Joelle has taught middle school Language Arts and college academic writing. She has a master's degree in education.
Imagine being hired to teach a fourth-grade class and not knowing what exactly fourth graders are supposed to learn. How would you plan your lessons? How would you grade student performance? And how would you communicate with parents about their children's progress? This could be frustrating and unproductive for all involved! Now imagine that you receive a clear set of goals for student learning, not only for fourth-grade but for the whole K-12 experience.
Standards-based education is a system of teaching and learning that focuses all elements of the educational experience, including teaching, assessment, grading, and reporting on standards that span all throughout a student's schooling. But what is a standard? A standard is a succinct, clearly written description of what a student should know and be able to demonstrate at a particular point in his or her education. Standards-based education uses a comprehensive set of standards spanning across grade levels to guide instruction and determine where students are as they move through their education. We most commonly see standards-based education in the form of state learning standards and measures. Each state in the U.S. has adopted a set of learning standards they provide school systems to guide instruction and assessment. These standards are used to determine a student's proficiency, or level of mastery, at a particular point in his or her education.
While standards-based education seems to imply standards exist to help schools create courses and teachers to plan lessons and tests, it's actually both broader and more specific than that. Schools and teachers do need to use standards to help plan and assess instruction. When they do so, they are using standards-referenced methods of instruction. Standards-referenced education is a part of standards-based education that guides the choices of educators to create and deliver instruction that appropriately addresses specific standards. But standards-based education is more than that. It looks at a progression over a period of time. Standards attempt to break down the various steps towards larger skills and knowledge a student will learn. For example, students need to learn how to add numbers. A series of standards are written to move a student through the process of attaining this skill. Students need first to understand what a number is and how to identify a number. Next, they need to see that numbers can be put together to create a new number. They begin with single digit numbers and progress to multi-digit numbers. Standards would be written for each step along the way. Standards-based education looks at the progression through each step but also follows on the broader goal of achieving mastery of larger skills.
Standards-based education has proven to be important in educational systems for a variety of reasons. Let's take a look at some of them:
- It ensures that students are progressing towards skills needed to succeed beyond K-12 schooling. Because standards break down the process of creating skills and knowledge, teachers and students are able to walk through each of these steps focusing on building important core skills that are deemed important when a student graduates from high school.
- It sets clear, shared expectations for schools, teachers, students, and parents. Because standards are clearly defined at each grade level and across the schooling experience, each party knows what it should focus on at a particular time.
- It looks at learning as a continual process of steps and it measures where each student is on the learning path. It allows for teachers to group students for learning and to offer intervention, or targeted support for a particular skill, to help students move towards particular skills.
- It improves communication between teachers and their students and the student's parents. Because each standard clearly states what a student should be able to do at a particular point in his or her education, teachers are able to tell students exactly what they need to work on at a particular time. Also, teachers are able to tell parents what their children need to master and where they are on the mastery continuum.
Standards-based education is a systematic approach to education that focuses on students building a set of skills and knowledge by progressing through a series of steps towards mastery. Each standard clearly and succinctly describes a particular part of a larger skill that a student should be able to demonstrate at a particular point in his or her education. Teachers reference standards as they plan and assess instruction, but standards-based education looks beyond this focusing on moving students towards larger goals by defining what steps towards those goals they have mastered. This approach to education is important for several reasons. It ensures students are moving towards skills and knowledge that they need to succeed beyond K-12 schooling. It sets clear expectations about what students need to learn at each stage of education. It breaks down the steps towards larger skills and allows teachers to customize education for individual students and to intervene when they're not able to master standards. And, it creates a common language for communicating learning expectations to students and parents.
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