Friday, October 14, 2011

Standards-Led, not Standards-Based

 Where to? What's next? How do I get there? 

We frequently hear the expression “standards-based” but lately I have been pondering the idea of letting the standards lead, quite literally. In inverting the equation and providing students access to the standards and accompanying learning experiences, I have started to recognize the positive impact on our “race to the top”.

Last year, in our little PK-12 school, we spent the year synthesizing standards and putting them into shared planning documents in “The Cloud”, taking our own dusty curriculum guide binders, our core mission-based standards, the 21st century skills framework, the state standards, and of course, the Common Core...and mashing them all together in a mission-specific series of collaborative, shared, and live documents. This was a key start because we now had our comprehensive map. This year, I was determined to lead two initiatives to extend our standards framework: 1) build up the new guides with multidimensional and differentiated learning experiences aligned with the standards and linked to them; and 2) to build up personalized learning matrices for students as a form of standards-based grading.

To lead this stage of the transition, I felt I had to put both into action myself. I began putting learning activities, centered around student choice and all standards-based, into weekly plans for my own classes, and delivering these to the students by email and social media early in the week. I anticipated that most students would do what they needed to do for each day but that they would at least have a map of where we were headed. I set no expectation for students to work ahead, yet to my surprise, this is exactly what happened. I began receiving notifications on student work submission through Google docs, and comment resolution notifications marking revisions to previously graded student work...neither of which were prompted by a message from me that either activity would lead to any form of additional credit. Admittedly, it has always been my policy to allow for student revisions to work so that students continue to strive for the highest level of achievement, but even students with high marks were making revisions and working ahead.

I quickly found myself having to plan ahead, way ahead, in preparation for the question, “What should I do next?” Oh, I suppose I should mention in case you are not yet aware, I only see my kids online most of the time rather than face-to-face, so during our real-time classes, I soon became engaged in continuous planning, assessment, revision, resubmission, inquiry, direction, and redirection in a very asynchronous fashion. I have to admit that it is very confusing sometimes, but similarly rewarding.

Another very pleasant surprise has been the effectiveness of choice in the activities. My middle school students frequently skip the “easier” grammar activities to take a stab at more sophisticated concepts like parallel structure and misplaced modifiers. The requirement of grammar log entries, documenting their understanding of the concepts, the activities completed, and the reflection on learning, keep them honest in their choice-based learning.

The second component of this mission to personalize the assessment process by skill was recently introduced in the form of a skills matrix assessment tool. I shared this document with my students this week at the end of the first term. On it, I indicated which skills we had not yet touched upon so that they did not feel compelled to self-assess in those areas if they had not met that skill elsewhere in the curriculum (as these are shared standards across disciplines in some cases). The students filled them out using a progressing key of ESPN, ranging from exceeds mastery to needs support; they loved the acronym of course) and then wrote a self-reflection narrative. To keep bias out, I told them I would be filling in my portion after they completed theirs. They seemed very interested and asked me several questions like, “Did we do X during the Y activity last week?”

My experiences this year have prompted me rethink the term “standards-based”; as a result, I have started replacing that with “standards-led”. Whereas the former implies we are basing our planning on standards, thereby excluding the student from the planning process and setting the minimal bar of success, the other connotes a visible-to-all goal to which students can climb. I have come to realize that when I let the highest standards lead, the students will follow. 


  1. I have heard they make carts with motors now so this whole 'cart-horse' thing is up for grabs- haha. Great post - I love how new experiences give us fresh insights.

  2. I very much like the notion of standards-led rather than standards based. Standards-led is much more dynamic than the other expression. I would call "standards-led" something like "goals." Within the context of your profile one might call them "mountains to climb." The Greek word "telos" also comes to mind. One summer in Zermatt I walked on my own up to the pre-ascent hut. Beyond that point the Matterhorn went almost straight up. I had to decide whether what limited money I had would be invested in an ascent of the peak or four days in Rome. I chose Rome. I suspect you, Tiffany, would have chosen the peak.

  3. Hah, yes perhaps I would have. That is the beauty of choice in our goals, as you point out, and in that choice we are able to choose our own peaks of achievement. Thank you for the comment!