There is a fundamental flaw with standards that nobody wants to discuss. The fact is standards are based on the assumption that all students begin the year at the same starting point and develop at a uniform pace. Yet, that’s never been the case in my 17 years as a teacher. Instead, we should recognize developmental stages, celebrate successes and inspire students to keep climbing.
But standards and grades have the opposite influence. We’ve established these universal benchmarks and then create unnecessary anxiety when students fall short. It is simply unreasonable to expect students will have the same abilities simply because they are are the same age. That’s not how human development works. There are a variety of variables that influence growth and achievement, many of which are outside the school’s domain.
If I was a snowboard instructor, rather than a teacher, would I group students by ability or age? Would it be reasonable to create a standard that all 10-year olds should successfully attain by the end of the season? If so, what would that mean for those students who were already proficient in snowboarding at the outset? Moreover, would it be reasonable to evaluate my performance based on their continued success?
Spending 50% of classroom time teaching standards only makes sense for 50% of the class. The bottom quartile likely needs differentiated instruction that is below grade level standards. At the same time, the upper quartile may be ready for accelerated learning opportunities. Teaching students skills and concepts that are too easy or too hard isn’t relevant to anyone. That’s why it’s our job to know what students need and meet them where they are.
Standards are utilitarian milestones that help measure human development relative to average growth rates. But that’s all they all. We should not freak out when students struggle with skill development. In fact, it’s completely normal and should be expected. After all, on a normal bell curve, half the population will always perform below the 50th percentile. We can either demoralize them by pointing out they are below standard, or celebrate the growth they have made.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be standards. Rather, it means it’s naive to sort students by age and expect they will all develop at a uniform pace. Like with snowboarding, or any skill for that matter, some students enter the year having mastered grade level skills already. Meanwhile, others may be practicing for the very first time. If we’re not going to sort students by ability (and I’m not suggesting we should), our adherence to standards will only yield mediocre results at best.