SAVE THE DATE!  JFYNetWorks at MassCUE 2024 Fall Conference, Oct. 16-17th, Gillette Stadium

Teaching to the standards or teaching to the test? 

Teaching to the standards or teaching to the test?

by Joan Reissman

A longstanding argument that misses the point

Teaching to grade level standards has become a very controversial topic. That’s because many people take a simplistic view, while others complicate and confuse the issue.  In this essay I’ll explore the most prevalent confusion: the difference between grade level standards and performance ratings based on test scores.

Teaching to performance standards doesn’t have to mean “teaching to the test.”  As JFY’s resident MCAS Maven, I would not advise ignoring topics that are likely to appear on the test.  Since every question on MCAS is derived directly from the state curriculum standards,  eliminating tested topics would require totally ignoring the state standards. But teaching the standards need not mean teaching only to the test.  Using JFY’s software allows teachers to spark interest, achieve differentiation, and customize learning so that students can reach grade level standards. And since our online curriculum is aligned to the state standards, the class is covering material that will be on the MCAS test.

Is teaching to grade level standards the same as performance ratings? No. Standards are not the same as ratings. The purpose of academic standards for a grade is goal setting.  Performance ratings on standards-based tests are intended to measure to what degree students have mastered the content and skills outlined in the academic standards. Ratings tell teachers where students need help. Without such measurements, there is no way to identify and fill gaps.

Is there any connection between academic curriculum standards and performance ratings? Yes.  Performance ratings show whether students have mastered the academic standards in their grade. Standards set expectations. Educators worry about student performance ratings on standards-based tests because schools are evaluated according to the scores. But JFY can help.  Our software allows teachers to teach grade level standards and differentiate instruction for students who need extra support. Although some educators feel that standards put unnecessary pressure on everyone, effective teaching will help students experience growth and improve academic mastery, and therefore boost performance results. Teaching grade level standards is about mastering concepts and skills.   Deeper measures like student growth over time can be another useful indicator of actual progress.

Here  are some basic tips for helping students master grade level standards. First, as a teacher you must be thoroughly familiar with the standards so that you can plan your lessons. Pick readings and exercises that will engage your students. Make sure your curriculum addresses the required standards for your grade with content that is appropriate for each student. This is easy to do in English.  JFY’s software automatically differentiates material by Lexile level so that students can be working on the same text with vocabulary and grammar geared to each student’s individual competency.  Pick reading assignments that will engage students.

Let’s take an example from JFY’s reading comp software:  “Freedom Libraries.”  This piece is an inspiring story about Reginald Dwayne Betts who was sentenced to  9 years in prison at age 16. One day he was put in solitary confinement and screamed for a book.  A guard slipped a book of poetry into his cell. Reading poems opened a whole new world of inspiration. When Betts was paroled, he went back to school.  He got two college degrees and then earned a law degree from Yale. He founded an organization called Freedom Reads. Betts’s organization has set up libraries in over 1000 prisons.


If you set the Lexile level of a passage at  400 (2nd grade), the student only has to answer 4 questions:  on main ideas, purpose, evidence, and context clues.  The passage is shorter and the vocabulary is appropriate for the student’s reading level. If you set the Lexile level to 10th grade (1280),  students who read at that level will see a longer passage with 8 questions, including main idea, author’s purpose, antonyms, sequence, context clues, evidence, inferences, and reference sources. You can see that the higher Lexile passage requires more skills. In both passages, students are tested on similar skills but at the appropriate level for their individual competency.

There are various ways to use differentiation.  You can group students with similar skill levels to encourage discussion. Students are generally more comfortable working in small groups. They don’t feel intimidated by their higher-skilled peers when discussing in a group what they have learned. Encouraging growth through skill practice helps students make gains. You can select interesting content that focuses on specific skills, and empower students to discuss their ideas in a group. They don’t even need to know they are working on curriculum standards. You can give them a choice of another reading after they have finished the main one so that they feel they have some agency in their learning path. You can also foster creativity by having students use programs such as Flip (formerly Flipgrid)  and Padlet (see example below).

Foser creativity with Flipgrid and Padlet

You can use similar strategies in math.  Some of our software’s embedded text books have alignment documents that provide a crosswalk between upper grade level standards and those taught in earlier grades. JFY also provides detailed assessments for each grade so that you will know where your students stand and be able to group them.  Our analysis will help you decide how to group students.

The debate surrounding grade level standards has generated conflicting perspectives and clashing misconceptions. It’s crucial to recognize that grade level standards are not the enemy of learning. On the contrary, they provide essential milestones for scaffolding student development and progress. The distinction between academic standards and performance ratings is fundamental.  Standards are used to set educational goals.  Ratings are the measurement of how those goals have been met.

The higher goal is to empower students to achieve growth in knowledge and skills. Grade level standards are the road map to those skills. Performance results on standards-based tests are the measurement of progress along the map. By fostering a supportive and inclusive learning environment, educators can guide students toward the intertwined goals of mastering grade level standards and passing benchmark tests by fostering a love of learning that extends immeasurably beyond both standards and tests.

Joan Reissman is a JFYNetWorks blended learning specialist and resident MCAS maven.

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) via for individual images used to build the Padlet above.

Other posts authored by Joan can be found here.

HOW ARE WE DOING? In our pursuit to serve up content that matters to you, we ask that you take a couple of minutes to let us know how we’re doing? Please click here to be navigated to our JFYNet Satisfaction Survey. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts

BLOG POST Categories