How Raising Standards Can Lower Results

Who would argue against higher standards in education? Isn’t critiquing higher standards the same as arguing for watering down education? After all, we have plenty of research to support the idea that high standards are an important part of high performance. Set the bar low, and many may never reach their full potential. At least this is the dominant perspective in much of education. There is ample truth and wisdom to this line of thinking, but there is also a dark side to raising standards. In fact, raising standards can sometimes lower results. Here are six ways that can happen.

Decreasing the Pool of Credentials Earners

In the past couple of years, the standards for earning a GED were adjusted, aligning the test to the Common Core State Standards. They raised the bar on the test and the next year the number of people earning a GED plummeted. You can look at this as adding more academic rigor to the test, but what are the practical results in the lives of those who did or did not earn a GED as a result of these changes?

Yes, raising the bar on the GED test resulted in GED holders who have a higher level of knowledge and skill in some areas. I don’t challenge that. What concerns me is that it also restricted many from getting the credential needed to even apply for many jobs that require a “high school diploma or equivalent.”

My guess is that we probably have some very success leaders in businesses and organizations, maybe even some CEOs and presidents, who would not perform well on the new GED test. Yet, if they were at that age today, some of them would have been excluded from the professional pathway that led to where they are today.

In Wisconsin, our technical colleges have a better solution. There are different academic entry requirements for different majors. You might need a 10th grade reading level for one program and a 12th grade reading level for another. It is less about the credential and more about the clearly identified minimum requirements to be successful in a given pathway. Even better, these are based on assessments of what is actually required in the major and in the career paths that people usually pursue with that major.

Discouraging New Players and Competition

This is less about raising standards for learners and more about the standards applied to learning organizations. Outside regulatory and accrediting agencies often take pride in raising the standards expected of those who attain or maintain accreditation or approval to operate. These might be safety standards, standards for those who teach or work in the organizations, or even standards about how many books and subscriptions you have in your library. Regardless, the idea is that they are seeking to improve the performance of these organizations or make sure they meet a high standard of quality or excellence. At the same time, this increases the barrier or entry for new schools or learning organizations.

In the end, it keeps some of the lesser resourced organizations from being able to innovate and pursue new and less conventional opportunities. It gives an advantage to the largest and most resourced organizations, and it forces others to build strategies outside of the domain of these regulatory and accrediting agencies. Although, there is the possibility that this unintended consequence may well improve final results while disrupting some of the more established operations.

Standards are Not Tied to Solid Evidence

Sometimes raising standards is just about making something more difficult. It isn’t tied to solid or substantive research about what standards will ultimately improve performance in a given area. These are about “rigor” in the worst sense, making things more painful. That doesn’t improve real-world results. Consider a physical fitness example. If I raise the standards for a group of runners so that they all need to be able to run a 4-minute mile by the end of the year, that will force a massive increase in training, but it is not reasonably achievable by every runner. It is just as likely to push people to over-training and injury than to better results. The same can happen with raising other academic standards.

Increased Despair

We have ample literature to show us that raising the bar can be very good. Keep the expectations low and people may only perform enough to make it over that bar. Raise the bar too high and some will not even try. That is why much research about optimal performance is not focused on setting the highest possible standard. It is instead about making something the appropriate challenge for a person at a given stage. It should be a stretch for the person but not something that leads to despair, and this will vary from one person to another. Standards are, well…standard. They don’t care who you are, and that is quite appropriate for some learning contexts (like determining who will be allowed to conduct heart or brain surgery), but not as much for others (like determining lifelong career paths based on a 6th grade standards-based assessment). In fields or areas where only those meeting a very high standard should practice, it may be desirable to discourage people who are unwilling or unable to meet those standards. This isn’t equally true in all fields and at all levels of education, however. We want an education system that challenges every student to reach the highest levels and that calls for an education that nurtures hope and persistence.

Teaching to the Test

When we raise standards in an area and then build assessments to measure how people are performing on those standards, this can easily turn into a motivation to teach to the test or even find ways to get students to perform as high as possible on the test. Technically, this is more a critique of the measurement decision than the standards themselves. However, they often end of tied together. This can help students reach the high standards (as measured on the test), but much depends upon the quality of the test. Now I’ve turned science class into test preparation class instead of a place where curiosity and a love of learning about science is nurtured. Take your favorite topic, hobby, or area of interest and imagine what would happen if you could only explore that topic, hobby or interest in a context where I constantly drilled and prepared you for an examination of your performance in that area. Some of you might love that, but many others would find their previous affinity fade. In the long run, that is bad for widespread real world results.

Who Sets the Standards

There is sometimes very good reason to set universal standards for a given profession, like in many health care professions. However, is the same true when we look at standards for P-12 around the world? Are the same standards good or bad for children in Sudan, the Ukraine, Ghana, Canada, Austria, and Guatemala? One could argue that universal standards are good. They equip these children to “compete” on an international scale. At the same time, what are the skills that will most benefit people in a given community or part of the world? Are those always universal? If we believe that changing times calls for different standards and a different type of preparation, doesn’t it make equal sense that different standards and a different type of preparation might be helpful for living in distinct contexts around the world? Ignore this fact and we could set incredibly high standards that result in people ill-equipped to thrive in their immediate contexts.

I like standards. I like health standards for the food I purchase. I like standards for healthcare workers, military personnel, fire fighters, even people allowed to drive a car. Yet, this doesn’t mean that raising standards always increases results. Sometimes such well-meaning efforts makes things worse.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.