High Scores or High Standards?

This article was originally written in February 2016 for my school’s newsletter .

15601597778_7450614c7dWould you prefer that your child achieve high scores or high standards? If you are having a hard time deciding, it is probably because the two might seem interchangeable; however, the difference, albeit subtle, is nevertheless significant.

There is a lot of pressure the achieve high scores. From the perspective of parents and students, good results are required to get into summer programs and university programs, and to earn specific credentials, awards and scholarships. For schools, good results across the student body contribute to high rankings and a good reputation. These are all good things, if (and only if) the high scores reflect high standards. Unfortunately, when high scores are prioritized over high standards, the high scores can reflect lowered standards and can become a barrier to learning.

In my high school experience, high scores were more important than high standards. My classmates and I would complain if a test was too hard and would argue with the teacher to get part-marks added to our tests. Grades were treated like a currency and we acted like misers, hoarding every cent we could.  At the time I thought those habits indicated a commitment to excellence, but I now see that I was more interested in earning than learning. If I had really been committed to high standards, I would have welcomed challenging questions that pushed me to use my knowledge and skills in new ways. Instead of trying to extort extra marks after each test, I would have considered the feedback I got in order to find ways to improve subsequent work. Rather than seeing my teachers as adversaries who withheld marks, I would have seen them as allies who were pushing me to improve and extend my abilities.

Another grim reality is that high scores can be achieved without reaching high standards. If achieving a high score is the only goal, there are lots of ways – honest and dishonest – to get there; however, students who are determined to reach high standards have nothing to gain by cheating. The only way to reach a high standard is through persistent effort to refine the necessary skills.

The structure of assessment in IB programs prioritizes high standards. Rather than lowering expectations so that students can achieve high scores, the objectives define a high standard, requiring creativity, sophistication and an ability to transfer knowledge and skills into unfamiliar situations. Because the standards are set so high, our focus is on improvement rather than perfection. Students are given challenging tasks, encouraged to take risks, and are supported in continuous improvement. Even our highest-achieving students are given opportunities to extend their understanding and skills. Consequently, all students develop a growth-mindset and the ability to apply feedback to make steady improvements in their work.

Thankfully, post-secondary institutions are increasingly prioritizing high standards over high scores, in part because of the reputation of IB students. The Diploma Program exams require a level of sophistication that is respected around the world. Moreover, studies have found that IB students are more successful in university. This points to another benefit of high standards compared to high scores: while high scores might grant access to certain opportunities, the ability to make steady progress towards high standards will help students to make the most of those opportunities.

There are insidious ways that we, both parents and teachers, inadvertently emphasize high scores over high standards, especially at report card time. Here are some strategies for helping our students stay focused on high standards:

  • Rather than focusing on the report card in isolation, consider any changes since the last report card (or student-led conference), looking for evidence of improvement.
  • The comments are more informative that the grades, so read them carefully, paying particular attention to goals and strategies for improvement.
  • Help your child to set goals that refer to standards, rather than scores. For example, instead of “my goal is to get a Level 6 in English”, aim for something like, “my goal is to include a wider range of vocabulary in my writing.”
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