In education, the term standards-based refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating understanding or mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education. In schools that use standards-based approaches to educating students, learning standards—i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education—determine the goals of a lesson or course, and teachers then determine how and what to teach students so they achieve the learning expectations described in the standards.

In the United States, most standards-based approaches to educating students use state learning standards to determine academic expectations and define “proficiency” in a given course, subject area, or grade level. The general goal of standards-based learning is to ensure that students are acquiring the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers, and adult life. If students fail to meet expected learning standards, they typically receive additional instruction, practice time, and academic support to help them achieve proficiency or meet the learning expectations described in the standards. Standards-based learning is common in American elementary schools, but it is becoming more widely used in middle and secondary schools.

In most cases, standards-based learning, standards-based instruction, or standards-based education, among other similar terms, are synonyms for proficiency-based learning or competency-based learning (two terms that are themselves synonymous). Defining standards-based learning is further complicated by the fact that educators not only use a wide variety of terms for the general approach, but the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. A few of the other common synonyms include mastery-based, outcome-based, and performance-based education, instruction, or learning, among others. In addition, there is a subtle but significant difference between standards-based and standards-reference—see the explanation below.

Standards-Based vs. Standards-Referenced

The distinction between standard-based and standards-referenced is often a source of confusion among educators and the public—in part because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but also because the distinction between the two is both subtle and nuanced. In brief, standards-referenced means that what gets taught or tested is “referenced” to or derived from learning standards (i.e., standards are the source of the content and skills taught to students—the original “reference” for the lesson), while standards-based refers to the practice of making sure students learn what they were taught and actually achieve the expected standards (i.e., that students meet a defined standard for “proficiency”). In a standards-referenced system, teaching and testing are guided by standards; in a standards-based system, teachers work to ensure that students actually learn the expected material as they progress in their education.

Another way of looking at it is that standards-referenced refers to inputs (what is taught) and standards-based is focused on outputs (what is learned).

While a particular course may be standards-referenced, for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is standards-based in the sense that the term is predominately used by educators. However, all standards-based curricula, instruction, and tests are—by necessity—standards-referenced. For example, all fifty states in the United States have developed and adopted learning standards that schools and teachers are expected to follow when they create academic programs, courses, and other learning experiences (before the 1980s and 1990s, states did not have learning standards). In theory, these educational policies suggest that all American public schools either are or should be teaching a standards-referenced curriculum. Yet comparatively few public schools are authentically standards-based in the sense that students are required to demonstrate achievement of expected standards, and meet defined proficiency expectations, as they progress through their education. For a more detailed discussion, see proficiency-based learning.

The following examples will help to illustrate the distinction between standards-based and standards-referenced:

  • Assessment: Say a teacher designs a standards-referenced test for a history course. While the content of the test may be entirely standards-referenced—i.e., it is aligned with the expectations described in learning standards—a score of 75 may be considered a passing score, suggesting that 25 percent of the taught material was not actually learned by the students who scored a 75. In addition, if only test scores and assignments are summed and averaged, the teacher may not know what specific standards students have or have not met. For example, a student may be able to earn a “passing” grade in a ninth-grade English course, but still be unable to “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking” or “demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings”—two ninth-grade standards taken from the Common Core State Standards. If the teacher uses a standards-based approach to assessment, however, students would only “pass” a test or course after demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills described in the expected standards. The students may need to retake a test several times or redo an assignment, or they may need additional help from the teacher or other educational specialist, but the students would need to demonstrate that they learned what they were expected to learn—i.e., the specific knowledge and skills described in standards.
  • Curriculum: In most high schools, students typically earn credit for passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D, suggesting that the awarded credit is based on a spectrum of learning expectations—with some students learning more and others learning less—rather than on the same learning standards being applied to all students equally. And because grades may be calculated differently from school to school or teacher to teacher, and they may be based on different learning expectations (for example, some courses may be “harder” and others “easier”), students may pass their courses, earn the required number of credits, and receive a diploma without acquiring the most essential knowledge and skills described in standards. In these cases, the curricula taught in these schools may be standards-referenced, but not standards-based, because teachers are not evaluating whether students have achieved specific standards. In standards-based schools, courses, and programs, however, educators will use a variety of instructional and assessment methods to determine whether students have met the expected standards, including strategies such as demonstrations of learningpersonal learning plansportfoliosrubrics, and capstone projects, to name just a few.
  • Grading: In a standards-referenced course, grading may look like it traditionally has in schools: students are given numerical scores on a 1–100 scale and class grades represent an average of all scores earned over the course of a semester or year. In a standards-based course, however, “grades” often look quite different. While standards-based grading and reporting may take a wide variety of forms from school to school, grades are typically connected to descriptive standards, not based on test and assignment scores that are averaged together. For example, students may receive a report that shows how they are progressing toward meeting a selection of standards. The criteria used to determine what “meeting a standard” means will defined in advance, often in a rubric, and teachers will evaluate learning progress and academic achievement in relation to the criteria. The reports students receive might use a 1–4 scale, for example, with 3s and 4s indicating that students have met the standard. In standards-based schools, grades for behaviors and work habits—e.g., getting to class on time, following rules, treating other students respectfully, turning in work on time, participating in class, putting effort into assignments—are also reported separately from academic grades, so that teachers and parents can make distinctions between learning achievement and behavioral issues. See the following example of a standards-based report card:


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