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Standards, curriculum, and testing are not synonyms

Standards – “the what”

A set of standards is a list of objectives that students are to be taught; I like to think of this as the “what” we are teaching. For 43 states, the standards schools use are the Common Core State Standards. Standards exist for reading, writing, and math in the Common Core. There are various standards that are used for science and social studies content, such as the Next Generation Science Standards, or specifically in North Carolina, the North Carolina Essential Standards.

Curriculum – “the how”

Curriculums vary by state, district, school, and sometimes even teacher. This is the “how” we teach the “what.” Curriculum can come pre-packaged, like stand-alone math programs such as Investigations or eNvisions. These curricular programs already have lessons written in them and a scope and sequence for how/when the lessons should be taught. Curriculum can also be written and developed by teachers within the school. Where I teach, I have the opportunity to write integrated curriculum. This means that the way I teach, I pull together literacy standards, science standards, and social studies standards. I use a project-based approach to teaching my curriculum, as well as a blended learning approach. Both of these curricular approaches have been highly successful in my classrooms, and watching students work through integrated curriculum to solve real world problems that are relevant to the standards has been incredible. Regardless of what is used, curriculum takes the standards and distributes them into methods to teach those specific topics.


Testing is not a direct result of standards like the Common Core; testing has been around for much longer than that. In 2002 when President George W. Bush reinstated the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and changed the name to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), we saw a big shift in the testing climate of our schools.

It should be noted that there are many different kinds of tests – there are state-mandated and there are also teacher-based classroom assessments.

  • State assessment examples: End of Grade (EOG) Test in Reading & Mathematics (grades 3-5), EOG Test in Science (grade 5), Beginning of Grade Reading Test (grade 3), End of Course (EOC) tests in English II, Biology, and Algebra II
  • Teacher-based classroom assessments can be one of two types: formative or summative. Formative assessments are check-ins for students to see how they are doing throughout the implementation of a unit. Summative assessments happen at the end of a unit to assess what the student has learned throughout the duration of the unit.

As a teacher, classroom assessments are most helpful as they guide my instructional practice; the state-mandated assessments as they currently exist tell me next to nothing about where a child is at the end of the year and how (s)he can be helped since all the teacher receives after testing is a number denoting pass or fail status.

So if they aren’t the same, how do they go together?

Standards, curriculum, and testing all build off of one another. I like to keep things in order in my classroom by using manila folders with the standards written at the top of each folder.


I teach 3rd grade reading in English at my Spanish dual language immersion elementary school, so my drawer is broken up into three categories: Reading Literature standards (green folders), Reading Informational Text standards (orange folders), and Unit Project/Integrated Curriculum (black folders in the very back). In each of these reading folders, I keep materials I use to teach each standard (this can be everything from activities to formative assessments). In the Unit Project/Integrated Curriculum folders, I keep all of my science and social studies content material. Each of my integrated units is tied to reading standards, so within the reading folders there are reading resources to use based on the science or social studies content standard that is focused on during the Unit Project.

Let’s take a closer look at an example, Reading Informational Text 3.2 – Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.

Upon opening the folder, there are articles and graphic organizers spilling everywhere. In the first photo, you see a current events article I used in small group instruction to continue working toward mastery of the reading standard. Students used a main idea and key details graphic organizer as a formative assessment to check in to see how they felt about working independently on this piece of our reading work.

In the second photo, you see another current events article, but this one was used with the entire class. Part of our Unit Project/Integrated Curriculum had us reading news articles about the solar system, flight, and space exploration. After reading, students came up with discussion points in strategic partnerships so we could have a discussion about the salient points of the article. Students also filled out another graphic organizer (using another representation called the “boxes and bullets” strategy, which is a little more notetaking focused) to assess their mastery of the RI.3.2 standard while reading about science content. This benefited students as they were able to take these reading strategies and apply them elsewhere outside of this unit alone; students were also able to use the information they gleaned from reading the articles in their final Unit Project.

It is important to understand the difference between standards, curriculum, and testing.

We must know how to use these words and concepts appropriately with one another as educators and advocates of the profession so that we can make decisions with what’s best for students and their learning at heart.

Allison Redden

Allison Redden (formerly Stewart) works as an education research analyst with RTI International’s Center for Education Services (CES). A former public school educator in the Triangle, Allison participated in several teacher leadership programs in North Carolina, including the Kenan Fellowship and the Education Policy Fellowship Program. She was the Public School Forum’s Beginning Teacher Leadership Network Coordinator for Wake County before moving to Tennessee to pursue her Master of Public Policy at Vanderbilt, specializing in K-12 Education Policy. She is interested in engaging in conversations and actions to advance equity, while navigating the intersections of education, economics, and policy. Redden is a proud product of North Carolina public schools, from Cabarrus County Schools to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.