What are standards? How can you make standards work for you?

Standards are useful for teachers because they give us explicit goals.

They help provide consistency between schools in each state. Or now with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English and math and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for science, there will be more alignment and consistency across the entire nation as many schools are picking them up by choice or for financial incentives. Social Studies appears to be more complicated. National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) has released curriculum standards in order to standardize the approach, but not the content. Whether this type of standardization is good/bad/misunderstood, or even unconstitutional is beyond the scope of this article.

This article’s purpose is to explain how to utilize standards to make your life as a teacher easier while helping your students learn more. To start, we must define what a standard is.

Standards: learning goals specified by class and grade level that students should be able to both know and do 

Now that we have defined standards we can dig into applying them. The application of standards ought to be the same, no matter which ones you are using.

A useful way to think of standards is a grade for a specific aspect of the taught subject. For example, in traditional grading a student may receive an 75% at the end of the semester. As a teacher this shows you that the student understood most of the content, but likely has room to improve both the breadth and depth of their understanding. However, the information quickly becomes fuzzy after this point as the teacher would need to look at individual assignments/quizzes/tests in order to ascertain what content/concepts the student didn’t understand. This cumbersome procedure is impossibly time consuming to do for one student, let alone when there are multiple classes of students.

In standards based grading, the student’s overall grade may be a 1 (Below Standard), 2 (Approaching Standard), 3 (Meets Standard), or 4 (Exceeds Standard). If your school requires traditional grades, you can assign numerical values to the standard points.

Assume the same student received a 3/4 average of all assessed standards in English in a standards based grading system, giving you the same information as above. Yet the component parts come broken up and averaged by standard. Let’s use 5th grade English as an example. If said student received a 3/4 for their semester grade, the teacher can easily pull up their gradebook to see what specific content/concepts the student struggled with.

Look at student #2, Anna Fitzgerald in the image below. Her English score for the semester is 2.49 out of 4 for what would be about a D average in traditional grading. However, by using a standards based gradebook, her teacher will be able to quickly pinpoint Anna’s struggles. For standard ELA.5.R1, Anna received mostly 1’s, meaning that she was not meeting the standard. However, for standard ELA.5.R2 she received all 2’s or 3’s showing that while she has not mastered this standard, she is understanding it at a passable level.

**note: Standard grades do not allow for fluff/participation points. The grade should only be assessing how the student performed on the standard. While it can be good to assess student attitude/preparedness/participation (particularly in elementary school) these should not be in a standards based assessment. You can put those points elsewhere in your gradebook.

a standard approach_ enhancing your curriculum

This image is from https://www.teacherease.com/ they have an interesting looking gradebook for teachers who use a standards based grading system.

Another benefit of standards is it allows you to more accurately assess both your teaching and your students’ progress. If you look at the class average scores (circled in red) you can see that they are increasing over time. As a teacher, you would want to see this because it means that your teaching is helping students perform better over time. If the scores remain low/not increasing, then that is a good cue for you to reassess how you are teaching the particular standard.

**note: Good teachers will do this regardless of whether they explicitly teach with standards or not. The advantage to using standards is that they make it easier and give more exact information as to what students are struggling with.

Teachers have plenty to do, so using standards shouldn’t add to your workload after you adjust to them (There is an adjustment phase that is more work, but that’s the same as with any new system/approach). In general you can design assignments to assess one or two standards at a time. Then you can enter the grades as normal (If you have two standards on one assignment, just enter 2 grades, one for each standard).

A drawback to this approach is that it seemingly limits opportunities to review old material while also assessing current coursework. However, this difficulty can be avoided by making a general “assignments/assessments” category. You can put anything that doesn’t easily/naturally fit into one/two standards here (breaking one assignment into more than 2 standards generally causes the grading to become too time consuming to be worthwhile).

So far we have gone over how standards can help teachers improve their instruction by giving them exact data that they can use to adapt their teaching to the needs of the class. Students can use this data in similar ways. When teachers pass out progress reports (ideally students and parents will have anytime access to an online version of their report card), students and parents are able to see both how the student is doing overall, but also how the student is performing on each standard.

Let’s look at Anna Fitzgerald again. When she gets her progress report it will tell her that while she did alright in English class with a 2.49/4 she received a 1.91/4 on the ELA.5.R1 standard. This is in essence giving students and their families the same helpful information a standards based approach gives teachers. Students and their parents will know exactly what content the child struggled with.

In order increase the helpfulness of this information (feedback) teachers can require students to reflect/complete a supplementary assessment for practice with their weakest standard. It should just be one at a time, otherwise you will overwhelm students and the additional practice will likely just turn into additional work with no benefits. Essentially, standards increase the specificity of feedback to both teachers and students. Use the specificity to your advantage to give actionable feedback.

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