Outcome-based education

Outcome-based education

Outcome-based education (OBE) is a recurring education reform model. It is a student-centered learning philosophy that focuses on empirically measuring student performance, which are called outcomes. OBE contrasts with traditional education, which primarily focuses on the resources that are available to the student, which are called inputs. While OBE implementations often incorporate a host of many progressive pedagogical models and ideas, such as reform mathematics, block scheduling, project-based learning and whole language reading, OBE in itself does not specify or require any particular style of teaching or learning. Instead, it requires that students demonstrate that they have learned the required skills and content. However in practice, OBE generally promotes curricula and assessment based on constructivist methods and discourages traditional education approaches based on direct instruction of facts and standard methods. Though it is claimed the focus is not on "inputs", OBE generally is used to justify increased funding requirements, increased graduation and testing requirements, and additional preparation, homework, and continuing education time spent by students, parents and teachers in supporting learning.

Each independent education agency specifies its own outcomes and its own methods of measuring student achievement according to those outcomes. The results of these measurements can be used for different purposes. For example, one agency may use the information to determine how well the overall education system is performing, and another may use its assessments to determine whether an individual student has learned required material.

Outcome-based methods have been adopted for large numbers of students in several countries. In the United States, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills started in 1991. In Australia, implementation of OBE in Western Australia was widely criticised by parents and teachers[1] and was mostly dropped in January 2007.[2] In South Africa, OBE was dropped in mid 2010.[3] On a smaller scale, some OBE practices, such as not passing a student who does not know the required material, have been used by individual teachers around the world for centuries.

OBE was a popular term in the United States during the 1980s and early 1990s. It is also called mastery education, performance-based education, and other names.


What is OE?

Outcome-based education is a model of education that rejects the traditional focus on what the school provides to students, in favor of making students demonstrate that they "know and are able to do" whatever the required outcomes are.

OBE reforms emphasize setting clear standards for observable, measurable outcomes. Nothing about OBE demands the adoption of any specific outcome. For example, many countries write their OBE standards so that they focus strictly on mathematics, language, science, and history, without ever referring to attitudes, social skills, or moral values.

The key features which may be used to judge if a system has implemented an outcomes-based education systems are:

  • Creation of a curriculum framework that outlines specific, measurable outcomes. The standards included in the frameworks are usually chosen through the area's normal political process.
  • A commitment not only to provide an opportunity of education, but to require learning outcomes for advancement. Promotion to the next grade, a diploma, or other reward is granted upon achievement of the standards, while extra classes, repeating the year, or other consequences entail upon those who do not meet the standards.
  • Standards-based assessments that determines whether students have achieved the stated standard. Assessments may take any form, so long as the assessments actually measure whether the student knows the required information or can perform the required task.
  • A commitment that all students of all groups will ultimately reach the same minimum standards. Schools may not "give up" on unsuccessful students.


The emphasis in an OBE education system is on measured outcomes rather than "inputs," such as how many hours students spend in class, or what textbooks are provided. Outcomes may include a range of skills and knowledge. Generally, outcomes are expected to be concretely measurable, that is, "Student can run 50 meters in less than one minute" instead of "Student enjoys physical education class." A complete system of outcomes for a subject area normally includes everything from mere recitation of fact ("Students will name three tragedies written by Shakespeare") to complex analysis and interpretation ("Student will analyze the social context of a Shakespearean tragedy in an essay"). Writing appropriate and measurable outcomes can be very difficult, and the choice of specific outcomes is often a source of local controversies.

Each educational agency is responsible for setting its own outcomes. Under the OBE model, education agencies may specify any outcome (skills and knowledge), but not inputs (field trips, arrangement of the school day, teaching styles). Some popular models of outcomes include the National Science Education Standards and the NCTM's Principles and Standards for School Mathematics[dubious ].

Approaches to grading, reporting, and promoting

An important by-product of this approach is that students are assessed against external, absolute objectives, instead of reporting the students' relative achievements. The traditional model of grading on a curve (top student gets the best grade, worst student always fails (even if they know all the material), everyone else is evenly distributed in the middle) is never accepted in OBE or standards-based education. Instead, a student's performance is related in absolute terms: "Jane knows how to write the letters of the alphabet" or "Jane answered 80% of questions correctly" instead of "Jane answered more questions correctly than Mary."

Under OBE, teachers can use any objective grading system they choose, including letter grades. In fact, many schools adopt OBE methods and use the same grading systems that they have always used. However, for the purposes of graduation, advancement, and retention, a fully developed OBE system generally tracks and reports not just a single overall grade for a subject, but also give information about several specific outcomes within that subject. For example, rather than just getting a passing grade for mathematics, a student might be assessed as level 4 for number sense, level 5 for algebraic concepts, level 3 for measurement skills, etc. This approach is valuable to schools and parents by specifically identifying a student's strengths and weaknesses.

In one alternate grading approach, a student is awarded "levels" instead of letter grades. From Kindergarten to year 12, the student will receive either a Foundational level (which is pre-institutional) or be evidenced at levels 1 through to 8. In the simplest implementation, earning a "level" indicates that the teacher believes that a student has learned enough of the current material to be able to succeed in the next level of work. A student technically cannot flunk in this system: a student who needs to review the current material will simply not achieve the next level at the same time as most of his same-age peers. This acknowledges differential growth at different stages, and focuses the teacher on the individual needs of the students.

In this approach, students and their parents are better able to track progress from year to year, since the levels are based on criteria that remain constant for a student's whole time at school. However, this experience is perceived by some as a flaw in the system: While it is entirely normal for some students to work on the same level of outcomes for more than one year parents and students have been socialized into the expectation of a constant, steady progress through schoolwork. Parents and students therefore interpret the normal experience as failure.

This emphasis on recognizing positive achievements, and comparing the student to his own prior performance, has been accused by some of "dumbing down" education (and by others as making school much too hard), since it recognises achievement at different levels. Even those who would not achieve a passing grade in a traditional age-based approach can be recognized for their concrete, positive, individual improvements.

OBE-oriented teachers think about the individual needs of each student and give opportunities for each student to achieve at a variety of levels. Thus, in theory, weaker students are given work within their grasp and exceptionally strong students are extended. In practice, managing independent study programs for thirty or more individuals is difficult. Adjusting to students' abilities is something that good teachers have always done: OBE simply makes the approach explicit and reflects the approach in marking and reporting.

Differences with traditional education methods

In a traditional education system and economy, students are given grades and rankings compared to each other. Content and performance expectations are based primarily on what was taught in the past to students of a given age. The basic goal of traditional education was to present the knowledge and skills of the old generation to the new generation of students, and to provide students with an environment in which to learn, with little attention (beyond the classroom teacher) to whether or not any student ever learns any of the material.[4] It was enough that the school presented an opportunity to learn. Actual achievement was neither measured nor required by the school system.

In fact, under the traditional model, student performance is expected to show a wide range of abilities. The failure of some students is accepted as a natural and unavoidable circumstance. The highest-performing students are given the highest grades and test scores, and the lowest performing students are given low grades. (Local laws and traditions determine whether the lowest performing students were socially promoted or made to repeat the year.) Schools used norm-referenced tests, such as inexpensive, multiple-choice computer-scored questions with single correct answers, to quickly rank students on ability. These tests do not give criterion-based judgments as to whether students have met a single standard of what every student is expected to know and do: they merely rank the students in comparison with each other. In this system, grade-level expectations are defined as the performance of the median student, a level at which half the students score better and half the students score worse. By this definition, in a normal population, half of students are expected to perform above grade level and half the students below grade level, no matter how much or how little the students have learned.

Claims in favor of OBE

Proponents view OBE as a valuable replacement of the traditional model of relative ranking by ability and getting credit for merely sitting through class. Liberal politicians often support OBE because of its vision of high standards for all groups. Conservatives like the idea of measuring outputs rather than inputs (such as money spent or number of hours of lecture given) and insisting that student demonstrate learning rather than just showing up.

OBE proponents believe that all students can learn, regardless of ability, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender.[8] Furthermore, OBE recognizes that a complex organization is more likely to produce what it measures, and to downplay anything it considers unimportant. The adoption of measurable standards is seen as a means of ensuring that the content and skills covered by the standards will be a high priority in the education of students.

The standards-based education movement rejects social promotion and the inevitability of inferior performance by disadvantaged groups. While recognizing that some students will learn certain material faster than others, the standards movement rejects the idea that only a few can succeed. All students are capable of continuous improvement.

The opportunities that were previously afforded to those at the top of a bell curve are opened up to the diversity of all students, in a democratic vision, sometimes connected to social justice.[5]

The movement presents the following positions and viewpoints on OBE:

  • All students will complete rigorous academic coursework so that they leave high school prepared for college or technical training, without remedial courses.[6][7]
  • All students, including those who live in poverty, will meet district, state, and national standards.[8]
  • Staff will maintain high expectations and standards, believing all students will succeed if kept to high expectations[9][10][11][12]
  • Students should be measured against a fixed yardstick, or "against the mountain" rather than against other students.
  • We need higher world class standards for the 21st century (though no state has yet found a precise definition of the term "world-class standards").
  • Students should demonstrate that they have met standards, not just put in seat time to advance to the next level.[13]
We haven't taught many of them even up to middle school standards. It only punishes them more to give them an empty piece of paper we call a diploma when their high school experience hasn't prepared for any of the skills they'll need after high school. We give them a diploma that is a doorway to a street corner or unemployment line. (Russlynn Ali of Education Trust-West) [14]

In essence, OBE seeks to reject a rank-ordered definition of success by essentially promising that all students will perform at least as well as the stated standards. In practice OBE often results in large increases in spending as more resources are poured into students who were previously allowed to graduate while being functionally illiterate and innumerate. OBE's objective standards also put a brake on grade inflation, to the distress of students who prefer high, but meaningless, grades.


Criticism of OBE falls into a few major groups:

  • Opposition to standardized testing
  • Criticism of inappropriate outcomes
  • Lack of evidence that OBE works
  • Extra burden on instructors and educational institutions
  • Dislike of something that is not OBE

Opposition to testing

Critics claim that existing tests do not adequately measure student mastery of the stated objectives.[citation needed]

Some parents also object to the use of standardized tests (all students take the same test under the same conditions) because they think it unfair for schools to require the same level of work or to use the achievement tests for impoverished or disadvantaged students as they do for more advantaged students.[citation needed]

The OBE philosophy insists that assessment models be carefully matched to the stated objectives. High-stakes tests are not required in an OBE system; norm-referenced tests are prohibited. Portfolios, daily assessments, teacher opinions, and other methods of assessment are perfectly compatible with OBE models. Furthermore, the OBE approach does not permit special, lower standards for students who have been badly served by public education in the past.

Inappropriate outcomes

Many people oppose OBE reforms because they dislike the proposed outcomes. They may think that the standards are too easy, too hard, or wrongly conceived. Finally, some so-called OBE critics oppose non-OBE reforms that were presented as a part of a wide-ranging reform "package", rather than opposing OBE itself.

Standards can be set too low: Most fear that the focus on achievement by all students will result in "dumbing down" the definition of academic competence to a level that is achievable by even the weakest students. Critics are unhappy with having all students meet a minimum standard, instead of most students meeting a somewhat higher standard.

Some critics also question whether even such low goals are realistic or attainable, and whether success can only be framed in terms of high test scores and high incomes. The emphasis on higher reading standards and algebra for all appears to devalue vocational training and the achievement of those who do not get high test scores, but who are likely to become competent blue-collar workers.

Standards can be set too high: Others object that the standards are too high. OBE models do not approve of social promotion, so non-disabled students who perform significantly below the stated standard may be held back or required to take additional instruction. Especially when the standards are relatively new, and the schools are just beginning to adjust to the new standards, a majority of students struggle with at least some of the requirements. Parents are understandably unhappy to learn that their children have not acquired the necessary skills, and occasionally respond by demanding that the standards be lowered until their children are declared to be passing.

Sometimes this demand that the standards be lowered is justified, because standards can be found developmentally inappropriate for all but the brightest students. The State of Washington found that some fourth grade WASL math problems were much more difficult than what is typically expected of nine-year-old students. A 2008 draft mathematics standard proposed that Kindergartners multiply to 30 by skip counting (also known as counting by twos: 2, 4, 6, 8...),[15] and that second graders solve simple algebra story problems.[16]

Committees often set standards without considering how many students are currently achieving at that level. For example, in the 1998 North Carolina Writing Assessment, less than 1 percent of fourth graders received the highest possible score for writing content.[17] While a majority of students passed easily, parents were upset that so few were rated as being best.

Dislike of specific outcomes: Finally, many complaints are directed against the nature of certain standards. For example, a politician might propose that standards be included for education about sex or creationism. Opponents say that many educational agencies have adopted outcomes which focus too much on attitudes (e.g., "Students will enjoy physical education class") rather than academic content.[18] Similarly, the "Who Controls Our Children" campaign in Pennsylvania claimed that an OBE reform effort was part of a federal program that was "stressing values over academic content, and holding students accountable for goals that are so vague and fuzzy they can't be assessed at all."[19] The Western Australian outcomes were criticised for being too vague.[20]

Controversial standards are opposed because of their content, not simply because they are standards. OBE models always leave the choice of the exact standards to the educational authority, so that families can influence the choice of standards according to their community's preferences.

Lack of evidence that OBE actually works

OBE is a loosely-bound collection of ideas, with little uniformity in the way it is implemented from case to case. This makes it difficult to test OBE's effectiveness in a way that applies universally. The vagueness of OBE's conception of a "measurable outcome" is a particular challenge, both in implementing an OBE regime and in testing its effectiveness. In fact, there is little published evidence that OBE actually works.

Extra burden on instructors and educational institutions

Critics sometimes oppose OBE because of the burden it imposes on instructors and educational institutions more broadly, a burden that they regard as unjustified by any evidence showing that OBE actually improves learning outcomes. Rather than issuing a single letter or number to summarize an entire term's achievements, an OBE system may require that the teacher track and report dozens of separate outcomes. It takes longer to report that a student can add, subtract, multiply, divide, solve story problems, and draw graphs than to report "passed mathematics class," but the burden imposed by OBE does not owe primarily to the reporting of more data. The burden is spread across the entire educational institution, in the form of (1) a new layer of assessment placed atop the old familiar one, (2) a new bureaucracy responsible for the institution-wide collection and presentation of data, and (3) the altering and curtailing of classroom instruction to make room for more intrusive testing. In view of the paucity of evidence showing that OBE actually works, many regard this extra burden as an unjustified drain on pedagogical resources.[21]

Dislike of something that is not OBE

Many criticisms of OBE are actually criticisms of other things that are introduced with an OBE system. Many people oppose OBE reforms because the OBE reforms are packaged with other reforms.

OBE reform is often packaged as part of a comprehensive school reform model which promotes constructivism, inquiry-based science, tax reform, teacher training, and more. Other educational reforms, including changes to the school calendar, the age of students that attend school in a certain building, or the way tax revenues are divided, may all be inappropriately labeled "OBE" reforms simply because they were proposed on the same day as an OBE program.

School to work may also be a component of these multi-faceted reform programs. School-to-work programs require students to spend time in an internship or other form of career training or experience.

OBE around the world


One of the problems of OBE for students wishing to attend university is that it does not lend itself well to forming a competitive Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER).[citation needed] The suggested model for mapping levels to a TER has been attacked because it results in a score with more significant digits than the measures from which it is derived and so is charged with being mathematically unsound.[citation needed] William Spady promoted the OBE method as a way of getting beyond 'meaningless' percentages and marks, aiming for education for life beyond school, giving children and young adults a broader and more transformative education. Arguably inelegant implementation makes the future of OBE unclear, and at odds with the Australian Government in Canberra.

Criticism of OBE in Western Australia

The current[when?] OBE controversy in Western Australia relates specifically to the introduction of OBE in upper school (year 11 and 12) classes. Many Western Australian schools have been using some form of OBE for K-10 students for several years. (OBE is only one part of the current changes to upper school education currently being implemented. Other aspects of the new courses of study that form the upper school review have received little public attention.)

As part of the debate over further introduction of OBE into the teaching practice of Western Australia, various groups of concerned citizens and those in the teaching profession formed various single-issue lobby and action groups to progress their viewpoints. One such group was People Lobbying Against Teaching Outcomes formed by Greg Williams. The core view of this group was their disagreement with the former Western Australian Minister for Education (Ljiljanna Ravlich) in respect to her commitment to implement OBE. Another such group was Parents Against Outcomes Based Education,[1] who took the position that the implementation of OBE would pose significant problems and potentially lead to the decreased knowledge and performance of school students. Their objection was not to OBE itself, but to the bundle of reforms, of which OBE was the most mentioned. The "Fuzzy Outcomes" criticism above applies.

In January 2007, the Western Australian Government responded to the massive opposition by teachers and parents to its implementation of an OBE system by stating that it would allow year 11 and 12 students to be graded traditionally.[2]

South Africa

OBE was introduced to South Africa in the late 1990s by the post-apartheid government as part of its Curriculum 2005 programme [9], but it was widely viewed as a failure, and was eventually scrapped in 2010 [22][3].

United States

In the early 1990s, several standards-based reform measures were passed in various states, creating the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (1991), Washington Assessment of Student Learning (1993), the CLAS in California (1993), and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (1993).

At the national level, Congress passed the Goals 2000 act in 1994. The best-known and most far-reaching standards-based education law in the U.S. is the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated certain measurements as a condition of receiving federal education funds. States are free to set their own standards, but the federal law mandates public reporting of math and reading test scores for disadvantaged demographic subgroups, including racial minorities, low-income students, and special education students. Various consequences for schools that do not make "adequate yearly progress" are included in the law.

At the state level, exit examinations have proliferated, and now more than half of US high school students will be required to pass a high-stakes test to get a normal high school diploma. In some states, fewer than half of students and one-quarter of ethnic minorities have met these standards.[23]

In some communities, such as Littleton, Colorado, organized opposition groups have forced educational agencies to rescind reforms[when?].[24] In Littleton, community members felt that vague, nonacademic outcomes were replacing content, and that technically unsound assessments would be used to determine something as important as high school graduation. They also objected to students being refused a high school diploma if they could not perform 36 separate mathematics skills, despite being given good grades in class.

OBE diplomas

A certificate of initial mastery was a program to provide students with an interim certification around the age of 16. The certificate was earned by taking and passing a written test, which had been designed to determine whether a student was performing at about the tenth grade level. A student who passed the 10th grade test would receive a Certificate of Initial Mastery.

The CIM concept was patterned after nations like Germany's hauptschule system, in which the students who are not going to elite universities end their school-based education around age 16 and start career-oriented training in fields like construction technology, allied health professions, and business. In a typical US proposal, a student who received a CIM would then take two more years of career-based training. A national standards board was proposed to create similar tests for eight career fields, with the hope that employers would prefer certificated employees.

The CIM has been essentially abandoned; however, in its place, states frequently require passing the same exam as a condition of receiving a high school diploma. Oregon had proposed a CAM for "advanced mastery" at the 12th grade.

OBE's relationship to college

One ironic effect of high school exit examinations is that it may become more difficult to graduate from high school than enter college. There is no set passing level for college entry tests like the SAT, and such tests are often not required by the lowest-rated colleges.

In the future, some states may require criterion-based standards either for admission to or graduation from public universities.[25] States are attempting to align high school curricula with the minimum standards for beginning college in an effort to reduce college dropouts and the number of remedial classes being taught at universities.

Performance-based economy

Outcome-based methods are used in some businesses. For whole companies, outcome-based evaluations are the basis of stock exchange prices: Companies which produce higher profit growth are more valuable than companies which perform poorly. Employees who are paid for piecework or by commission are examples of traditional employment use of outcome-based pay. Alternatives include seniority systems (oldest worker gets highest pay).

Many private employers give standards-based tests to determine whether job applicants have necessary job skills (such as typing speed), and nearly all government employees have to take and pass a civil service examination. Furthermore, nearly all licensed professionals, from nurses to truck drivers to beauticians, already take such tests as a condition of entering their professions. Often these tests have disproportionate failure rates for disadvantaged subgroups, such as school dropouts and impoverished people.

See also


  1. ^ a b Parents Against Outcomes Based Education: http://www.outcomeseducation.com/
  2. ^ a b WA scraps most of controversial education system
  3. ^ a b http://www.timeslive.co.za/opinion/editorials/article538849.ece/OBEs-cost-too-high-to-calculate-among-SAs-young-people
  4. ^ "The Harmful Effects of Algorithms in Grades 1--4", by Constance Kamii & Ann Dominick in The Teaching and Learning of Algorithms in School Mathematics (NCTM Yearbook, 1998):"The teaching of algorithms is based on the erroneous assumption that mathematics is a cultural heritage that must be transmitted to the next generation." (p.132)
  5. ^ "What does it mean to teach mathematics for social justice? Why should all students learn mathematics, anyway? http://www.msu.edu/~oslund/ (cached)
  6. ^ [1] Toward Success at Scale. By Tom Vander Ark "The new proposition of the standards movement -- that all students should leave high school prepared for college, work, and citizenship -- is widely accepted"
  7. ^ FAQ
  8. ^ Federal Way Public Schools (Washington State) "Closing the Gap" Equity and Achievement Goals 2002
  9. ^ Search Results for "gnacs.org"
  10. ^ Atlanta Public Schools ..that translates into the belief that ALL students have potential and that ALL students will succeed. [2]
  11. ^ [3]
  12. ^ [4] Berryessa School District, California
  13. ^ Bud the Teacher: Good Question -- Standards or Seat Time
  14. ^ [5] Joanne Jacobs 24 August 2006
  15. ^ "Skip Counting". http://www.mathsisfun.com/numbers/skip-counting.html. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  16. ^ Washington State Mathematics Standard Revision 2nd grade: A and B have 20 stamps, B has 7 more than A, how many stamps do they have?
  17. ^ "Report of Student Performance in Writing 1997-1998" (PDF). http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/accountability/testing/writing/9798writing.pdf. Retrieved 2008-02-22. 
  18. ^ [6] "Consultant gets tough advice from Grayslake school parents" Daily Herald, April 25, 2001 By C.L. Waller
  19. ^ (Olson, 1993, p. 25) (MW Kirst, RL Bird, SA Raizen, 1997 - which can be found at [7]).
  20. ^ OBE FAQ, Western Australia -- see the question "What's wrong with setting outcomes".
  21. ^ Kevin Donnelly, Issues In Educational Research, Vol 17, 2007
  22. ^ http://www.dispatch.co.za/article.aspx?id=416064
  23. ^ Washington State OSPI WASL 2006 results
  24. ^ "Assessment of Student Performance: Studies of Education Reform" by the U.S. Department of Education
  25. ^ "Perry's higher education plan praised". http://www.statesman.com/search/content/region/legislature/stories/02/18/18tucker.html. Retrieved 2008-02-13. 

Further reading

Castleberry, Thomas. 2006. "Student Learning Outcomes Assessment within the Texas State University MPA Program." Applied Research Project. Texas State University. http://ecommons.txstate.edu/arp/182/

External links


Pro OBE Links

Anti OBE Links

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