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Learning Standards

Learning Standards

22 February, 2016

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 any particular teaching practice, curriculum, or assessment method (although this is a source of ongoing confusion and debate).

While learning standards vary in content, purpose, and design from state to state, most standards systems in the United States share a few common attributes:

  • Subject areas:Learning standards are typically organized by subject area—e.g., English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, health and wellness, etc. Most standards systems use the same general subject-area categories that public schools have been using for decades, although some may be refined to reflect new knowledge or changing educational priorities, such as “science and technology” or “health and wellness.”
  • Learning progressions:In each subject area, standards are typically organized by grade level or grade span—consequently, they may be calledgrade-level expectations or grade-level standards—and the sequencing of standards across grades or stages of academic progress is called a “learning progression” (although terminology may vary from place to place). Learning progressions 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 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—that is, each grade-level learning expectation builds 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 or avoiding the inadvertent repetition of material that was taught in earlier grades.
  • Educational goals:Many sets of learning standards also include overarching, long-term educational goals—i.e., what students should be able to do when they have completed their public-school education. These overarching goals will typically describe the knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits that public schools should be teaching and cultivating in stages throughout a student’s education. For example, they may address critical thinking, logical reasoning, and problem solving; oral and written communication; perseverance and work ethic; digital technology and media; or multicultural literacy (valuing and understanding other perspectives, races, and cultures)—i.e., broadly applicable skills that will help students succeed in adult life.
  • Content:While each set of learning standards is unique, there is often a great deal of commonality from system to system or state to state. For example, while various sets of mathematics standards may use different descriptions, or they may sequence specific learning expectations differently, most mathematics standards describe similar quantitative concepts, principles, and reasoning. That said, in subjects such as history, social studies, or science—which contain an enormous variety of possible concepts, facts, skill sets, and areas of study, not to mention politically and ideologically contentious issues—learning standards will likely reflect greater content-related disparities. In addition, some learning standards are considered to be more precise, exacting, and prescriptive—e.g., they will describe the specific punctuation marks that students should know how to use correctly at a particular grade level—while others are considered to be more general, encompassing, and descriptive—e.g., they will explain more broadly what students should be able to do when writing (articulate concepts clearly, use grammatical conventions correctly, cite sources


In the United States, learning standards could be considered a de facto reform strategy, given that they are a relatively recent historical development, and they are generally intended to improve the effectiveness of schools, the quality and consistency of teaching, and the academic achievement of students (whether or not they accomplish this goal remains a subject of debate). The following are a few measures in which learning standards are used to improve public education:

  • Educational consistency:Learning standards are, generally speaking, a way to promote greater consistency and commonality in what gets taught to students from state to state, school to school, or classroom to classroom. Before the advent of learning standards and other efforts to standardize public education, individual schools and teachers determined learning expectations in a given course, subject area, or grade level—a situation that can give rise to significant educational disparities.
  • Quality control:Learning standards are also seen as a way to improve school quality, teaching effectiveness, and student learning. By mandating the use of learning standards in public schools, for example, states, policy makers, and elected officials can increase the likelihood that students will acquire—at a minimum—a certain body of skills and knowledge during their public-school education.
  • Accountability:If states base standardized tests or other assessments on learning standards, they can—at least to some degree—measure whether schools are teaching students the needed material. If students in a particular school underperform, steps can be taken to improve performance. For example, in the case of high-stakes tests designed to measure whether or not students have achieved expected learning standards, poor school performance can trigger a variety of consequences.
  • Prioritization:Given that there is a vast number of subjects, concepts, facts, perspectives, and skills that schools could potentially be teaching, learning standards are a way to determine educational priorities in a state or education system. For example, learning standards are a way to prioritize the teaching of certain historical subjects over others—say, the civic, social, political, and economic history of the United States and other countries over the history of sports, entertainment, and fashion.
  • Pacing:Depending on their specific content and sequencing, learning standards can accelerate (or slow down) learning progress—at least in relation to other standards or educational systems. If learning standards are modified to require certain concepts to be taught in earlier grades, for example, students may learn them earlier and be able to move on to more sophisticated ideas and material.
  • Expectations:Learning standards also establish academic expectations for schools, teachers, and students in terms both content (what gets taught) and depth (the level or degree to which it is taught). If learning standards are made more challenging, exacting, or demanding, the reasoning goes, more complex topics and more sophisticated skills will be taught by schools and learned by students. The basic rationale is that if schools apply the same high expectations to every student, then more students will achieve those higher expectations, or at least get closer to achieving those expectations, than if the expectations were lower.
  • Coherence:Learning standards can promote greater academic and instructional coherence, or “alignment,” within a school or education system. Because standards are carefully mapped out and sequenced, they can help schools and teachers avoid redundancy or unnecessary repetition, while also creating a progression of instruction in which each lesson builds on previous lessons, moving students from simpler concepts to more complex and challenging concepts, from lower-level thinking to higher-level thinking, or from less-sophisticated skills to more-sophisticated skills as they progress through their education
  • Teaching:Depending on how they are written, learning standards can influence the ways in which schools and educators teach students. If standards are written to emphasize factual content and memorization, for example, rather than deeper comprehension and the application of knowledge, that emphasis will likely be reflected in the teaching materials and methods used by educators. In the first case, for example, worksheets, textbooks, lectures, videos, and tests may be seen as effective ways to teach factual content and determine whether students can recall historical dates, execute a mathematical formula, or write a grammatical sentence. In the second case, teachers may need to use alternative methods to teach students how to use the knowledge and skills they have acquired to solve complex problems, evaluate ambiguous issues, complete challenging tasks, or produce sophisticated work products.
  • Equity:Learning standards are also seen as a way to increase equity and fairness within an educational system. For example, there is strong evidence that students of color and students from lower-income households are held to lower academic expectations, or enrolled in lower-level classes, more frequently and consistently than their white and wealthier peers. As many educators have pointed out, this situation (often called the “soft bigotry of low expectations”) can create a “cycle of low expectations,” possibly even a multigenerational cycle, in which minority and low-income students never catch up with their peers academically, earn collegiate degrees at the same rates, or achieve the same social, professional, or economic status. Learning standards—because they are applied to all students in an education system—are seen by many educators as a way to ensure that minority and disadvantaged students are held to the same expectations, and given the same quality of education, as other students.
  • Resources:If states and schools use the same learning standards, it also allows them to make use of the same educational resources, whether it’s textbooks, online learning programs, tests, or the curriculum and lesson plans that teachers create to organize a course. In the case of textbooks and other learning resources, it may be possible for states or schools to share educational resources or save money when purchasing resources. For example, before many states adopted the Common Core State Standards, textbook publishers had to create different English or math textbooks for each state. Similarly, each state contracted with different test developers to create unique standardized tests each year that were based on the state’s learning standards, but initiatives such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) were created to develop tests that could be used by multiple states. In addition, common learning standards allow teachers to share educational materials—such as instructional plans, reading lists, projects, and assignments—and several online resource-sharing websites have recently been created to facilitate the exchange of standards-based educational materials among teachers.


Learning standards are a major source of debate in the United States—and even more so since the No Child Left Behind Act connected high-stakes testing to learning standards and most states replaced preexisting standards with the Common Core State Standards. The arguments both for and against learning standards are highly complex, and it is not possible to address every nuance here. The following, however, will serve to illustrate a few of the major debates about learning standards:

  • Should states or the federal government determine what students learn in public school? Or should local communities, parents, and students make these decisions?Some argue that—to maintain educational quality and ensure that students are prepared to be productive adults, workers, and citizens—educational experts, elected officials, and government agencies need to play a role in setting educational standards and learning expectations. Without such guidelines and requirements, there is no way to ensure a minimum level of educational quality in public schools, or ensure that students are taught the most critically important knowledge and skills. Others argue, however, that learning standards are a form of governmental overreach, and that decisions about what gets taught in schools should remain local—or, in the view of some, familial and individual. In this case, the debate often intersects with political, ideological, and moral differences, or fears about the students being “indoctrinated” into certain ideologies, given that some standards address subjects that are broadly contentious in American society—e.g., teaching evolution in science courses, multiculturalism in social studies, or sex education in health courses.
  • Are learning standards forcing schools and educators to use a mandated curriculum?There is a great deal of confusion about the distinction between learning standards and curriculum, and whether they are qualitatively and substantively different or effectively the same. Some argue that standards only describe broad learning expectations and content categories, 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 learn and understand 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. Others believe, or express concern, that learning standards are a form of forced curriculum that will limit what teachers can teach, while also deprioritizing or neglecting certain subjects. Some critics even contend that parents should be able be able to control what gets taught to their children in school.
  • Are learning standards useful, effective guidelines for schools and educators? Or are they burdensome regulatory requirements that take up valuable resources and time without adding much educational value?As some educational experts have pointed out, learning standards can become overbuilt if they are either too prescriptive or so numerous and comprehensive that there is simply not enough time to ensure that students learn and master every standard. In the second case, educators and others may debate whether teaching a specific set of learning standards is even feasible, given the amount of time and the average number of years that students typically attend public school. And depending on how states structure their learning standards and related compliance requirements, there could be a wide variety of potential debates and criticism related to compliance obligations, including whether schools have sufficient time and funding to meet the requirements, or whether teachers have been given the training they need to modify their lessons and bring them into alignment with standards.
  • Do learning standards address the most important and appropriate knowledge and skills?In the education community, there is often debate about whether a specific set of standards addresses the right content or establishes appropriate learning expectations. Given the enormous breadth, depth, and multiplicity of knowledge and skills that could potentially be addressed in learning standards, it is perhaps unsurprising that educators would hold divergent views about educational priorities for students. Both within and outside of the education community, debates about the content of learning standards also intersect with broader political, ideological, and religious differences and debates in the United States.
  • Are learning standards too prescriptive or are they not prescriptive enough?In the view of some educators, learning standards that are too prescriptive, detailed, or numerous can reduce a teacher’s professional autonomy, instructional flexibility, and responsiveness to student learning needs. In this case, standards may be perceived as a burdensome checklist that teachers need to work through. Other educators, however, believe that the very fact that standards are prescriptive or required is what makes them effective. In this example, learning standards may be seen as way to improve educational consistency and quality across a complicated system that includes both more-effective and less-effective teachers, or as a way to protect students from the long-term personal and societal harm that may result from low educational expectations and low-quality teaching.
  • Do standards represent authentic learning progressions, or are they merely content progressions or teaching progressions?This somewhat technical debate occurs mostly among educators, researchers, and education experts. The basic idea is that standards, by necessity, are created by adults with only a limited understanding of how students actually learn and develop cognitively at specific ages. Therefore, grade-level standards and learning progressions reflect “best-guess” ideas about how content or teaching should be sequenced across grades, but they do not necessarily reflect the ways in which students actually learn new knowledge and acquire new skills. Consequently, they may not encourage learning in the most effective ways, or they may inadvertently promote and reinforce less-effective teaching strategies.