We’ve heard the horror stories. Classrooms where teachers are so focused on meeting standards that kids only learn to memorize answers to test questions. Kids who zone out because they find no joy in dry material. Teachers who attend only to the middle of the pack, overlooking students who know the material already and those who struggle because they can’t be raised to the standard. Standards-based learning gets a bad rap, though.

While we won’t deny that things like this happen, there’s much more to celebrate than malign – and in fact, standards are at the core of some of the most powerful learning experiences out there.

Standards establish clear goals. They allow teachers, students, parents and administration to speak the same language around expectations. They create consistency across teachers, schools, districts and provinces or states. Yet they aren’t so prescriptive as to tell teachers what to teach – just what skills and knowledge students should master by the end of each grade level.

 Those horror stories? Mostly they’re by-products of what happens when we use standards as the curriculum itself. So how can we use standards in support of a great curriculum instead?

Standards are the destination. Instruction is the journey.

If there’s one thing you take away from this post, it should be this: standards show us where we’re going with our teaching. But we need to plot our own path to those goalposts.

They don’t tell us which books to read or which math problems to solve. They don’t tell us which projects to assign or which tests to administer. They don’t tell us which gaps we have in our classrooms or how to solve them. In fact, you could develop thousands of different curriculums from the same set of standards.

That’s where your staff shines. It’s the whole team together – from teachers to administrators – that transforms those standards into learning that comes to life. You can think of that connection in five parts: 

1. Understanding: what the standards tell us

Before you do anything else, do this: make sure you understand each standard thoroughly, and where it fits into the overall education journey across subjects and grade levels. For standards to work, we must clearly understand where students need to be by the end of the school year, and what concepts and skills they need to master before they get there. It’ll require some work, but a thorough read-through will pay off.

2. Alignment: how do we come together

Here’s the thing about curriculums – they don’t exist in a vacuum. Every student has an educational journey from kindergarten to twelfth grade (and, in some cases, beyond), from English to science to math. Bringing those together in a coherent way is called alignment.

Vertical alignment is all about how topics flow from one subject and grade to another within your school system; horizontal alignment is about making sure those grade-level standards are the same across teachers and schools. In either case, alignment across standards starts with sitting down, identifying where there are shared goals and working as a team to support those goals in a consistent way. (We recommend curriculum mapping to help with the heavy lifting here.) Learn more about vertical alignment with our article, Your First Steps to Vertical Alignment.

3. Strategy: how we teach lessons

Now you have a curriculum map, but you’ll also need to plan each lesson. (Again, two very different things!) Using the map as a guideline for what students need to learn and the timeline for that learning, we need to consider which strategies we’ll use to convey those concepts and build those skills over that time.

To best support learning, consider a wide range of methods – from reading literature to conducting experiments, from individual written work to group work – to make sure you solidify not just the information but a deep understanding of the concepts and skills at hand.

4. Assessments: the evidence of learning

How do you know if your students are learning the right things effectively? That’s where assessments come in – and this is tricky, because what we’re measuring here isn’t that a student can recall memorized information, but that they understand and can apply what they’ve learned.

 Rubrics are common in standards-based assessments because they not only tell students what’s expected of them from the get-go, but they give teachers a consistent way of evaluating progress toward those learning objectives, both in a snapshot view and tracked over time.

5. Feedback: what can we learn from standards 

Another benefit of standards: they give us data we can use year-over-year (or even within the same class) to measure how things are really going in our classrooms. Are you missing your goals on trigonometry? Are your students particularly strong in local politics? Each assignment and each test is a goldmine of insights that can help teachers and schools make changes in the classroom in real-time… and build stronger curriculums next year, too.

 Better data also means better feedback on a per-student basis. Knowing how far a student has progressed down their learning path means teachers can provide more directed suggestions for student performance and guide them more effectively to meet those standards.

Standards-based learning in action

 Time for a quick example. Let’s look at a common core sixth-grade math standard: “Understand the concept of a ratio and use ratio language to describe a ratio relationship between two quantities.” 

Unpacking this, students need to learn a few things:

  • The mathematical concept itself
  • The language around the concept
  • Describing the concept (which may involve writing or speaking)
  • Making connections between objects

And, depending on how the above is taught, perhaps:

  • Reading and understanding texts
  • Summarizing using real-world examples

There’s also an opportunity for cross-pollination. In English class, students might write a story that includes a proportional relationship. In science, they might use ratios in a hands-on experiment (and write a report about it afterward). And likewise, in their math problems, they might solve ratio problems related to themes in other courses. The opportunities to take this standard, connect it across the board and spin it into a meaningful, engaging and relevant curriculum are many.

So next time someone asks you about standards-based learning, throw out that teach-to-the-test mentality. Because each standard is just one milestone in each student’s educational journey.

Continue learning about standards in the classroom with Why You Should Switch to Standards-Based Grading.