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Standards-Based Learning: Why Do Educators Make It So Complex?

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Today's guest post is written by Thomas Guskey, Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky.

Educators have the odd habit of taking simple ideas and making them inexplicably complex. Granted, there are always subtleties and nuances in education related to the varied contexts in which teaching and learning occur. But adding complexity to simple ideas often yields more confusion than clarity. It can confound implementation efforts and frequently results in the demise of potentially good ideas. A classic example is what's happening with standards-based learning.

The simple idea of standards-based learning is to ensure transparency in all elements of the teaching and learning process: curriculum, instruction, assessment, and reporting.

In curriculum, standards-based learning requires educators to articulate clear learning goals that identify what students should learn (content) and be able to do (cognitive behaviors). Effective learning goals always include both of these components. These goals are then shared with everyone involved: students, families, teachers, school leaders, and community members.

Typically we organize learning goals in grade levels at the elementary level and in courses at the secondary level. But organizational structures associated with continuous progress, learning progressions, individualized programs, or personalized learning could be equally valid.

Clear learning goals bring meaning to discussions about curriculum rigor, college and career readiness, and global citizenship. They clarify the difference between memorizing factual information and developing enduring understandings. An emphasis on "essential questions" or "power standards" similarly shifts the focus to deeper, more complex, and higher level cognitive skills.

Instructionally, educators implementing standards-based learning must develop instructional activities that help all students achieve those learning goals. This is where discussions of students' entry level skills, interests, cultural differences, learning modalities, differentiated instruction, project-based learning, cooperative learning, online learning opportunities, and alternative forms of instruction become vitally important. 

For assessments, standards-based educators must identify what evidence best reflects students' achievement of those learning goals. This integrates important issues related to formative and summative assessment, assessments of and for learning, multiple ways for students to demonstrate mastery, authentic and performance -based assessments, meaningful feedback, and student self-regulation.

Finally, standards-based learning requires educators to use grading and reporting strategies that meaningfully communicate students' achievement of those learning goals. This brings attention to report card and transcript design; multiple grades reflecting product, process, and progress criteria; reporting on citizenship, work habits, and other non-cognitive skills; grading and reporting policies and practices.

Standards-based learning simply requires transparency and consistency in these elements. In other words, there must be clarity and reliability in what we teach, how we teach it, how we evaluate student learning, and how we report students' learning progress.

So, Why Argue With Standards-Based Learning?
Given this simple purpose of transparency, on what basis would anyone oppose standards-based learning? Admittedly, not everyone agrees on what is most important for students to learn and what skills they should develop. Differences in our philosophies of education and what we most value as a society abound. But once these decisions are made, would anyone suggest those things should be kept secret from students and their families? Does anyone think we should not teach students what we consider most important for them to learn or not assess students based on what they were taught? Would anyone advocate a reporting system that fails to accurately inform parents and families about what students have learned?

I don't think so. This defining characteristic of standards-based learning is essential to effective teaching and learning at any level.

Occasionally educators make the mistake of not addressing these elements in order. Problems always arise when educators change grading practices and move ahead with standards-based reporting without addressing the critical elements of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. This can lead to frustration, inconsistent implementation, and eventual abandonment. Important issues regarding what we teach, how we teach it, and how we assess learning always must be addressed before we consider how best to grade and report student learning progress.

Implementing standards-based grading without first addressing these other elements is like trying to put the roof on a house before constructing the foundation and building the walls. The central purpose of transparency in reporting is lost if we are not clear in what we are being transparent about.

Standards-based learning is a simple idea. Complexity comes in its implementation. To successfully implement standards-based learning requires that we keep the simple purpose of transparency in mind while adapting to the unique and complicated contextual characteristics of different classrooms and schools. Implementation efforts won't succeed by making this simple idea more complex but by finding new and better ways to apply the idea in widely varied and highly diverse school settings. 

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