Before I can effectively teach or assess students, I need to determine what they should know and be able to do. In other words, I need a good set of standards. Or do I need goals? Or objectives? Standards, goals and objectives are all descriptions of what students should know and be able to do. So, how are they different? I distinguish standards from other statements of student performance primarily along two dimensions: 1) breadth of coverage and 2) feasibility of measurement and observation.
Starting at the top of the above diagram, the mission statement of schools or districts or states is typically the broadest statement of what students are intended to know and be able to do when they graduate. In roughly 50 words or less, mission statements attempt to communicate to all constituencies the purposes of education in that institution. An example of a mission statement might be:
Unfortunately, mission statements just make good wall-hangings in many schools or districts. That is a missed opportunity. A clearly written, purposeful statement can serve as an excellent starting point for curriculum development, instruction and assessment. Furthermore, a good mission statement can provide a useful guide against which progress can be compared to determine if it is following a consistent, productive path.
For example, if Mueller School adopted the above statement, it would design all curriculum in a manner to promote effective communication, collaboration and problem-solving. Disciplinary content would not be forgotten. Rather, a clear focus would develop around teaching students to communicate about mathematics, collaborate in the construction of new knowledge and solve problems specific to science, social studies, the fine arts, etc. As a teacher at that school I would always ask myself if the lesson I had planned or the curricular framework we developed would promote such knowledge and skills. Thus, a good mission statement would serve as a focal point to initiate development as well as a check for progress.
As stated above, mission statements are very brief, broad statements. To flesh them out further schools often identify a set of goals which more specifically, yet still broadly, define expectations for students. The goals also communicate the school's or district's focus for its educational plan.
Goals are typically subdivided further to identify standards. Whereas goals are often written broadly enough to cross grade levels and content areas, standards, particularly those that are content-based, tend to be specific to one or a few grade levels and one content area, and may be written at the level of a unit in curricular planning. However, many state and national K-12 standards are written with the graduating senior in mind. To provide guidance for prior grades, benchmark standards are written which describe what progress third or fifth or eighth graders should have made toward a particular standard.
Moving down the pyramid above, the statements of what students should know and be able to do become more narrow and, consequently, more numerous within a curriculum. The most specific and numerous is the objective. Objectives are typically written at the level of the lesson plan, with one or more objectives for each lesson.
The four types of statements presented in the pyramid can also be differentiated by whether or not they are amenable to assessment. Goals and mission statements are typically written to share a broad vision, not to serve as benchmarks to be measured. Thus, their language does not usually make them amenable to assessment. On the other hand, standards and objectives are written with measurement in mind. Consequently, those statements need to describe student behavior that is observable.
So, why is there a section of this authentic assessment web site devoted to standards and not one on mission statements, goals or objectives? Although the term standard has been around the field of education for a long time, it has become more prominent in recent years as the authentic assessment movement has taken off. I believe it has become more prominent than the other statements of behavior in the movement for two reasons. First, like objectives, standards are amenable to assessment, a necessary requirement to guide task design. Second, the broader nature of standard versus objective is consistent with authentic assessment's emphasis on complex, integrative authentic tasks that typically span more than one class period, more than one topic and sometimes even more than one discipline.
Thus, good authentic assessment development begins with identifying a set of standards for your students. State and national efforts at standards-writing have typically focused on the content of the disciplines. But what about critical thinking skills, problem solving abilities, collaborative skills and personal development? These highly valued skills are not easily incorporated into content standards and, thus, are often omitted or given insufficient attention. Yet, the standards should capture what we most value and most want our students to learn. So, we should consider including these other skills in our standards. To do so, it may be helpful to distinguish content standards from other types. To see how, look at
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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.