Posted by: sternenfeeinflorida | 18 March 2011

Improving Student Performance or Steps to a Comprehensive Education Reform

By Sünje Schwarz

In a world that becomes more global every day, the challenges to stay competitive are rising. Education is universally seen as the key to a country’s competitiveness and many countries around the world are constantly working to improve their children’s education, including the United States.  In order to measure student performances on a global scale, the OECD developed the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This test is administered once every three years and it assesses performance and improvements in participating countries. Needless to say, the publication of the test results reliably causes shock and awe reactions in several countries. Although the latest test results did not create a noticeable outcry in the United States, the results are nevertheless unsurprising. The education system in the United States is by far not as competitive as it needs to be.

While other countries are dedicated to teach their students a wide variety of comprehensive subjects, the United States is focused on standardized deliverables and accountability measures. This is the result of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which aimed at developing measures that would assess and improve student performance, while providing ways to hold teachers and schools accountable.

However, he No Child Left Behind Act has failed to improve students’ performances. Instead of trying to fix a reform that is inarguably broken, the United States should develop an approach that not only emphasizes a holistic teaching strategy but also returns the responsibility for academic success to the student and his or her parents.

One aspect that needs to be evaluated is the requirement of standardized testing. The United States has a long history of using standardized testing as a tool to measure student and teacher performance. The latest attempt to improve student performance and raise educational standards was through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (Smyth, 2008). However, standardized testing as implemented by the No Child Left Behind Act is highly inaccurate and does not show a student’s true performance.

Supporters argue that standardized testing is an important tool to measure the performance of students, teachers and schools. The No Child Left Behind Act requires states to set academic achievement standards which students will have to meet (U.S. Department of, 2002). In order to be able to measure whether or not the standards are met, the states periodically test student performance. As long as the skills students are required to learn are described in a state’s education standards and are part of the standardized tests, teachers will teach these skills to their students (Buck, Ritter, Jensen, & Rose, 2010).

The inaccuracy of standardized tests as a measurement for student performance can be highlighted when the difference in testing standards on the state level is compared with that on the federal level. Most states administer tests that are less demanding than the federal tests (Noddings, 2010).  As a result, student achievement may be outstanding on the state level and yet fail on the federal level. An alarming example came out of New York, where state results showed a big jump in student performance, while the federal test results showed little or no improvement (Medina, 2009). Standardized testing can only serve as a measure for school performance if the testing requirements are the same.

To make matters worse, because school funding depends largely on their performance on such tests, many teachers feel they are limited to teaching the specific contents of the tests. This, however, seems to be only the tip of the iceberg. In recent years teachers have been found to cheat in myriad ways, trying to improve their students’ scores. Maybe the worst case of cheating was not committed by teachers but by school administrators in Georgia. In Dekalb County, GA, a principal and his assistant principal erased and changed student answers on a state test to ensure their students would make adequate yearly progress as required by federal standards and not be held back (Torres, 2010). These lengths educators feel necessary to go to make their school look better on paper than it really is, defy the purpose of any kind of standardized testing.

A system based on unequal standards that encourages teachers, as well as other school officials to cheat, cannot improve an individual student’s performance.

Formative testing has proven to be a much better method to evaluate student performance and make the needed adjustments.

Those in favor of standardized testing claim the data derived from the test results helps schools to build their curricula and identifies the need for additional programs or adjustments that will increase student performance (Gewertz, 2010). In addition, it is said to aid teachers evaluate whether or not children have understood the concepts taught (Buck, Ritter, Jensen, & Rose, 2010). The long history of standardized testing and the money spent on it each year seem to underscore the validity and importance of standardized tests (Stiggins, 2007).

The problem with such tests is that they only test a student’s knowledge within a specified set of criteria and disregard how the student performs compared to other students of the same grade (Linn, & Gronlund, 2000). In other words, the learning process as a whole is disregarded (Atherton, 2011).

Formative assessment uses children’s natural desire to learn and builds on it (Brookhart, Moss, & Long, 2008). Unlike standardized testing, which takes place about once a year; formative assessments are given at a much higher frequency (Cauley, & McMillan, 2009).  Administration of frequent tests to assess student performance offer teachers the opportunity to assess the success of their teaching strategy as they can clearly see the percentage of students in their class who pass the test and show understanding of the subject. The higher the failure rate, the more the teacher will have to adjust the strategy (McNamee, & Chen, 2005). At the same time, students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own achievements. When teachers provide specific feedback, including suggestions on how to develop the skills and understanding necessary to become proficient, students and their parents can accurately identify the current level of understanding and areas of improvement. This provides students with a sense of empowerment as they can develop their own strategies to maximize their performance (Cauley, & McMillan, 2009).

Furthermore, formative assessment encourages children to learn to think independently, share their understanding and develop more powerful strategies, which enable them to better connect new information to prior knowledge (Cauley, & McMillan, 2009).

Since formative testing provides teachers and schools with constant updates and data on student performance, it is much better suited than standardized testing to develop and adjust curricula and other programs.

Formative assessment as a student performance measure, however, can only work if multiple-choice tests are largely replaced with constructed-response tests.

Perhaps one of the more striking arguments proponents for multiple-choice tests cite is that they can be graded automatically, saving teachers a lot of time and school districts a lot of money. At the same time, these are said to be the most objective since there is only one correct answer to each question, providing teachers with the most comprehensive way to determine whether or not a student has the required knowledge (Keuchler, & Simkin, 2003). Supporters of multiple-choice tests state that often these tests have already evolved to include writing samples and constructed response tests. These questions are designed to test students’ real knowledge (Gerstner, Jr., 2001).

The fact that multiple-choice tests are based on a student’s knowledge alone, poses a challenge to educators who are trying to determine student performance. Knowing the correct answer to a question does not necessarily mean the student knows how to apply it (Burke, & Burke, 2009, p. 15). A student may know that World War I started on July 28, 1914, but not know what lead to the war or any of its implications that last until today. Critical thinking and the ability to apply existing knowledge to new materials are essential skills required in professional life and college. Colleges don’t usually offer multiple-choice assignments but analytical papers that show a thorough understanding of the topic. At the same time, employers require their employees to be able to apply their knowledge to applicable situations (Ancess, 2008).

Even though many states already include writing samples, they have not been able to effectively show how well a student can apply the concepts. Instead, teachers have found ways to help their students on this portion of the standardized tests as well (Axtman, 2005). Studies show that a student’s performance on a standardized test can be significantly improved if the student is given a test-specific set of rules to follow (Hardison, & Sackett, 2008).

As a result, multiple-choice tests may be helpful in determining the surface knowledge but comprehensive understanding can only be evaluated through essay testing (Sangster, 1996).

That said, even formative assessment can only work if teachers have adequate education, which includes a national certification.

Some people, including teachers, argue that a degree in education does not increase a teacher’s ability to teach and that people with in-depth knowledge of a subject will teach students just as well. They claim the sole fact that a teacher has an education degree does not necessarily translate into being a great teacher (Welsh, 2009).

Currently, the requirements to obtain a teaching license vary widely from state to state. For example, teachers in Florida are only required to hold a bachelor’s degree in education if they want to teach elementary school students (Florida Department of Education, 2002). In order to be an effective teacher and successfully help students learn, a thorough understanding of the subject to be taught, as well as pedagogy are essential (Harman, 2001). The requirement to obtain a national certification can help ensure these standards are met. A teacher with a Bachelor’s degree in English should not be expected to be able to teach Physics, for example. Additionally, comprehensive knowledge of pedagogy equips teachers with a wide range of skills and abilities that enable children to learn and succeed (National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 2010).  A student whose parents grew up in Asia will likely have a different attitude towards the teacher and the subject than his American counterpart. Teachers need therefore to be able to understand and be sensitive to their student’s perceptions of the world, in order to adjust their teaching strategies accordingly (Hofstede, 1986). The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards offers a national certification, and research shows that this national certification helps schools to retain teachers and improve student performance (National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 2010).  Consequently, every teacher needs a thorough knowledge of the subject they teach, as well as pedagogy. Only a national certification can ensure that these standards are met for teachers in all states.

Another important aspect to consider is the amount of autonomy schools should have. Some people state that autonomous schools will increase student performance (Lewis, 2007). While schools should be granted a certain amount of autonomy, this should not extend to the ability to set budgets or educational standards. Whether or not course content developed by a school actually increases student performance, is highly dependent on the school’s accountability measures. Once again, exit exams seem to provide the best measure to hold schools accountable for their actions. At the same time, leaving it up to schools how to spend the allocated budget, which textbooks to buy and which teachers to hire, results in improved student performance (Fuchs, & Wößmann, 2007).

Hence, the ability for schools to operate autonomously will increase student performance but only if it is limited to the purchase of textbooks, hiring teachers or other general budget spending.

All these considerations, however, will not lead to the desired increase in student performance without involving parents in the educational process. While it is widely accepted that parents play a vital role in how their children’s performance at school, many parents don’t get involved. This has a variety of reasons, which range from fear of not having sufficient language skills, lack of educational background or cultural differences to the parent’s own bad experiences at school (Aronson, 1996). Some parents argue that once children leave elementary school, they are old enough to complete their homework assignments on their own. At the same time, these parents feel that unless they have comprehensive knowledge of a subject themselves, they are not qualified to help their children (“Parent involvement,” 2004). These parents are missing the opportunity to teach their children that school is a vital part of the whole family’s life (School, Parent, and Community Online Communications, 2004). Lack of parent involvement in the children’s school life, however, is not entirely the parents’ fault. Teachers are often just as unable to effectively communicate with parents and if schools only get in touch with parents when there is a problem, it does not promote parent involvement (Aronson, 1996).

Even if parents decide not to become actively involved in school activities, there are plenty of opportunities to take part in their children’s education. One simple approach is to control the amount of TV parents let their children watch. Limiting the amount of time children spend watching TV has been proven to increase their performance in school (The TV taboo, 2006). Additionally, parents should supervise their children’s homework and, if necessary, explain difficult concepts. This will help children to understand the subject matter better and improve their performance. But, perhaps most importantly, parents can ensure their children get an adequate amount of sleep. Sleep deprivation can have a severe adverse effect on student performance because students are simply too tired to pay attention and actively learn. Adequate amounts of sleep will result in increased alertness, which in turn leads to an improved ability to learn, which results in better student performance (Bergin, & Bergin, 2009).  There is no excuse for parents not to get involved in their children’s academic life. Regardless of whether or not parents decide to get involved directly in school activities, parents have a parental obligation to support their children and do their best to ensure their children’s academic success.

Considering all the aforementioned arguments, it seems inevitable that the United States focus on an education reform that includes a holistic teaching strategy and returns the responsibility for academic success to the students and their parents.


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