Chris Jakicic, EdD, an author and a consultant, was principal of Woodlawn Middle School in Illinois from 1999 to 2007. She began her career teaching middle school science.

Are Essential Standards a Part of the Assessment Process?

As I’ve worked with teams across the country in developing and using assessments, I’ve heard some interesting beliefs about essential standards (e.g., “We’re not allowed to do this in our district,” or “Our curriculum only requires us to teach the essential standards”). Comments like these have convinced me that there are lots of educators who have misconceptions about the first of the four essential questions we ask a collaborative team in a PLC to answer. That question is: “What do we want our students to know and do?”

High-performing teams know that they can’t answer this question with a simple “our state standards” reply. Instead, they know that the answer requires teams to develop consensus about a subset of all standards called “their essential standards.” These standards are also often called power or priority standards and represent the guaranteed and viable curriculum for their grade or course. What this means is that collaborative teams work through a process to determine a set of standards from their grade or course standards that they agree all students must learn. This requires that teams understand that they can’t be satisfied with only 80 percent or 85 percent of students learning what is most important.

Consider this: when a team guarantees all students will learn their essential standards, they are assuring that students will be commonly prepared for the next grade level or course. They can’t make this guarantee if they treat all of their standards as equally important.

Deciding which standards are most important

We recommend that teams start this process by using some specific criteria to decide which standards are most important. Doug Reeves has recommended that teams consider the three following:

  • Endurance: Do students need to know this standard for the long haul?
  • Leverage: Is this standard something that crosses more than one curricular area?
  • Readiness: Is this standard a prerequisite for future learning? (Reeves, 2002).

I often suggest teams think about one more question while they do this work:

  • Does this standard represent something we’d be willing to spend intervention time reteaching?

In other words, these standards are so important, we’ll spend more time teaching them, we’ll agree to use common formative assessments to know whether students have mastered them, and we’ll plan intervention time for students who haven’t yet learned them.

Unfortunately, sometimes teams interpret this as saying that they only have to teach the essential standards. This is a misconception. In fact, teams should make sure that all standards have a place in their curriculum. Let’s look at a specific example that may make this a bit clearer.

In kindergarten, there is an ELA standard that says students should be able (with help) to know the author and illustrator of a story and define what that role is. A second standard is that they should demonstrate understanding of spoken words, syllables, and sounds (phonemes). Most kindergarten teachers will agree that the second standard is one that every student must know but that the first standard isn’t something they would spend intervention time to teach if a student hasn’t yet learned it. However, teachers still teach the first standard; almost every time they read a story aloud or introduce a new story, they will probably talk a bit about the author and/or illustrator.

In my own work, I’ve never run into a team of teachers who’ve complained they don’t have enough to teach! In fact, almost universally, the reverse is true. As we look at the ELA Common Core standards, for example, in third grade there are 90 standards. A typical school year has about 180 days, so theoretically teachers have about 2 days to teach each standard. In math, there are about 30 standards in each grade—providing a lot more time to teach! But, after analysis, teachers see that the math standards often have many individual learning targets that must be taught for each standard.

When collaborative teams engage in this discussion, they typically use a protocol to guide their work. Larry’s Ainsworth’s book Power Standards (2004) lays out a step-by-step guide.

  1. He recommends that teams start by having each teacher reflect on which standards he or she believes best represent the most important standards.
  2. Once they have each completed this process, the team begins to build consensus on which standards they can agree are the most important. He suggests that the essential standards should represent approximately one-third of their curriculum (Ainsworth, 2010).
  3. After they’ve completed this work, the next step is to review any standards documents or test blueprints that provide additional information about expectations for student learning. When teachers start to do this work, they are definitely “learning together” about their standards.
  4. The last step in this process is for teams to do a vertical alignment from one grade level to the next or one course to the next. Teachers examine the draft list of essential standards to see how well they line up. They answer the question, “If a student goes through our school and only learns these standards, will he or she be prepared for the next grade level?” They look for repetition or gaps in learning. They examine the grade level before theirs to make sure students will have the necessary prerequisite skills, and the grade level after theirs to make sure their students will be prepared for the rigor expected.

You may be wondering why I asked the question in the title but haven’t yet addressed assessment. I believe that identifying essential standards is the first step in an effective assessment system. If we don’t know what we expect all students to learn, we end up trying to assess everything. Then, when we try to respond, our response is too watered down to be effective. Or, each teacher decides what’s most important to him or her, and students are not commonly prepared from one grade level or course to the next. This means that teachers spend more time filling in the “holes” from the previous year in student learning.

Collaborative teams who establish the guaranteed and viable curriculum first can write and use assessments aligned to those expectations that are designed to provide specific information about which students need help and what kind of help they need. Essential standards are the foundation of an effective assessment system, and plans that are built on a solid foundation will provide the information teams need to help students.



Ainsworth, L. (2004). Power standards: Identifying the standards that matter most. Englewood, CO: Advanced Learning Press.

Ainsworth (2010). Rigorous curriculum design: How to create curricular units of study that align standards, instruction, and assessment. Englewood, CO: Lead Learn Press.

Reeves, D. (2002). The leader’s guide to standards: A blueprint for educational equity and excellence. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Participate in hands-on assessment training from education experts. August 1-3 in Denver, Colorado.


  1. Lawrence Fetterly

    I teach math at TriCounty Technical College, taught high math and science for 12 years and operate a Tutor Service (16 years). I have prepared over 50 students, one on one, to take either the ACt or SAT (including the new one). In my experience, these tests, as administered, do not show students actual college readiness because of the time pressure and the lack of a test preparation process. More and more States are adopting these tests and, valid or not, use the results to make claims about overall student college readiness. A recent research publication by Niclos-Barre and Gill of Mathematica Policy Research shows that the ACT and SAT have lower success at predicting college readiness and success than the MCAT and the PARCC tests. The OECD tests are also a better indicator of our student’s performance. GPA’s have been shown to better predict college performance. Bottom line, ACT’s and SAT’s need to change their time pressure requirements and increase the test time allowed by at least 50%. Note that for a high school junior taking the ACT or SAT, it is likely been close to three years since taking a geometry course. From my experience, students are most likely to struggle with the geometry questions. I believe that our four year colleges are using these tests to select what they may believe is the top 15%. The test scores are too often used to indicate that at least 80% of our students are not college ready; a false claim.
    Thanks for this opportunity to comment, Lawrence Fetterly M Ed

    • Chris Jakicic

      Hi Lawrence, In our work we really emphasize the power of common formative assessments. While we know our students and teachers are being judged by these high stakes tests, we also recognize that we are teachers to make sure students are learning and being prepared for the next steps in their education or career. I appreciate your thoughtful comments about high stakes tests; many classroom teachers would echo your concerns.

  2. Alba

    Thank you for this. I will share this with my team. We have to get started doing this work!

  3. Chris Jakicic

    Hi Alba, This step has become more urgent with remote learning. We need to focus on the most vital standards as we transition back to school. You’re doing the right work for the right time!


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