Diving into Standards-Based Learning

Essential steps to developing a standards-based classroom

For too long, assessment has been something that is done to learners, and not with learners. Assessment has the power to build confidence, increase hope, and develop strong, reflective learners when used correctly. However, traditionally, assessment has often been a “gotcha” experience or a moment in time to place a value judgment on learners in the form of a grade. Assessment has the potential to be so much more when we look to understanding sound standards-based assessment practices. While standards-based grading might be the eventual goal, standards-based assessment, teaching, and learning must be firmly in place before these grading conversations can be had. When sound assessment practices are in place, changes in the way we grade are a natural consequence.

In my book, Standards-Based Learning In Action, co-authored with Tom Schimmer and Garnet Hillman, we explore every aspect of standards-based learning from standards-alignment to self-assessment to standards-based grading, and examine what those look like in action in the classroom. Here, I will choose to outline some steps that are essential in developing a standards-based learning classroom.

1. Know your standards!

Before any type of standards-based learning, assessment, teaching, or grading system is in place, teachers need to invest time in truly getting to know their standards. When we consider all the ways to increase achievement, knowing the standards and criteria for success with those standards is at the top of the list. When we understand our destination (the standards) and how we are going to get there (the learning targets), it is much easier to develop an assessment plan that supports student learning to reach that destination successfully. As educators, we not only need to be confident in the fact that we know our standards and what success with those standards looks like, but we need to consider the fact that learners need to know that destination as well. When standards are deconstructed, learning targets need to be shared with students so they can treat it like a checklist of learning and measure their proficiency throughout their learning journey. When students know where they are headed, we can more easily coach them to that destination.

2. Backwards design

Once you have taken time to know your standards and deconstruct them, design the summative assessment first. This process of backwards design will keep you grounded and focused. Making the change to a standards-based learning classroom does not involve taking the curriculum that is already in place and finding where the standards fit in. It is starting with a blank slate, determining which standards are the priority, deconstructing those standards, and designing a curriculum to meet those standards. By designing the summative assessment first, we are forced to really look at what proficiency with those standards should look like at the end of learning. It plans our destination so that even if students get off track in the process of learning, we have a target to keep us focused. Many argue that this is teaching to the test; in fact, it is quite the opposite. This is teaching to the standards and that is our ultimate goal.

3. Change your language

One of the smallest changes that has the largest impact on student learning is changing the language at the front of the classroom when it comes to assessment. Start by making sure that students understand the purpose of assessment. At its core, assessment is truly a conversation between learner and teacher. The purpose of formative assessment is to inform teachers and learners of next steps in learning. Make sure students understand that it is acceptable and expected that they make mistakes at early stages in learning; it is the role of the teacher to provide feedback for the learner to improve. Encourage vulnerability through the formative assessment process. The purpose of the formative process is growth. This simple change in language has the power to change any classroom from a culture of compliance to a culture of learning. Also, instead of focusing on tasks, make sure to focus your language on learning. “This assignment is worth ten points” evolves to “the purpose of this assignment is for you to practice your ability to solve linear equations.” One statement has a focus on points and compliance while the other puts the attention back on the purpose: practice. By changing our language in the classroom, teachers can create a culture that welcomes vulnerability, encourages risk taking, and increases confidence.

4. Put the focus on feedback

The effectiveness of feedback is measured by the response it triggers in learners. Time spent writing and delivering feedback will be wasted if the student doesn’t take action on the feedback they receive. Once we get to know our standards, design the summative assessment, and change our language when it comes to assessment and learning, it is time to focus on feedback. One of the most critical aspects of feedback is that it needs to be centered around the standard. This reminds students of the target and why the feedback we are providing is necessary for improvement. Next, our feedback needs to be strengths based. Feedback should not focus on what was wrong in the student’s work, it should focus on what comes next. When delivering feedback, start with what the learner did well. By nature, we are more open to feedback when we recognize we are on the right track. Start with where the learner is currently and let them know what they should do next. Finally, feedback should be actionable. Make sure that when you deliver feedback, students are able to take action based on the feedback you provide. Feedback should cause thinking and allow students to see what comes next in their journey towards proficiency with that standard. While there are many other aspects of feedback that are important (personalized, timely, ongoing, etc.), these are necessary first steps to ensure that our feedback is effective.

5. Give students credit for what they know

As educators, we all agree that students learn at different rates. However, reassessment is often a hot topic because of the belief that it doesn’t hold students accountable. Allowing for reassessment does not mean that we are soft on our learners; it means that we understand that each learner is different, and we want to honor that. This really made sense to me when I was on a phone call to talk about assessment with my friend Garnet Hillman and she said, “tasks and assignments should have deadlines; learning should not.” Just because a student doesn’t acquire knowledge at the same pace as their peers, doesn’t mean that learning should be off limits for that student. At this point in our adult lives, it doesn’t matter what age at which we learned to tie our shoes. What matters is that now we can tie our shoes. Reassessment also gives us the opportunity to see our change in language transfer to our students. When we teach learners about what reassessment should be, their language evolves from “What can I do to improve my grade?” to “My understanding has increased, and I am ready to be reassessed.” This once again puts the focus on learning. We don’t want to send our learners to high school or future institutions with an incomplete understanding of the standards that have been determined essential to their learning. Encourage reassessment and honor the natural process of learning for each student.

Assessment is one of the most powerful tools that a teacher possesses. It can increase confidence, or it can crush it. Developing sound standards-based assessment practices is a meaningful journey that pays endless dividends as we see our learners evolve into confident, reflective, and self-aware students. We also see our classroom evolve into one that is student centered and rich with vulnerability and risk taking.