Academic Standards: Three Parts, Not One

By Catherine Gewertz — November 02, 2011 2 min read
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If had a dime for every time I, or someone I know, uttered the word “standards,” I’d be so far beyond worrying about my kids’ college tuition that it’s not even funny. We talk about standards, and talk, and talk, and talk. But we don’t often take the idea apart and think about what it means.

Curriculum consultant and professional development guru Grant Wiggins takes it apart his way today. In a post on his blog, Wiggins offers the idea that a standard has three parts: content (what students should know), process (the skills students must have), and performance (how, and how well, they must be able to do what’s being asked of them).

To convert Wiggins’ example to an activity near and dear to my heart, if I were held to a pie-making standard, I’d have to know about the history of pies, what ingredients go into making them, and such. I’d also have to know how, technically, to make some good fillings, make and roll out the dough, put it all together, and bake it properly. But I’d also have to be held to some kind of performance standard; it’s all well and good to make a mediocre lemon meringue, for instance. But to make a really good one—one that might be worthy of being in demand—I need to do far better than that.

But how much better?

This is where Wiggins’ third part gets interesting. Because most people understand that a standard includes content and skills; we’ve heard the phrase “what students must know and be able to do” a gazillion times. But the third part? Most people tend to think of performance as measured by summative tests. Wiggins, however, contends that exemplars play a pivotal role in defining standards. Without good illustrations of how well students should be expected to do something, it’s pretty tough to design curriculum and instruction to get them there.

The exemplars must be chosen to reflect “wider-world valid standards of performance,” Wiggins writes. It makes sense. We often do this unselfconsciously. When I want to know what a really, really good sour cherry pie looks and tastes like—when I want to hold myself to that standard—I go looking on the Internet, in cookbooks, in restaurants. I ask friends about the best cherry pies they’ve ever had. I combine all of that into an approach that I hope rivals a “wider-world valid standard of performance.”

The exemplars, then, can form the “anchor” of a performance assessment to determine how well a student has learned all three parts of a standard, Wiggins says. But exemplars have to have two aspects, he writes: they have to embody the right task for the knowledge being probed, and they have to illustrate a high enough level of performance to suggest proficiency. Figuring out how to do that is tricky, Wiggins says, and something he plans to dig into in his next blog post.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.