Knowledge Based versus Performance Based Debate

Knowledge Based versus Performance Based Debate
J,C. Bowman
Tennessee Institute of Public Policy 

NASHVILLE- Here are just a few notes I have been able to put together from responses I received on the "Knowledge Based" versus "Performance Based" debate taking place in the "conference committee" on HR1 and S1. I owe a debt of gratitude to all those who helped me assemble background information.

Two months ago the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR-1, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Senate subsequently passed the legislation (S-1) with onerous mandates. The legislation now goes to a conference committee where the differences need to be worked out. The final "conference report" will need to be passed one final time by both the House and the Senate before going on to the President for his signature.

The Mackinac Center and Hudson Institute put out a paper in 1995 about Outcome Based Education and its pitfalls. The paper is worth reading. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Family Research Council have also been active in this area. 

Diana Ravitch, fellow at Brookings, wrote a history of progressive education fads called Left Back . I also encourage you to visit the website of the Heritage Foundation and look at this article: . Krista Kafer an education analyst at the Heritage Foundation is an excellent resource. Her number is 202-546-4400.

To fully do battle in education reform, understanding the terminology is a must. An outstanding glossary can be found in the 1996 book The Schools We Need & Why We Don't Have Them (1996), written by Dr. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and published by Doubleday (1-800-323-9872). The education terminology provides a powerful arsenal for defense, I encourage education reformers and others interested in improving education and understanding the education jargon to visit the Texas Education Consumers Association website at . Jeanne Donovan heads the Texas Education Consumers Association . Their address is P. O. Box 16058 Fort Worth, TX 76162

Describing the performance-based definition, Dr, Hirsh states: "The original term used by specialists in the psychometric literature for what is called variously 'authentic assessment,' 'exhibitions,' and 'portfolio assessment.'" In simple terms, it means a student would receive a grade for an entire essay or a musical performance, just as they might in the real world. However, critics of performance-based assessment claim that "performances" in school do not duplicate the real world. "The most important criticism is that when used for high-stakes testing, performance tests are much less fair and reliable than well-constructed objective tests the best uses of performance tests are as lower-stakes 'formative' tests, which help serve the goals of teaching and learning within the context of a single course of study."

Former Texas Public School Teacher Donna Garner (236 Cross Country Drive, Hewitt, TX 76643. Telephone: (254) 666-2798. E-mail: writes about one amendment that is needed in the education bill conference report, I completely agree with her assessment. Here is what Mrs. Garner wrote:

HR 1 contains Rep. Todd Akin's amendment (numbered 17 in House Report 107-69): "The testing required in Section 1111(b)(4) must be a test of objective knowledge, based on measurable, verifiable, and widely accepted professional testing and assessment standards, and shall not assess the personal opinions, attitudes, or beliefs of the student being tested."

In other words, "the test" must be a test of objective knowledge (right or wrong, up or down, correct or incorrect answers) and cannot assess students' subjective, fuzzy personal opinions, attitudes, or beliefs.

At the present time, the Senate version does not contain the Akin amendment.

The conference committee has the power to adopt the Akin amendment as a part of its final conference committee package.

The Akin amendment would cause teachers to focus their classroom instruction on knowledge-based, academic content instead of on performance-based instruction (PBI), which has led to the lowering of academic standards.

It is PBI which has led to fuzzy math where process is commonly considered more important than generating the correct answer.

It is PBI which has led teachers away from emphasizing right or wrong answers in math, spelling, and grammar. Instead students have begun to substitute "fluff" rather than accurate answers.

It is PBI which has produced student writers who demonstrate lack of intellectual depth in their compositions but who, instead, fill their papers with touchy-feely slogans and unsupported personal opinions.

It is PBI which has driven textbook publishers away from the inclusion of traditional classics in their textbooks. Instead publishers are filling their books with one- and two-page selections that have more to do with the ethnicity of the author than with the quality of the author's wordsmanship.

It is PBI which has led "social studies" teachers to create an amalgam of unconnected dots for their students that leaves them devoid of historical, geographical, and governmental knowledge.

Performance-based assessments are valid in the local classroom for limited amounts of instructional time; but at the state level, such subjectively scored assessments produce subjective, questionable results.

Everyone on both sides of the political spectrum should want quality/credible testing data, and subjective scoring on state-mandated tests only leads to chaos and confusion.

State-mandated test results do not need to be calculated based upon the subjective evaluations of graders.

For a summary of some of the positive amendments in the education bill, see the Maple River Education Coalition PAC (MREdCoPAC) report "After the House Vote," . Maple River Education Coalition PAC is located at 1402 Concordia, St. Paul, MN 55104. Their telephone number is 651-646-0646.

Julie Quist, of the Maple River Education Coalition PAC states "In Minnesota, the system called the Profile of Learning is defined as assessing what a student can "do," certain specified behaviors. For a clear, simple description of how academic 'tests' were transformed to 'assessments,' see Chapter 2, 'The Profile of Learning,' especially p. 2-3 of "THE SEAMLESS WEB"( ).

Ms. Quist added: "This is, of course, replicated in every state, because Title I of the ESEA mandates "performance assessments" in every state. It is in this manner that academic achievement has been replaced with merely minimum competencies and attitudes/behaviors/beliefs. All of the tests have been aligned to the redefined curriculum of performance." The MREdCoPAC analysis of the NAEP is available at: .

Ms Quist believes "the nationally norm-referenced tests have also been aligned in the same manner. For example the present day Iowa Basics Tests is very similar to what one can find in the NAEP test, all measuring primarily attitudes, a worldview."

She concluded, "as far as specific examples, the entire assessment system, the entire set of standards is now built around the requirement to know almost nothing academically, but the student is steeped in a worldview that they must learn. Perhaps a good example of that is that a third of all 1st year college students now require remediation in reading and math. Or take a look at what the Basic Skills Test in Minnesota actually requires to graduate from high school. It is shocking to see that they are testing functional literacy only, and many students have trouble passing it. But nothing higher is required as far as academics go. The 'high standards' can be passed by being present."

The leading advocate for "knowledge-based" Mathematics is Mathematically Correct. New York Post Reporter David Gelernter describes Mathematically Correct as "the informal, nationwide organization that fights the Establishment in behalf of sanity and quality in math education." Located at P.O. Box 22083, San Diego, CA 92192-2083, nationally recognized math experts scientists, as well as parents lead this group.

Alarmed by the breakdown of K-12 math education Dr. Bill Quirk of Guilford, Connecticut ( uses his website at to challenge the progressive philosophy of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). Dr. Quirk has taught courses at Penn State, Northern Illinois University, and Jacksonville (Florida) University. His company, William G. Quirk Seminars, has served hundreds of organizations, including AT&T, Bank of America, FDIC, Federal Reserve Board, General Electric, General Foods, Harvard Business School, Hewlett-Packard, Hughes Aircraft, IBM, MIT, Mobil Oil, NASA, NIH, Texas Instruments, and The Travelers.

Jacob Loshin wrote in The Education Gadfly , News and Analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, (Volume 1, Number 9. July 12, 2001) "As Congress wraps up the ESEA reauthorization process, standards-based reform has taken center stage. Soon, the debate over 'adequate yearly progress' and other exciting details will end, and a timeless question will re-emerge: motivated by these new incentives, how should schools transform themselves in order to increase student achievement? "

According to Uncommon Wisdom, a report by Mass Insight, "the answer lies not in the halls of Congress, but in the schools and districts that are already making large gains. Aiming to identify specific 'best practices,' the report profiles nine Massachusetts schools (and one district) that outperform their demographic peers on state tests. The snapshots result in suggestions ranging from improved teacher collaboration to increased classroom time to enhanced use of student-level test data. However, school culture transcends all. In each of the high-achieving schools, the report observed a "common focus- a laser-like focus on higher standards for students - and a readiness to take on even the most intractable barriers to change." Mass Insight has only released the executive summary of the forthcoming report, slated for publication this fall. View the summary online at or request a hard copy of Uncommon Wisdom: Effective Reform Strategies , The 2001 Vanguard Schools, Mass Insight by calling 617-722-4160. Please feel free to contact persons mentioned, or myself for further comments. Sherena Arrington and myself will look at Hate Crime language and the danger it poses in HR1 and SB1 in an OP/ED release tomorrow.

J. C. Bowman is Director of Education Policy for the Tennessee Institute of Public Policy. He has over a decade experience as a public school teacher in Tennessee. He can also be reached by e-mail at . Permission to republish or quote is granted with proper attribution and identification of organization. 


April 14th, 2003 -

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