Step 1: Identify the Standards
For any type of assessment, you first must know where you want to end up. What are your goals for your students? An assessment cannot produce valid inferences unless it measures what it is intended to measure. And it cannot measure what it is intended to measure unless the goal(s) has been clearly identified. So, completing the rest of the following steps will be unproductive without clear goals for student learning.
Standards, like goals, are statements of what students should know and be able to do. However, standards are typically more narrow in scope and more amenable to assessment than goals. (Before going further, I would recommend that you read the section on Standards for a fuller description of standards and how they are different from goals and objectives.)
Standards are typically one-sentence statements of what students should know and be able to do at a certain point. Often a standard will begin with a phrase such as "Students will be able to ..." (SWBAT). For example,
Or, it might be phrased
Also, read the section on types of standards to see how standards can address course content, or process skills or attitudes towards learning.
I recommend a three-step process for writing standards:
As I will discuss below, there are many sources you can turn to to find examples of goals and standards that might be appropriate for your students. There are national and state standards as well as numerous websites such as those above with many good choices. It is unnecessary to start from scratch. However, before you look at the work of others, which can confine your thinking, I would highly recommend that you, as a teacher or school or district, take some time to examine (or REFLECT upon) what you value. What do you really want your students to know and be able to do when they leave your grade or school?
As a result of this reflection, you might reach consensus on a few things you most value and agree should be included in the standards. You might actually write a few standards. Or, you might produce a long list of possible candidates for standards. I do not believe there is a particular product you need to generate as a result of the reflection phase. Rather, you should move on to Step 2 (Review) when you are clear about what is most important for your students to learn. For example, reflection and conversation with many of the stakeholders for education led the Maryland State Department of Education to identify the Skills for Success it believes are essential for today's citizens. Along with content standards, the high school assessment program in Maryland will evaluate how well students have acquired the ability to learn, think, communicate, use technology and work with others.
Did you wake up this morning thinking, "Hey, I'm going to reinvent the wheel today"? No need. There are many, many good models of learning goals and standards available to you. So, before you start putting yours down on paper, REVIEW what others have developed. For example, you can
The biggest problem I have observed in standards writing among the schools and districts I have worked with is the missing of the forest for the trees. As with many tasks, too often we get bogged down in the details and lose track of the big picture. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to periodically step back and reflect upon the process. As you write your standards, ask yourself and your colleagues guiding questions such as
Yes, you may annoy your colleagues with these questions (particularly if you ask them repeatedly as I would advocate), but you will end up with a better set of standards that will last longer and provide a stronger foundation for the steps that follow in the creation of performance assessments.
Having said that, let's get down to the details. I will offer suggestions for writing specific standards by a) listing some common guidelines for good standards and b) modeling the development of a couple standards much as I would if I were working one-on-one with an educator.
GUIDELINE #1: For a standard to be amenable to assessment, it must be observable and measurable. For example, a standard such as
is observable and measurable. However, a standard such as
is not observable and measurable. You cannot observe understanding directly, but you can observe performance. Thus, standards should include a verb phrase that captures the direct demonstration of what students know and are able to do.
GUIDELINE #2: A standard is typically more narrow than a goal and broader than an objective. (See the section on Standards for a fuller discussion of this distinction.)Too Broad
Of course, the line between goals and standards and objectives will be fuzzy. There is no easy wasy to tell where one begins and another one ends. Similarly, some standards will be broader than others. But, generally, a standard is written too broadly if
For example, the Illinois Learning Standards for social science lists "Understand political systems, with an emphasis on the United States" as a goal. That is a goal addressed throughout an entire course, semester or multiple courses. The goal is broken down into six standards including "Understand election processes and responsibilities of citizens." That standard describes what might typically be taught in one section of a course or one unit. Furthermore, I feel I could adequately capture a student's understanding and application of that standard in one or two assessments. However, I do not believe I could get a full and rich sense of a student's grasp of the entire goal without a greater number and variety of classroom measures. On the other hand, the standard, "understand election processes and responsibilities of citizens," would not typically be taught in just one or two lessons, so it is broader than an objective. Hence, it best fits the category of a standard as that term is commonly used.
Another tendency to avoid that can inflate the breadth of a standard and make it more difficult to assess is the coupling of two or more standards in a single statement. This most commonly occurs with the simple use of the conjunction "and." For example, a statement might read
Although these two competencies are related, each one stands alone as a distinct standard. Additionally, a standard should be assessable by one or two measures. Do I always want to assess these abilities together? I could, but it restricts my options and may not always be appropriate. It would be better to create two standards.
In this case, the two skills are closely related, often intertwined and often assessed together.Too Narrow
A possible objective falling under the social science standard mentioned above that a lesson or two might be built around would be "students will be able to describe the evolution of the voter registration process in this country." This statement would typically be too narrow for a standard because, again, it addresses a relatively small portion of the content of election processes and citizen responsibilities, and because it could be meaningfully assessed in one essay question on a test. Of course, you might give the topic more attention in your government course, so what becomes an objective versus a standard can vary. Also, it is important to note that standards written for larger entities such as states or districts tend to be broader in nature than standards written by individual teachers for their classrooms. A U.S. government teacher might identify 5-15 essential ideas and skills for his/her course and voter registration might be one of them.
As you can see, each of these distinctions and labels are judgment calls. It is more important that you apply the labels consistently than that you use a specific label.
Note: You may have noticed that the Illinois Learning Standard that I have been using as an example violates Guideline #1 above -- it uses the verb understand instead of something observable. The Illinois Standards avoids this "problem" in most cases. However, the State addresses it more directly by writing its "benchmark standards" in more observable language. For example, under the general standard "understand election processes and responsibilities of citizens" it states that by early high school (a benchmark) students will be able to "describe the meaning of participatory citizenship (e.g., volunteerism, voting) at all levels of government and society in the United States."
GUIDELINE #3: A standard should not include mention of the specific task by which students will demonstrate what they know or are able to do.
For example, in a foreign language course students might be asked to
The statement should have left off the last phrase "using a Venn diagram." Completing a Venn diagram is the task the teacher will use to identify if students meet the standard. How the student demonstrates understanding or application should not be included with what is to be understood or applied. By including the task description in the standard, the educator is restricted to only using that task to measure the standard because that is what the standard requires. But there are obviously other means of assessing the student's ability to compare and contrast cultural features. So, separate the description of the task from the statement of what the student should know or be able to do; do not include a task in a standard.
GUIDELINE #4: Standards should be written clearly.
GUIDELINE #5: Standards should be written in language that students and parents can understand.
Share your expectations with all constituencies. Students, parents and the community will feel more involved in the process of education. Standards are not typically written in language that early elementary students can always understand, but the standards (your expectations) can be explained to them.
In the "workshops" sprinkled throughout this website I will attempt to capture (and model) the process I follow when assisting someone or some group in developing standards or authentic tasks or rubrics. For this workshop, I will begin with an initial draft of a standard and work with an imaginary educator towards a final product. You can "play along at home" by imagining how you would respond to the educator or to me.
Somewhere in the Smoky Mountains .... (hey, it's my workshop; I'll host it where I like!)
Educator: How is this for a standard:
Me: First, standards describe what students should know and do, not what the teacher will do. So, standards typically begin, "Students will ...."
Educator: So, I could change it to
Me: Yes, that would be a more appropriate way to begin your standard. Standards also should describe observable and measurable behavior on the student's part so that we can assess it. "Knowing" is not something you can directly observe. So, ask yourself "how could they show me they know?"
Educator: Well, I could have them write a paper explaining the main themes. Maybe I could write a standard saying
Me: Can you observe "explaining"?
Me: Yes, so that verb is a good one for a standard. Are there other ways a student could explain the themes to you besides in a paper?
Educator: Sure. They could do it in a speech, or a poster or on an exam.
Me: Good. You don't want to limit yourself in how you might assess this understanding. So, you usually want to avoid including an assignment or task in your standard. Otherwise, you always have to assign a paper to meet that standard.
Educator: I could say
Me: Yes, that is observable and clear. It effectively describes the student learning you said you wanted at the beginning. But let's go back to the main question. You always want to ask yourself "why would I want my students to meet this standard?" Why do you want them to be able to explain the themes of Romeo and Juliet?
Educator: Well, I want my students to be able to pick up a piece of literature and be able to tell what the author's main ideas are, and to find some meaning in it for them.
Me: So, you would like them to do that for literature other than Romeo and Juliet as well?
Educator: Yes, we just always teach Romeo and Juliet.
Me: So, you want to identify what really matters to you, what you really want the students to come away with. Typically, that will go beyond one piece of literature or one author. So, you want to write a standard more generically so that you can choose from a variety of literature and still develop the same knowledge and skills in your students.
Educator: I see. That makes sense. I could say
Me: Very good. But now I am going to be tough on you. I imagine there are some fourth grade teachers who would tell me they have that same standard for their readers. Is the skill of "identifying a theme" really something your ninth and tenth grade students are learning in your classes or do they come to you with that ability?
Educator: Well, they should have it when they get to me, but many of them still can't identify a theme very well. And, now I am asking them to do it with a more sophisticated piece of literature than fourth graders read.
Me: So, it is certainly appropriate that your students continue to review and develop that skill. But would you hope that your students understanding of theme goes beyond simply being able to identify it in a piece?
Me: And why does any of that matter? Why should they learn that?
Educator: Well, like I said before, I want them to be able to pick up a play or story and make sense of what the author is trying to communicate so they can make some personal connections to it and hopefully make some more sense of their lives. Also, I hope they realize that literature is another way they can communicate with others. So, by learning the techniques of Shakespeare and others they can learn how to express themselves effectively and creatively. Maybe those should be my standards, making sense of the world and communicating effectively, or are those too broad?
Me: Those are too broad for standards. Those sound like your overall goals for your course. But you could not easily assess such goals in one or two measures. You want to break them down into several standards that capture the key components of your goals and that are amenable to assessment. So, let's go back to your statement about the relationship of theme to the other elements of literature. It's not that being able to identify a theme is a useless skill. But you want your students to go beyond that. How can we frame what you said as a standard?
Educator: How about
Do I need to list all the literary elements I cover?
Me: You could. Or, if that might change from one year to another you could say something like
Educator: You can do that in a standard?
Me: Yes, you can do anything you want in writing a standard as long as it captures significant learning you value and is written in a manner that can be assessed.
Educator: But there are some elements, like theme, that I would always want them to understand.
Me: Then you can say "several literary elements including theme, character, setting, and plot ...."
Educator: That's better. So, how about this?
Me: Very nice! Is it realistic?
Me: Is it something worth learning?
Me: Can you assess it?
Educator: Oh yes, there would be a lot of ways. So.... are we done?
Me: Yes. You have developed an excellent standard.
Educator: That was a lot of work.
Me: Yes. It is not easy to write good standards. But, after you have done a few the rest will come more easily.
Educator: (with a touch of sarcasm) Oh, sure.
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Copyright 2014, Jon Mueller. Professor of Psychology, North Central College, Naperville, IL. Comments, questions or suggestions about this website should be sent to the author, Jon Mueller, at email@example.com.