have lived without commenting, if it was only that I differed from the author in assumptions. However, I was irked by the flat contradiction of the quoted results with the author’s conflation of high standards with covering lots of material.

    The quoted paper specifically says that 1) high standards imply low truancy and 2) fast instructional pace implies high truancy. It’s not just that it’s not necessarily true that high standards -> fast pace, its actually contradicted within the context of the research results. You can’t have high standards->fast pace->high truancy AND have high standards->low truancy. If you argue that high standards imply a fast pace, you are arguing that the research is incorrect.

    Honestly, it’s a sadly typical piece of bad, agenda-driven science journalism. Just, 1) here’s a science result. 2) Here’s something I always believed is true that the result kind of talks about. 3) The lesson is whatever I’ve always believed is right, and this proves it.

  2. erichorowitz says:

    It seems like most of your objection stems from the ambiguity in my use of the word “often” (which was probably a poor word choice on my part). Most of the time high standards are about ensuring students do a better job learning, and this is why research shows that overall, high standards are good. But in certain cases high standards can also mean requiring students to know more material, and this can lead to an accelerated class pace that hurts students some students. Your mistake is looking at a finding that says high standards are good, and assuming it means high standards are always good in every situation regardless of anything else that’s happening.

    I’m not quite sure what you think my agenda is (there should be low standards?), but given your strong objections to a post that essentially says “here’s something good we’re doing, but we should be careful about how we do it,” I’m inclined to say that your response is the thing that’s agenda-driven.

    • Cynic says:

      Well, I’ll apologize. I really did go to far yesterday, particularly in ascribing motivations, and probably overboard with the generalizations over all.

      Regarding an education agenda, at least in the US, there is a large anti-testing movement. When I read about standards, I immediately think about testing. The relative toughness of academic standards, is largely determined by testing and grading criteria — I mean, it’s certainly measured this way.

      I’ve read other (college) studies correlating higher standards with higher achievement in subsequent coursework. As a result I am positively disposed towards “high achievement standards”, and I felt this opinion happily confirmed by this latest bit of research.

      I don’t have much of a political agenda regarding the more controversial issue of testing, and view it (standardized testing as it is today) as sort of a necessary evil. Honestly, I was jumping to conclusions about why someone would interpret research showing “high academic standards” lowering truancy, as in fact being a cautionary tale against enthusiasm for such standards.

      Anyway, I can see you were indeed taking a more careful view of the subject, so, really, I apologize. The title of the article, as well as the summarizing statement warning against over hyping standards, led me to a snap judgement (black and white) — here is someone interpreting a clearly positive result as a negative one. After re-reading, I can see that your position is cautiously in favor high standards, and that, in fact, the research you are referencing can also be seen as also being only cautiously in favor of high standards.

      • erichorowitz says:

        No problem, I appreciate the response. The truth is, I probably do have an agenda, but if anything it’s an anti-anti-testing agenda. It’s funny I managed to come off the opposite way. And you’re right about the title. I changed it to something more reflective of my point.

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