Understanding Standards

Learning standards are one of the most important issues in public education today, influencing every dimension of our educational system, from high-stakes standardized testing to the topics and skills students are taught in school to the professional development that teachers need to be effective.

But understanding learning standards—what they are, how they work, why they matter, and how they affect schools and students—is no easy task, particularly given the wide range of terms and synonyms that educators use when discussing the topic.

The following guide, comprising a selection of our entries, is intended to provide a comprehensive introduction to learning standards and how they work in our education system, which extends to related standards-based strategies such as proficiency-based learning, curriculum mapping, and backward design. Our goal, quite simply, is to make this complex topic more accessible and understandable to journalists, parents, and community members—anyone with an interest and investment in our public schools. If you are looking for more detailed information and discussion, just click through to the full entries for each term.

We also encourage educators to use this guide with their community, republish the content on their website, or print it out for use during meetings, discussions, and community forums. All of our entries and guides have been published under a Creative Commons license—so if it helps you out, go ahead and use it. As always, we welcome your recommendations for improvement.


Learning Standards | High Expectations | Learning Progression | Learning Objectives | Student Outcomes | Common Standards | Competency-Based Learning | Proficiency-Based Learning | Proficiency | Standards-Based | Standards-Referenced | Content Knowledge | Curriculum | Backward Design | Coherent Curriculum | Curriculum Mapping | Alignment | Credit | Carnegie Unit | Seat Time | Social Promotion | Local Control | Teacher Autonomy


Learning standards are concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. Learning standards describe educational objectives—i.e., what students should have learned by the end of a course, grade level, or grade span—but they do not describe or mandate any particular teaching practice, curriculum, or assessment method (although this is a source of ongoing confusion and debate).

Synonyms: Academic Standards, Competencies, Competency Standards, Proficiencies, Proficiency Standards, Standards, State Standards

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Learning Standard Examples

The following examples, taken from the Common Core State Standards English Language Arts Standards for grades 9–10, can serve to illustrate what learning standards are and how they describe educational expectations:


  • Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language of a court opinion differs from that of a newspaper).
  • Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.


  • Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas, concepts, and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
  • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.


  • Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking.
  • Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
  • Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Speaking and Listening

  • Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.
  • Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.


In education, the term high expectations, or the phrase common high expectations, typically refers to any effort to set the same high educational standards for all students in a class, school, or education system. The concept of high expectations is premised on the philosophical and pedagogical belief that a failure to hold all students to high expectations effectively denies them access to a high-quality education, since the educational achievement of students tends to rise or fall in direct relation to the expectations placed upon them. In other words, students who are expected to learn more or perform better generally do so, while those held to lower expectations usually achieve less. Learning standards are one strategy that policy makers and educators use to promote high expectations in schools.

For related discussions, see access, equity, rigor, and stereotype threat.

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A learning progression is the purposeful sequencing of teaching and learning expectations across multiple developmental stages, ages, or grade levels. The term is most commonly used in reference to learning standards. Learning progressions are typically categorized and organized by content area, such as mathematics or science, and they map out a specific sequence of knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn as they progress through their education. There are two main characteristics of learning progressions: (1) the learning standards described at each level are intended to address the specific learning needs and abilities of students at a particular stage of their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development, and (2) the standards reflect clearly articulated sequences—i.e., the learning expectations for each grade level build upon previous expectations while preparing students for more challenging concepts and more sophisticated coursework at the next level. The basic idea is to make sure that students are learning age-appropriate material (knowledge and skills that are neither too advanced nor too rudimentary), and that teachers are sequencing learning effectively and avoiding the inadvertent repetition of material that was taught in earlier grades (also see Coherent Curriculum below).

Synonyms: Grade-Level Benchmarks, Grade-Level Equivalents (GLEs), Grade-Level Expectations (GLEs), Grade-Level Indicators, Grade-Level Learning Objectives, Grade-Level Standards

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Learning Progression Example

The following reading standards—taken from the Common Core State Standards—provide an example of how learning progressions work and how each standard builds on the previous one, increasing in complexity as students advance from one level to the next:

Kindergarten: Identify the front cover, back cover, and title page of a book.

First Grade: Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate facts or information in a text.

Second Grade: Know and use various text features (e.g., captions, bold print, subheadings, glossaries, indexes, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text efficiently.

Third Grade: Use text features and search tools (e.g., key words, sidebars, hyperlinks) to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.

Fourth Grade: Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text.

Fifth Grade: Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.

Grades 6–8: Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to an understanding of the topic.

Grades 9–10: Analyze the structure of the relationships among concepts in the text, including relationships among key terms (e.g., force, friction, reaction force, energy).

Grades 11–12: Analyze how the text structures information or ideas into categories or hierarchies, demonstrating understanding of the information or ideas.


Learning objectives are brief statements that describe what students will be expected to learn by the end of school year, course, unit, lesson, project, or class period. In many cases, learning objectives are the interim academic goals that teachers establish for students who are working toward meeting more comprehensive learning standards.

Synonyms: Academic Benchmarks, Benchmarks, Grade-Level Benchmarks, Grade-Level Equivalents (GLEs), Grade-Level Expectations (GLEs), Grade-Level Indicators, Learning Benchmarks, Learning Targets, Measurement Topics, Performance Indicators, Student Learning Objectives, Student Outcomes (NOTE: The term learning objectives, and its synonyms, may be used interchangeably with the synonyms for learning progressions—i.e., grade-level benchmarks, grade-level indicators, etc.)

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The term student outcomes typically refers to either (1) the desired learning objectives or learning standards that schools and teachers want students to achieve, or (2) the educational, societal, and life effects that result from students being educated. In the first case, student outcomes are the intended goals of a course, program, or learning experience; in the second case, student outcomes are the actual results that students either achieve or fail to achieve during their education or later on in life.

Synonyms: Educational Outcomes, Learning Outcomes (NOTE: The term student outcomes, and its synonyms, may be used interchangeably with learning objectives and its related synonyms)

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In education, the term common standards predominately refers to the learning standards that are used to guide public-school instruction, assessment, and curricula within a country, state, school, or academic field. That said, there are many different types of common standards in education that may be used in a variety of ways. For example, there are common national, international, state, and subject-area learning standards; there are common professional standards for teachers, administrators, and other school staff; and there are common accreditation standards for schools, colleges, and educational programs.

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Proficiency-based or competency-based learning refer 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 most cases, proficiency-based systems use state learning standards to determine academic expectations and define “proficiency” in a given course, subject area, or grade level.

Synonyms: Competency-Based, Mastery-Based, Outcome-Based, Performance-Based, and Standards-Based education, instruction, and learning (among many other possible synonyms, including competency education)

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In education, the term proficiency is used in a variety of ways, most commonly in reference to (1) proficiency levels, scales, and cut-off scores on standardized tests and other forms of assessment, (2) students achieving or failing to achieve proficiency levels determined by tests and assessments, (3) students demonstrating or failing to demonstrate proficiency in relation to learning standards; and (4) teachers being deemed proficient or non-proficient on job-performance evaluations. To understand how proficiency works in educational contexts, it is important to recognize that all proficiency determinations are based on some form of standards or measurement system, and that proficiency levels change in direct relation to the scales, standards, tests, and calculation methods being used to evaluate and determine proficiency.

For related discussions, see cut-off score, measurement error, test bias, and score inflation.

Synonyms: Competency, Cut Score (testing), Cut-Off Score (testing), Meet the Standard

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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 they 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).

Synonyms: Aligned Curriculum, Curriculum Coherence

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A term widely used by educators, content knowledge refers to the body of information that teachers teach and that students are expected to learn in a given subject or content area, such as English language arts, mathematics, science, or social studies. Content knowledge generally refers to the facts, concepts, theories, and principles that are taught and learned, rather than to related skills—such as reading, writing, or researching—that students also learn in academic courses. Subject-area learning standards describe the content knowledge that students are expected to learn in specific academic disciplines.

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Curriculum refers to the lessons and academic content taught in a school or in a specific course or program. Learning standards are often confused with curriculum, but standards only describe educational objectives—i.e., what students should have learned by the end of a course, grade level, or grade span—but they do not describe or mandate any particular teaching practice, curriculum, or assessment method (although this is a source of ongoing confusion and debate). In dictionaries, curriculum is often defined as the courses offered by a school, but it is rarely used in such a general sense in schools. Depending on how broadly educators define or employ the term, curriculum typically refers to the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn, which includes the learning standards and objectives they are expected to meet; the units and lessons that teachers teach; the assignments and projects given to students; the books, materials, videos, presentations, and readings used in a course; and the tests, assessments, and other methods used to evaluate student learning. An individual teacher’s curriculum, for example, would be the specific learning standards, lessons, assignments, and materials used to organize and teach a particular course.

For a related discussion, see hidden curriculum.

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Backward design, also called backward planning or backward mapping, is a process that educators use to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to achieve specific learning goals. Backward design begins with the objectives of a unit or course—what students are expected to learn and be able to do—and then proceeds “backward” to create lessons that achieve those desired goals. In most public schools, the educational goals of a course or unit will be a given state’s learning standards. The basic rationale motivating backward design is that starting with the end goal, rather than a starting with the first lesson chronologically delivered during a unit or course, helps teachers design a sequence of lessons, problems, projects, presentations, assignments, and assessments that result in students achieving the academic goals of a course or unit—that is, actually learning what they were expected to learn.

Synonyms: Backwards Design, Backward(s) Mapping, Backward(s) Planning

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The term coherent curriculum refers to an academic program that is (1) well organized and purposefully designed to facilitate learning, (2) free of academic gaps and needless repetitions, and (3) aligned across lessons, courses, subject areas, and grade levels (a curriculum, in the sense that the term is typically used by educators, encompasses everything that teachers teach to students in a school or course, including the instructional materials and techniques they use). In most cases, the term refers to the “alignment” of learning standards and teaching—i.e., how well and to what extent a school or teacher has matched the content that students are taught with the academic expectations described in learning standards—but it also refers to coherence among all the many elements that are entailed in educating students, including assessments, standardized tests, textbooks, assignments, lessons, and instructional techniques.

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Curriculum mapping is the process indexing or diagramming a curriculum to identify and address academic gaps, redundancies, and misalignments for purposes of improving the overall coherence of a course of study and, by extension, its effectiveness. Curriculum mapping is one of the ways that educators improve the alignment or coherence or a curriculum.

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The term alignment is widely used by educators in a variety of contexts, most commonly in reference to reforms that are intended to bring greater coherence or efficiency to a curriculum, program, initiative, or education system (the alignment of learning standards, curriculum, and teaching is perhaps the most common form of “alignment” discussed by educators). When the term is used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what alignment is referring to. Generally speaking, the use of alignment tends to become less precise and meaningful when its object grows in size, scope, or ambition. For example, when teachers talk about “aligning curriculum,” they are likely referring to a specific, technical process being used to develop lessons, deliver instruction, and evaluate student learning growth and achievement. On the other hand, some education reports, improvement plans, and policy proposals may refer to the “alignment” of various elements of an education system without describing precisely what might be entailed in the proposed alignment process.

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Credits are one of the primary methods used to determine and document that students have met academic requirements, generally at the high school level. Credits are awarded upon completing and passing a course or required school program. In the United States, credits are often based on the Carnegie unit, or 120 hours of instructional time (one hour of instruction a day, five days a week, for 24 weeks). However, the actual duration of credit-bearing courses may differ significantly from the Carnegie-unit standard. Most public high schools require students to accumulate credits to earn a diploma. While schools and districts determine credit requirements, states require schools to have minimum credit requirements in place. For example, a state might require students to earn a minimum of 18 credits to be eligible for a high school diploma, but a school may choose to increase credit requirements to 24 credits or higher. Critics of course credits may argue, however, that credit-based systems allow students to pass courses, earn credits, and get promoted from one grade level to the next even though they may have not acquired essential knowledge and skills, or they may not be adequately prepared for the next grade or for higher-level courses. The credit is often cited as one of the reasons why some students can earn a high school diploma, for example, and yet still struggle with basic reading, writing, and math skills. Advocates of proficiency-based learning and competency-based learning tend to be critical of credit-based systems.

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When used in the context of education reform, the term seat time refers to the use of academic credits based on the 120-hour Carnegie unit. The term is typically a derogatory reference to the perception that course credits more accurately measure “seat time”—i.e., the amount of time students have sat in a classroom—than what students have actually learned or failed to learn. Critics of “seat time” typically argue that if credits are not based on some form of consistently applied learning standards, then it becomes difficult to determine what students have learned or failed to learn. Some educators and education reformers argue that strategies such as proficiency-based learning and demonstrations of learning, among others, provide more valid and reliable ways to determine what students have learned, whether they should be promoted to the next grade level, and whether they should receive a diploma.

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Social promotion is the practice of promoting students to the next grade level even when they have not learned the material they were taught or achieved expected learning standards. Social promotion is often contrasted with retention, the practice of holding students back and making them repeat a grade when they fail to meet academic expectations, or with strategies such as proficiency-based learning, which may require students to demonstrate they have achieved academic expectations before they are promoted to the next grade level. Generally speaking, the practice is called “social” promotion because non-academic factors and considerations, including societal pressures and cultural expectations, influence promotion decisions. For example, educators and parents may not want to separate a young student from his or her friends or peer group, a school or community may not want a top athlete to lose his or her eligibility to play sports, or schools may not want to experience the consequences and public embarrassment that may result if significant numbers of students are held back. Considerations about the “socialization” of students—how they will learn to interact productively with peers and navigate social situations and expectations—also influence promotion decisions, particularly during the elementary grades. For example, educators may not want to damage a student’s self-esteem or put him or her at greater risk of suffering from the social, emotional, behavioral, and psychological problems often associated with grade retention. In these cases, promoting students, even though they did not meet academic expectations, is perceived to be in the best interests of the student.

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In education, local control refers to (1) the governing and management of public schools by elected or appointed representatives serving on governing bodies, such as school boards or school committees, that are located in the communities served by the schools, and (2) the degree to which local leaders, institutions, and governing bodies can make independent or autonomous decisions about the governance and operation of public schools. The concept of local control is grounded in a philosophy of government premised on the belief that the individuals and institutions closest to the students and most knowledgeable about a school—and most invested in the welfare and success of its educators, students, and communities—are best suited to making important decisions related to its operation, leadership, staffing, academics, teaching, and improvement. This general philosophy of governance is often contrasted with state or federal policies intended to influence the structure, operation, or academic programs in public schools, given that level of control granted to local governing bodies is directly related to the level of prescription articulated in education laws, regulations, and related compliance rules and requirements. In recent years, local control of public schools has become a source of tensions and conflicts that are part of broader political and ideological schisms and debates in American society, such as disagreements related to role that state and federal governments should play in the lives of citizens. Learning standards—specifically, the Common Core State Standards—have also become an object of debate over local control, state’s rights, and related issues.

For related discussions, see autonomy and local-control state.

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Teacher autonomy refers to the professional independence of teachers in schools, especially the degree to which they can make autonomous decisions about what they teach to students and how they teach it. In recent years, teacher autonomy has become a major point of discussion and debate in American public education, largely as a result of educational policies that, some argue, limit the professionalism, authority, responsiveness, creativity, or effectiveness of teachers. Learning standards are one source of debate related to teacher autonomy. For example, when schools “align” their academic programs and curriculum with the learning goals described in standards, some argue that teachers will have less “autonomy” in determining the knowledge, skills, and content they teach to students. The extent to which learning standards limit the autonomy of teachers remains a subject of ongoing discussion and debate, but many educators argue that standards do not impose significant limitations on the professional autonomy of teachers. For example, some argue that standards only describe broad learning expectations, and that they do not tell teachers how to teach or even, to a great extent, what to teach. For example, a standard that requires students to demonstrate understanding how “checks and balances” and “separation of powers” work in American government does not require teachers to teach those ideas in any specific way—they can use any number of instructional approaches, learning materials, or historical examples to teach students the concepts described in the standards.

For a related discussion, see autonomy.

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