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Podcast Transcript: A Standards-Based Approach (S1E3)

Welcome to the EXPLORING THE CORE PODCAST, where we delve into the elements that make up our education system and learn more about how that system can improve for the benefit of all students in schools today.

I'm Greg Mullen, and in this episode... I talk about **how** teachers can use a standards-based approach to improving student academic learning.

I'll also be talking to Karin Hess out of Vermont, a leader in Standards-Based Grading and Assessments, about her thoughts on where things are, where we’re headed, and the challenges we face as more schools adopt a standards-based approach to academic learning.

Thank you for listening, I hope you enjoy the show.


In a previous episode, I talked about the purpose for academic standards in our system of education. In this episode, I want to highlight exactly how academic standards can be applied for teachers to improve academic growth in their students. In order for this to happen, we have to know that we’re addressing a significant change in how we approach grading practices that impact instruction and assessment.

This first step being introduced in this episode is part of a larger shift that we must recognize as more than just a grading policy. This standards-based approach will change the way we address what skills, which plans, how we motivate, and create the incentives involved in teaching and learning. The prospect of such change in any organization big or small begins with one word: WHY. Now I speak to this idea in a later episode but for now let’s recognize that an organization, a school, a teacher’s classroom, or even a student’s perspective toward the world, without a strong WHY behind the desire to change, will more likely fall into varying states and degrees of confusion and pushback. This will come in to play when I address SEL Frameworks as schools look to apply a standards-based approach to social and emotional learning. For now, let’s focus on how to apply a standards-based approach to the academic content we are already trained to teach. So in this episode, I want to make sure we’re clear on the fact that the role academic standards mentioned in a prior episode is now going to be applied in ways that might challenge some traditional practices.

And one more quick disclaimer: With so many teachers of different content areas and different grade levels, it would be impossible for me to address only the standards one teacher is needing to know how to use this week. Instead, as you’re listening, consider that the idea of applying standards doesn’t depend entirely on your specific content area or grade level. The trick here will be to understand how standards are written and aligned across grade levels.

Sorry, one last thing, and many of you might initially disagree with me on this, but I believe it’s possible... for teachers today... to track student growth of every skill, for every student, every day... it’s possible. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but I’m asking you to take a leap of faith here, that our own mastery of how academic standards develop in and across grade levels is the first critical piece in making that possible.

So let’s jump in. For sake of time, I’ll be working through a standard in English Language Arts, and then one in Mathematics, both out of the Common Core State Standards. My hope is that the approach provided will give support for other grade levels in any content area using any state’s academic standards.

When it comes to English Language Arts, or ELA, theme is definitely one of the bigger skills that gets addressed in all k-12 grade levels. In the common core standards, this skill is denoted in the RL domain which standards for “Reading Literature”. There’s also a similar RI domain which is “Reading Informational” and many of the standards are mirrored between these two domains, but don’t let that confuse you. The expectations for both are different based on the type of texts students are expected to read.

The topic of Theme in Literature is the second standard in the RL domain, and is the second standard for every grade level in this domain across all K-12 grade levels. So in fifth grade the skill is assigned the code RL.5.2 while this skill in third grade is assigned the code RL.3.2 - pretty straight forward. Now if this isn’t a grade level you teach, I want to restate that my hope in this episode is for you to see how connecting skills across grade levels, based on a state’s standards, will help you strengthen student academic growth.

RL.5.2 states that students will “determine a theme”... of a story, drama, or poem... from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic, as a summary of the text. So before we start planning lessons for this particular standard, let’s look at the standard for theme in grade 3 - standard RL.3.2, which states that students will “recount stories”... including fables, folktales, myths from other cultures… but then also “determine the central message, lesson, or moral”... explaining how the message is conveyed through details in the text. Third and Fifth graders are both expected to be able to determine the central message, or theme, of a story. That’s typically done in one or two sentences, so for fifth grade it’s going to be that summary of specific text evidence that’s the difference-maker here. Otherwise, the skill between these two grade level standards are focused pretty much on the same expectation.

This helps in how you set expectations for those fifth-graders and adjust your feedback for students. Assessing skills in ELA can be tricky and, for this example, let’s use a 4-point grading scale, where ‘3’ is Proficient, and ‘4’ is simply the addition of added complexity to what is already considered proficient. I talk more about grading scales in my book.

In cases where a fifth-grade student is able to write what the message of a story is generally about, I’ll likely give them a 1 out of 4 because the goal of RL.5.2 is not only to determine that central message but give very specific details about the story’s characters responding to events in the story. Had this same work been submitted in a third grade classroom, I would have given the student a ‘2’ since RL.3.2 is about recounting stories, determining the central message, and providing some supporting details of that central message.

What this cross-grade-level perspective does is provide you, the teacher, concrete evidence that supports your grading scales based on how that skill is meant to develop based on the standards.

Let’s peek at the same skill in eighth-grade, RL.8.2 which states that students will “determine a theme or central idea”... and analyze its development… over the course of the text… but now the student must include the theme’s relationship to the characters, setting, and plot... and of course include this all in an objective summary of the text. This is now three years ahead of the fifth-grade standard and the big difference here is not whether they can determine a theme… it’s how well they analyze that theme’s development from start to finish... with specific evidence for how that theme connects specifically with the story’s characters, its setting, its plot, all of which will likely require multiple paragraphs to present that much evidence.

So in fifth grade, students with a clear understanding of their third grade academic expectations will likely be ready to dig in to interesting stories and want less to do with picking the right theme from a list of choices, and be more interested in digging in and talking about how characters are responding to what’s happening in stories.

Knowing this about how theme is being taught in and across grade levels allows you as the teacher to provide feedback to each student as they read the stories they find interesting. You can then ask meaningful questions about how the characters are interacting with the events in the story. When you get evidence of that thought process from students, regardless of the texts they are reading, then you can provide a reasonably supported mark in a gradebook for standard RL.5.2 - this communicates how well a student is able to determine a theme with an increasingly complex amount of relevant evidence.

In math, the common core standards are not as easily connected across grade levels, partly because skills in this content area are so inherently interwoven that teasing them out into specific grade-level domains and clusters is an incredibly challenging task. This also means the codes that define each standard are nearly impossible to connect across grade levels. This is the most striking difference between the common core ELA and Math standards. In fact, this was the biggest reason why I developed my app the way I did, illustrating skills that develop across grade levels, tagging the specific standards to each grade-level illustration. I want users using this app to simply swipe up and down and see all the skills in a grade level, and swipe right and left to see those skills develop across grade levels, all the while referencing specific standards for each skill. If you’re interested, the app is called Exploring the Core and is available for android devices on GooglePlay and for iOS devices on the AppStore.

Now when I’m talking about math standards, the example I most like using is how to connect the Fractions domain in grades three through five. This is because they not only connect within its own domain but is also a great example of how skills can connect different domains across grade levels. My hope is that this example will inspire you to begin studying whatever content standards you need to teach for what I’d like teachers to consider is a “teacher level” of standards mastery.

I want to start with Grade 3 because this is when the word fraction first appears in the common core state standards. The fraction standards in third grade are focused on conceptual understanding of what a fraction is. Students don’t multiply fractions until grade four or divide fractions until grade five, and even then it’s very conceptual and less procedural (for the most part). In fact, the words add and multiply don’t appear in the Grade 3 Fraction standards at all. Instead, for example, one of the standards states that students are expected to understand a fraction as a number on the number line and represent fractions on a number line diagram. Many third-graders are generally ready to approach this concept in a variety of ways but there are often a few that struggle with these ideas. Because there are no fraction standards in second grade, it’s difficult to know how to identify a particular gap to help support students with these new concepts. However, standards in the Geometry domain specifically focus on splitting different shapes into parts. In second grade, students are expected to use words like “halves” and “fourths” when splitting squares and circles into same-size pieces. Those standards specifically are 2.G.2 and 2.G.3. Then in third grade, the geometry standard 3.G.2 has students assign actual fractions to those partitioned shapes. So even though the domain of fractions begins in third grade, students are introduced to the ideas behind fractions in the Geometry domain as early as Kindergarten with standards like K.G.6 where they learn to use small shapes like putting two little triangles together to make a square.

This kind of skill alignment across grade levels will improve instruction and assessment of such a third grade fraction standard. When you begin defining what is proficient, and you look at your assessments for these specific standards, you’ll need to consider whether it’s more important that your students communicate a rationale for that understanding or if answering a multiple-choice quiz gets you what you need.

For example, a student may be asked on an assessment about a dot marked on a number line at the ⅓ mark even though it is listed on the multiple-choice quiz as 2 out of 6. I’ve seen this type of question on student assessments and always struggle with them because the the specific skill being assessed is very difficult to identify. Even if the student answers correctly, there’s a chance the equivalence is recognized but not understood. This will matter in fourth grade when they are introduced to adding unlike denominators by finding the LCD through a process of comparing equivalent fractions. It is for the benefit of all teachers and the student that the student be taught to communicate the concept behind how these skills develop. It hopefully won’t be a surprise when I say that this depth of demand for assessing student understanding will impact your instructional approach. Your own ability to connect skills in and across grade levels, and even across domains, will strengthen your ability to adapt your assessments so they more accurately reflect what you are expecting you students to know.

What the standards are doing here is allowing teachers to do what they intuitively know they have to do to help a student learn a skill by reviewing a student’s prior knowledge and connecting that to current academic expectations; but we are now doing so with an intention that allows us to reflect and record exactly which skills our students have mastered, identify where in that skill’s development students are stuck, so that students, their teachers, and their families can help them work through related skills that may additionally support concepts behind what they’re learning.

It’s so tempting to simply give a student a memorization trick for answering a particular type of assessment question, and then mark that skill off as mastered; but I argue that a standards-based approach can give students and teachers the ownership and freedom to put a pin in a particular concept or skill and be able to intentionally go back and strengthen those concepts because of the organized framework used to track that learning. The more we recognize how skills develop in and across grade levels, the more we can help students and families recognize how skills are developing so that the intuitive learning taking place can be identified and tracked by the teacher, and even by the students themselves, but that gets me into supporting self-directed learning that I speak about at a later time. For this episode, know that teacher mastery of standards is the first step towards such an environment, because without that mastery of standards-based skill development, it becomes too much for one person to assume the responsibility for all student learning and continuously identify student learning taking place all at different levels at all times of day. I’m excited to eventually speak to that shift of placing the ownership of learning into the hands of your students, but for now, let’s help each other develop this mastery of skill development for the varying grade level skills entering our classrooms.

After listening to this episode, I hope many of you are at least a little bit convinced that standards can be applied in ways that improve academic growth in students. I also hope that even more of you are convinced that it is at least possible for teachers to efficiently and effectively track student academic growth with a standards-based approach.

Please listen to the following phone call with an amazing educator and leader in assessment design. I hope you enjoy our chat and I thank you for listening to the program.

Interview: Karin Hess

Mullen: My interview today is with Karin Hess, a recognized international leader in developing practical approaches for using “Cognitive Rigor” and “Learning Progressions” as the foundation for developing performance assessments. She’s a curriculum and assessment expert in multiple content areas, was co-leader in the development of the SBAC content specifications for the assessments of Common Core in ELA and Mathematics. A classroom teacher for 15 years, a building principal, district curriculum director, and state director of gifted education for New Jersey. Dr. Hess joins us today from her home in Vermont.

Mullen: What is your opinion on the phrase “Standards-Based Grading”, its place in education, and its relevance to your work?

Hess: SBG implies you are assessing specific content and knowledge… and shouldn’t be averaging a lot of different content and coming up with a grade. All the leaders have been clear - you shouldn’t be assessing behavior like late homework with a grade, you should be assessing whether students know their math facts or can write an essay. That’s a huge shift! When I was a building principal, we shifted to a SB report card, and that’s not an easy shift because you have to start looking at your assessments in terms of which standards are being assessed and to what depth. It’ a small phrase but it has a lot of change embedded in how its implemented. I often refer to traditional grading, what i was doing when i started teaching, where you took some of the teachers tests, average the grade, and you got a letter grade or percent on your report card. Then the shift goes to standards based, you start to pay attention to which standards are assessed with which assessments and then how much evidence do you have that a student has met the goals of that assessment. A problem in the beginning was, that you could assess the standard once, the student did well, and you said they mastered that standard. We know that wasn’t true - if that were true, sports teams who could show that they could pass a ball, they’ll do it perfectly because you’ve mastered it, but there are a lot of conditions on how you pass a ball, when you pass a ball, so I think with the standards-based being what you have to learn, it’s how do you have to demonstrate it. That leads us to multiple opportunities. Now with schools that are now moving towards a competency-based system, they’re not talking about “you’ve mastered a standard for editing sentences”, they’re saying “you’ve mastered a broader learning goal about learning to write and communicate, and one things you can do within that is edit your work, you can also develop ideas, you can also develop a theme throughout that writing, so often competency and competency-based systems are assessing multiple standards with complex tasks. So you can report on multiple standards and report on them individually or you can move towards bundles of standards or prioritized standards that comprise larger more complex tasks. In mathematics, it might be the math content along with a mathematical practice such as the ability to develop an argument. So in competency-based, you want to have enough evidence, that kids have done this enough times… a school can say “we have this rule of 4, or rule of 5, you have to show it at least five times for us to say you’ve mastered that standard or you’ve mastered that competency.

Mullen: Now would that be five of the same assessment or would that be finding five different ways to show that competency?

Hess: Often, it’s not five of the same. It might be two of the same, but the idea of multiple opportunities to show what you know usually means… I was just reading an article in the science classroom, those students are demonstrating what they know through their lab reports, through their written tests, through an oral report, so there are multiple ways that they’re showing understanding of the same standard - actually, that’s what we call “transfer” where they can use it in more than one context.

Mullen: So a question to a school that is standards-based could be, how do you handle competency in your standards-based approach?

Hess: Right, because you could be standards-based and not be a competency-based school, but it’s very hard to be a competency-based school without having standards-based assessments embedded in your system.

Mullen: is that because, do you think, because of the popularity of standards-based grading and schools wanting to be part of that movement and advancing and improving education without fully understanding how deep being standards-based can get?

Hess: I think it’s actually what you said. It sounds like it makes sense, we’re using standards, we’re teaching the standards, we’re teaching to standards, so standards-based grading sounds like what we should be doing. I call that the first big shift, in grading, is that you have to stop just giving extra credit - you know it would drive me crazy when I was teaching, kids wouldn’t do homework but they would want to do extra credit and I would say look at that list of assignments, I’ll settle for those that you didn’t hand in yet - so standards-based grading is “ok, you didn’t do that, but you have to do something else comparable to the assignment to show me that you know” so that’s a little bit of a shift, you can’t just do something different or draw a picture of something and get credit for it - good handwriting doesn’t make up for a bad book report. A school has to be really thoughtful and I think the first thing they have to look at with standards-based grading is, are they still using a hundred-point scale to determine a percent? Because that’s a scale where 60 of the points describe failure and 40 of the points describe some learning is taking place. That is not fair, kids start out slowly… and I’ve worked with schools that don’t want to let go of those percents because that’s what they’ve been doing. There are ways to shift and I know in your book you talk about some of those other options but that’s an unfair system where if you start out the year poorly you can’t ever dig out of that hole. The second is don’t include behaviors. If you want to grade behaviors, a lot of schools I work with have a competency, a standard for study habits or class participation. You can give grades for those but it just shouldn’t reflect what you know about mathematics or social studies or art. The other piece that I would say is, when you report on standards, some schools end up with report cards that are twelve pages long because they feel like every standard needs a report, needs evidence - that’s like almost impossible to track. Again, if you can think of a way to create categories in reading or in mathematics… an example in mathematics would be standards that address mathematical procedures. You can report on standard assessments you’ve given throughout the year where they’re performing calculations and doing routine operations. You can have another category for conceptual understanding, and a third for problem solving. The problem solving is the one that pushes the application of the mathematics you’re learning to a little bit higher level, more complex level - can you really use these skills? Not only can you pass a ball, and dribble a ball, but actually play the game and apply those skills.

Mullen: I have this feeling that we’re going to see in the next decade a new generation of standards that are even more impressive and more realistic than what we have today. I think there’s going to be a next version of the common core state standards being developed as we learn more about these. What do you think?

Hess: I actually agree, I think if you look at where did our standards come from, they come from a time where every teacher set their own standards and sometimes that meant different standards for different kids. So it was an equity issue who’s getting the right program and who’s getting the watered-down program. Then we went to standards and every state created their own, and I worked with a lot of states, and in some ways they were similar and other ways they were very different. That’s because people were paying attention to what you had to learn but not how you would demonstrate that learning. Was it math facts? Or was it math facts and problem solving?

Mullen: ...the distinction must be made that cognitive rigor is different than rigor. Would you please share a little bit about that distinction?

Hess: Sure, and as a matter of fact in my workshop I actually have a slide for this. If you looked up the word rigor, you would see words like rigid, inflexible, difficult, hard - something that’s just hard to do. A big interpretation when the common core came out was we just have to make kids do harder work, read more books, but not necessarily get them to think. Cognitive rigor is almost the opposite of that, it’s flexible thinking, it’s seeing multiple perspectives, multiple possible solutions, and that is actually a real skill that they will need in the future. Whether it be going to the next grade level, or going on to a career or college. Cognitive rigor is: can you think flexibly? can you carry the cognitive demands of the task in your head and figure out what to do, how to do it, and reflect on that learning. That’s very different than just giving you something hard to do. I’m very specific when I talk about it and say it’s a Cognitive Rigor Matrix. You can go deep in understanding, you can go deep in the way you apply information. It can also be a kind of analysis, synthesis, or creative, productive thinking. They might not go deep so that’s why I did the integration of Bloom and Webb because I felt that one model says how you’re thinking and the other says how deeply you have to go into the content to perform a task.

Mullen: I’d really love to hear where this idea came from, what brought you to putting those pieces together, and the initial impact of that work.

Hess: I was working for a company supported states in developing their own state standards. I call that BCC, before common core. Before the common core, every state was developing standards and most states would use bloom’s taxonomy to describe what the students were doing at each grade level. I was working with a state committee in 2003 / 2004, and I suggested to them, because I had come across Webb’s work and this work was only really being used in alignment studies. Testing companies were familiar with it but nobody else was using it, classroom teachers were not using it. When I started to use and design alignment studies, I was looking at test items through the lens of DOK, because it was more consistent for interpretation. You could see the world apply or analyze in test questions and nobody could agree on what was really being asked so I was saying to this group of teachers, this state level committee, I think we need to shift from bloom and use webb. They said to me, Karin, I think they are just two ways of saying the same thing. I thought, “they’re not!” but I don’t have a way to articulate it. So literally flying back on the plane from that state I started to just play with the idea of a matrix. What I was really trying to prove was that the higher level of bloom were not necessarily deep thinking - that was my thesis. I thought if I could describe depth of knowledge [level] one for every level of bloom I could prove my point. I was developing an argument! That’s where it hit me. The matrix was the best way to show that you could have analysis light, or analysis deep. Evaluation light, which I call an “ug” - an unsubstantial generalization, an opinion that has no support for it, which is something I had a professor write on our papers and handed them back, and if we made claims and didn’t support them, he called them “ugs”. Kids understand an “ug”! When they say this is the answer and you say how do you know? When they say they don’t know, well that’s an “ug”, you have to support your thinking, you have to show me how you got your answer. Very quickly, even kindergarten students can start to say, this is how I did it. This is my counting strategy. This is how I put it together. This is another way this might be used. It doesn’t take long if teachers have the language to say “show me how you know”, “how did you do that”, and “why did you do it that way”. I was going to take bloom’s taxonomy off of the matrix because then I had a great matrix and somebody, a teacher in New York, said to me that this is really helpful for people using blooms because now they have an entry point. I left it and I’m glad I did. I don’t think bloom’s taxonomy works for every content area, I use something different for the arts, for health and phys. Ed., because i felt the bloom’s taxonomy wasn’t a good integration with webb, but they all are set up in a similar way to look at how deeply you have to interact with content.

Mullen:’s hard for adults to communicate, in complicated ways, about simple ideas - there doesn’t seem to be a value in doing that.

Hess: Right, because they should know this, let’s go on. As a matter of fact, I often say when you introduce problem solving, introduce problem solving with content students have mastered. They understand how to work with fractions - now give them a problem solving with fractions so they’re not struggling with learning about fractions and problem solving with fractions, they’re learning how to solve problems.

Mullen: ...are there any upcoming events or new publications in the works that listeners can look for in the future?

Hess: Sure, I’ll mention three things. I have a website - I’m thrilled that so many people visit the website. There’s lot of resources posted there. I have a book that came out in 2018, The Local Assessment Toolkit, which is an in-depth understanding of how to apply cognitive rigor, instruction, and assessment. That’s published by Corwin. I have a new book coming out after the first of the year, it’s Shifts in Education for Competency-Based Learning which again applied Depth of Knowledge to a competency-based system. My co-authors and I talk about evidence-based grading and how you build a student’s body of evidence so you have a compelling argument through what you’re trying to build. I will be presenting at the Plain Talk About Literacy conference in January, in New Orleans, that’s the presentation coming up fairly soon. I tend to work more directly with districts or clusters of districts but in 2020 if you come to my website, you’ll be able to see any other workshops where I might be presenting something at a national conference.

Mullen: That’s fantastic and I’m sure listeners are going to be heading out to find out more about your work, because it’s going to continue to be pivotal and I’m excited that you were on the program and able to speak to us about that. Thank you so much.

Hess: Thank you.

[End Interview]

Mullen: Hello listeners! If you enjoyed the show, you are encouraged to support the program by going online to - not only can you get early access to each episode, but also bonus episodes, exclusive content, gifts, discounts, and even receive a thank you shout-out personally from me in an episode. And if you haven’t already, you can order my book, Creating a Self-Directed Learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning, available online at Amazon and Of course, you can learn more about me and my work at Again, thank you for listening. I’ll talk to you next time.

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