Anthony Reibel hails from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Illinois and is the current assistant principal for teaching and learning. Anthony is also coauthor of several books: Proficiency-Based Assessment, Proficiency-Based Instruction, Proficiency-Based Grading in the Content Areas, and Pathways to Proficiency which explore the relationship between proficiency, pedagogy, and evidence-based grading.

Is Your ‘Standard’ Really a Standard?

We, more often than not, define the term “standard” as “something someone needs to know or be able to do.” We use this definition to develop curriculum, create assessments, plan instruction, and provide feedback to students and parents. No one can be sure when we started subscribing to this definition; however, we do know it is in direct opposition to the dictionary’s definition. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a standard as ”something set up as a rule for the measure of quality.” So, which is it?

In this brief article, I argue that the dictionary has it right. Further, I assert that it is our responsibility as educators to align our pedagogical practices to the dictionary meaning to ensure that our standards are, in fact, standards.

Implications on the Learning Experience

Although some educators may find this point to be trivial, an improper perspective of what a standard is can potentially have a negative impact on a student’s learning experience.

To this end, when we define a standard as something one needs to know or do, students tend to see learning as the accumulation of knowledge instead of the demonstration of knowledge. This interpretation can lead students to imitate teacher exemplars, rely on short-term memorization to pass exams, or use a laundry list approach to completing tasks.

Further, if we define a standard as a rule for a level of quality, we can help students see that all tasks, performances, or understandings have a level of quality. This interpretation of a standard enables students to consider their abilities in context as well as reflect more accurately on their performances. Without this consideration, some students may assume they are better, or worse, at the material than they are. When students make assumptions about their learning, it can lead to unfavorable academic behaviors, such as inadequately preparing for performances, disregarding feedback, or rationalizing deficiencies as inconsequential.

Steps Educators Can Make to Ensure their Standards are Standards

For some of you, this may be a significant shift in mindset, leaving you wondering what to do now. In this next section, I offer up several ideas about how you can ensure that you are using standards properly.

Learn How to Spot a Fake Standard

The first step in using standards correctly is learning how to spot a fake. If we respect the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, a phrase like (a)“I can write, solve, and analyze linear equations in one variable problem” should not be considered a standard, since it does not speak to any level of quality or attainment. It merely outlines what the student is to do.

The following statement, (b)“I can effectively write, solve, and analyze equations in simple mathematical contexts,” should be considered a standard since it better speaks to a level of attainment. The words effectively and simple describe how well a student is to perform. The removed terms, linear and one variable, should now serve as criteria for meeting the standard—and not the standard itself. Also, the omission of content-based language, like linear and one-variable, increases the likelihood that a student interprets the standard as a level of attainment.

Review State and National Standards Carefully

Unfortunately, these “fake” standards are more common than we might think. Although some state and national organizations do an excellent job of presenting standards as statements of a level of quality, some continue to promote standards that are similar to example (a) above. When these organizations do this, it perpetuates the narrative that standards are the stuff that students need to know and be able to do. You can see this false narrative playing out in the following “standards” (via Common Core State Standards 2019).

  • 7.SP.LT2—Find probabilities of compound events using organized lists, tables, tree diagrams, and simulation.
  • 7.G.LT2—I can determine what conditions determine a unique triangle or no triangle.
  • 8.G.LT2—Write and solve simple equations for an unknown angle in a figure using facts about supplementary, complementary, vertical, adjacent, and angle sum and exterior angle of triangles.
  • 8.G.LT3—Describe and demonstrate the effect of dilations, translations, rotations, and reflections on two-dimensional figures using coordinates.

These “standards” do not describe a level of attainment or quality but instead outline what a student must know or do.

Write Standards to Answer the Question: How Well?

If a student or a teacher must presume a level of quality, then the standard should be rewritten. If this is the case, then we should consider rewriting our standards similar to example (b) so that they outline not only what we want students to know and be able to do, but also how well that we want them to do it.

To help a standard better communicate the “how well” of learning, we should include qualifying language such as “productively,” “essential,” or “adequate” when writing standards. In other words, we should include less task and topic language when writing standards, and instead, use more proficiency language. Take this standard for example, “I can effectively write a viable argument with sufficient evidence.” In this standard, the words effectively, viable, and sufficient help indicate how well the student is to write the argument. They are in line with the dictionary meaning. Terms like these encourage teachers and students to discuss the level of evidence that the student should produce to show that they have mastered the material. In sum, we should include less task and topic language when writing standards, and instead, use more proficiency language.

Remove Content-based Language

If we can’t add words to our standards, then we should aim to remove all content-based language from our standards. Content knowledge is merely a tool to achieve a level of quality of skill or understanding (Schimmer, 2016), and content-based words should be removed and repurposed as success criteria (Brookhart & Moss, 2012). That is, the criteria that a student is required to use to achieve a desired level of mastery. It is important to note that teachers still need to discuss what success criteria (content and prerequisite skills) are available to students to build their proficiency.

Use One Verb per Standard

Lastly, standards should only include one verb. When we include more than one verb, the level of quality becomes less clear. In examples (a) and (b), we see many verbs: “write,” “solve,” and “analyze.” We can make example (b) even more aligned to the dictionary meaning by using only the verb that we want to ultimately evaluate. For instance: “I can effectively analyze equations in any mathematical context.” The removed verbs, “write” and “solve,” should now act as success criteria for the verb “analyze.” When teachers write standards with a single verb, students can better understand what the teacher expects of them, instead of guessing which verb matters most.

Going forward, I believe it is our responsibility to align the word “standard” to the dictionary meaning to evaluate our curriculum with fidelity, communicate learning expectations more effectively, and provide learning experiences that are more genuine and contextualized.


Moss, C. M., Brookhart, S. M. (2012). Learning targets: Helping students aim for understanding in today’s lesson. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Schimmer, T. (2016). Grading From the Inside Out: Bringing Accuracy to Student Assessment Through a Standards-Based Mindset. Solution Tree Press. Bloomington, IN


  1. Lauren Ellisor

    Mr. Reibel,
    Thank you for writing this article! I found that it provides much clarity for teachers and administrators to identify essential and true standards and how to communicate those targets with students. I wonder, do you have a suggested approach which guides teachers to determine which state standards are true standards and essential to the students’ learning within a unit? – Thanks, Lauren Ellisor


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