Standards for student performance are at the heart of the system. Standards set the expectations for student learning, and signal that all students, regardless of background or where they happen to attend school, are expected to demonstrate high levels of knowledge and skill. In addition, they focus the attention of everyone in the system on the results schooling is expected to achieve—academic performance—rather than the resources or effort put into the system.
Content standards spell out what students should know and be able to do in core subjects. They should be clear, parsimonious, and rigorous. Performance standards indicate the level of performance students should demonstrate. They should include: performance categories, performance descriptors, exemplars of performance in each category, and decision rules that enable educators to determine whether students have reached each category.
Assessments in standards-based systems serve a number of purposes: guiding instruction, monitoring school and district performance, holding schools accountable for meeting performance goals, and more. No single instrument can serve all purposes well. Assessment should involve a range of strategies appropriate for inferences relevant to individual students, classrooms, schools, districts, and states.
In order to provide information on the quality of instruction and provide cues to help educators improve teaching and classroom practices, the overwhelming majority of standards-based assessments should be sensitive to effective instruction; that is, they should detect the effects of high-quality teaching. Districts, schools, and teachers should use the results of these assessments to revise their practices to help students improve performance.
Assessments are essential to measure the performance of all children. Yet, although 49 percent of children served by Title I are in grades 3 and below, the 1994 statute does not require states to establish assessments before grade 3. Without some form of assessment, schools and districts would have no way of determining the progress of this large group of students to ensure that they do not fall too far behind.
To measure the performance of young children, teachers should monitor the progress of individual children in grades K to 3 at multiple points in time by using direct assessments, portfolios, checklists, and other work sampling devices. And schools should be accountable for promoting high levels of reading and mathematics performance for primary grade students. For school accountability in grades 1 and 2, states and districts should gauge school quality through the use of sampling, rather than the assessment of every pupil.