Note: This article will appear in the next issue of the ETJ—English Teacher’s Journal

Why have a standards-based curriculum 
and what are the implications for the teaching-learning-assessment process?

by Judy Steiner 

Chief Inspector for English Language Education

Up until now, the Israeli educational system has not included curricula based on standards. However, in July 1998, the Pedagogical Secretariat of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport approved of a standards-based curriculum for the teaching of English in Israeli schools. Since the notion of setting standards is a new concept in Israel, it is important to understand what the significance is of having a national curriculum based on standards and what the implications are for the teaching-learning-assessment process. 

Although the purpose of this article is not to describe the English curriculum, I have included in the appendix the standards for the four domains of language learning (Appendix One) and the standards and benchmarks for one of the domains--social interaction (Appendix Two) -- in order for the reader to have a better understanding of the curriculum that is being referred to. 


 The first issue to be addressed is standards. First, the term is defined. Second, the importance of setting national standards is explained. Third, the advantages and disadvantages of setting standards and how the English curriculum deals with these problems are described. 

Definition of Standards

According to Collins Cobuild dictionary, “a standard is a level of quality or achievement, especially a level that is thought to be acceptable. It is something used to measure or estimate the quality or degree of something, for example, how good a piece of work is” (p. 1421).

In the field of education, standards is a term which defines a cumulative body of knowledge and set of competencies that is the basis for quality education. They express what all pupils should know and be able to do, but do not dictate pedagogy (Ministry of Education, 1998; Ravitch, 1996)

Importance of Having National Standards
Setting national standards allows for equal pupil opportunity. First, all pupils are compared to the same standards. If there are no common standards and every teacher sets his or her own standards, schools’ demands on their pupils will be different. Since there is nothing for schools to compare with, both instruction and assessment cannot be consistent.

Second, if national standards are set, it is clear what pupils should know at different levels of their education. Exams given by the state can measure pupil progress towards attaining the standards. Pupils who are not achieving the standards can be provided with early, effective assistance. 

Advantages of Setting Standards

Setting standards is an important and effective learning tool because they express clear expectations of what all pupils should know and be able to do with the language. They can be helpful to different populations, such as the state, districts and schools, teachers, pupils and parents. The following describes how setting standards can help these different populations (Harris & Carr, 1996).

The state. For the state, standards are a common reference tool and provide a defined framework for national testing. 

Districts and schools. For districts and schools, standards provide a focus for developing new ways to organize curriculum content, instructional programs and assessment plans.

Teachers. Standards help teachers design curriculum, instruction and assessment on the basis of what it is important to learn. They also enable teachers to make expectations clear to pupils, which improves their learning.

Pupils. For pupils, standards set clear performance expectations, helping them understand what they need to do in order to meet the standards.

Parents. Since standards communicate shared expectations for learning, they allow parents to know how their children are progressing in their education.

Disadvantages of Setting Standards in Other Countries and 
How the English Curriculum Deals with These Problems

In America, concerns were raised that setting standards would lead to centralized education and would undermine innovation at the local level. Setting standards was seen as an attempt to centralize a decentralized educational system; defining standards would limit what pupils should learn and would not allow for pupil diversity and the specific needs of different populations (Fiske, 1998).

In Israel, the educational system is already centralized and the standards-based curriculum attempts to partially decentralize it. The curriculum defines what pupils are expected to do at different levels of performance in four areas of language learning: social interaction, access to information, presentation and appreciation of literature,   culture and language. Teachers will now have autonomy to decide how they want to teach in order that their pupils achieve the standards. Teachers are therefore encouraged to become active participants in the development of curriculum materials that follow the principles stated in the curriculum, and that are appropriate for their specific learning populations. 

The standards defined in the English curriculum do not weaken the capacity of our schools or districts to respond to the diversity of their pupil population. The aim of the document is to serve the needs of an increasingly diverse pupil population, while at the same time sustaining high standards of performance demanded in today’s society by employers and universities. 

In some cases, there have been objections by the public regarding the standards that have been defined. For example, the National Center for History in the Schools, at the University of California at Los Angeles, prepared standards for history in collaboration with scholars, teachers and organizations. The standards were not approved, as they were thought to be too politically biased (Ravitch, 1996).

This issue has not been a problem with the English Curriculum. The standards have been approved by the Pedagogical Secretariat in the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, as well as by the English Advisory Committee, which consists of experts in the field of foreign language acquisition.

An additional caveat is that the standards should reflect a high level of achievement, while being realistic and relevant to the context in which they are being taught. In California, for example, the State Board of Education decided to innovate large-scale curriculum change. Instead of working with the regular course sequence of algebra, geometry, etc., they decided to integrate the content of these subjects in a new way. This proposed approach, however, had never been tried anywhere (Evers, 1997). To avoid this problem, the writers of the standards for the English curriculum scrutinized standards set up in different states and countries (Foreign Language Standards, 1998; National Standards in Foreign Language Education; Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, 1996). These standards were then adapted accordingly for the Israeli pupil population. 

The Role Standards Play in the Teaching-Learning-Assessment Process

The second issue describes the role that standards play in the teaching-learning- assessment process. An example of how a standards-based curriculum affects this process will be given.

Standards require a change in both teaching and assessment. Standards and assessment are intertwined and need to be integral parts of the curriculum and the program of instruction. 

In traditional curricula, content matter that pupils are expected to know is determined. It follows that the purpose of testing is to see if the pupils have learned the specific knowledge indicated in the curriculum. Recent approaches to how pupils learn have changed from the behavioral view of learning to that of cognitive learning theories, and the constructivist approach to knowledge acquisition (Birenbaum, 1996; Herman, 1992). Similarly, assessment is no longer seen as testing pupils on an accumulation of isolated facts and skills, but emphasizes the application and use of knowledge. 

When working with standards, the assessment system needs to be congruent with what is being tested and how. In standards-based assessment, in addition to assessing pupils’ performance as compared to that of other pupils (norm-reference assessment), pupils are assessed against a standard (criterion-referenced assessment). This shift to standards-based assessment helps create ‘a culture of success,’ (Willis, 1996) where all pupils can achieve an acceptable level (Shanker, 1994). This is in contrast to the variation in pupils learning as expected in the bell-shaped distribution of grades (Wiggins, 1991).

In a standards-based curriculum, assessment is viewed not only as a final product (summative), but also as a continual process (formative) that provides pupil performance data to teachers and students regarding their progress towards achieving the standards. The curriculum sets benchmark levels of pupils’ achievement and progress towards meeting the standards by describing what the pupils can do with the language. Therefore, it is necessary to move beyond testing methods which concentrate on memory, and develop those which measure understanding and application (Genesee,, 1998; Winters, 1995). 

In order to assess if pupils have achieved the different benchmarks, they are expected to demonstrate what they can do with the language by applying what they know about the language to real-life situations. Assessing pupils’ performance focuses on their ability to actively use language, which can be accomplished by using performance assessment methods. Teachers need to determine which benchmarks to assess, define the evidence of learning, create a context, decide on an audience, develop a scoring guide and review and revise the task (Kentucky Department of Education, 1998). This provides pupils and parents with useful information about pupil performance towards attaining the standards. 

As has been shown, standards cannot be tested by current evaluative methods. Moreover, schools will have to change the present method of reporting pupils’ progress to parents and pupils. When working with a standards-based curriculum, schools will be able to report pupils’ progress towards achieving the standards by indicating the benchmarks they have achieved. 

The ultimate judgment on the value of standards must be whether their use in the classroom actually improves pupil performance (Ravitch, 1996). Assessment provides the information necessary to guide educators in determining pupil progress in attaining the standards, as specified in the curriculum. Teachers, schools and the state are accountable for pupils’ learning based on the attainment of these standards. Since the standards provide a clear and defined framework for assessment, it is therefore possible to ascertain the extent to which the standards have been met.

In summary, the implications of a standards-based curriculum for the learning-teaching- assessment process include:

  • both formative and summative assessment
  • a variety of assessment methods
  • assessment tasks which allow the pupils to demonstrate their knowledge, including the criteria for assessment
  • developmental assessment showing progress towards attaining the standards

  • assessment tasks which are integrated within the 
  • learning-teaching-assessment process and do not consist of only the final product.
Australia and the CATs

 The following is an example of how a country, while attempting to initiate educational reform, radically changed the assessment policy which, as a result, required them to set standards. There is much that the Israeli educational system can learn from this country’s experience in educational reform.

Twenty years ago, in Australia, the requirements that were set for high school graduation did not match the changing needs of the society. As a result, from 
1998 -1992, the Australian Board of Education phased-in a completely new senior secondary curriculum. They implemented the VCE--Victorian Certificate of Education--which is not based on testing, but rather on the completion of work requirements. Instead of twelfth grade pupils preparing obsessively for final exams, they are required to complete work requirements, known as the Common Assessment Tasks, or CATs (Howe & Vickers, 1993). 

Although some CATs are assessed under exam conditions, over half of each pupil’s grades, and well over half of a pupil’s work, involve conducting research and writing reports, making oral or audio-visual presentations, constructing working models or preparing design briefs. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board, therefore, built clear standards and high expectations into the system's curriculum and codified these standards in terms of grading criteria for the CATs. 

While Australia's reform-oriented states, like Victoria, are committed to sustaining high educational standards, they are also convinced that tests alone cannot do this. Rather, it is the purposive and meaningful work invested by pupils, and the support they receive from their peers and their teachers to redraft and revise, that determines how well they will perform. In order for such a system to work, teachers need to be transformed from instructors to mentors— which demands a substantial investment in professional development.

The changes to the Australia assessment systems stand in contrast to the main assumption of many American schools, where the term standards is taken to mean a return to a carefully defined body of knowledge that needs to be articulated, required, studied, and assessed. This way of defining standards assumes a view of knowledge as a “given”, and good teachers are those who pass on this knowledge to their pupils. In Australia, however, using VCE, classroom practice has changed. With the focus on work requirements, pupils do more and teachers talk less. The teacher’s job has developed beyond instructor into “mentor, explainer, coach, co-problem-solver, reader of drafts and redrafts, suggestor, and encourager.  The new problem is to get pupils to produce, not simply to remember” (Howe & Vickers, 1993, p. 37).

The standards-based English curriculum intends to bring about changes in the learning- teaching-assessment process similar to that of Australia where pupils will become “performing thinkers, problem solvers and inquirers” (Brown, 1989, p. 33). 

Issues that Need to be Addressed

Standards in and of themselves are meaningless. What counts are the steps that educators and others take to help pupils reach them. (Fiske, 1998). If the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport decides to embark on the implication of standards-based education, there are different areas that they will need to be addressed regarding pupils, teachers, assessment and the setting of standards. The following lists some of those issues for each of the areas.


  • Do we expect all pupils to achieve all the standards? 
  • What academic intervention will be provided to pupils who fail to meet the standards? 
  • What will happen to pupils who have not achieved the standards? Do they get left back? Are they allowed to graduate if they have not achieved the standards?
  • How does one change teachers’ beliefs about the teaching-learning-assessment process?
  • How can we help teachers deal with change regarding their pedagogical values and beliefs and the development of new methodological skills? (Markee, 1994)
  • What are the ways that we can help teachers understand the document and the implications for their teaching?
  • What support can be given during the process of teachers becoming more autonomous?
  • How will pupils’ progress towards achieving the standards reported?
  • What changes need to take place regarding school/district/state assessment?
  • How will the state/district/school assess whether pupils have achieved the standards at different levels? What measures of accountability should be taken? 
  • Will national/district tests give the country a barometer for determining how well schools are doing and provide valuable information on which pupils need additional assistance?
  • Should there be national testing at the end of the foundation, intermediate and proficiency levels? 
  • How can a bank of prototypes for performance tasks, exhibitions, portfolio and project ideas be developed?
Standards and Benchmarks
  • Who will set the standards? 
  • At what levels will benchmarks be written?
  •  What is the most appropriate format for publishing the document, taking into account that the curriculum is dynamic and changes will be made, especially regarding the benchmarks?
In Conclusion

This article has raised the issue of the importance of having a standards-based curriculum and what the implications are for the teaching-learning-assessment process. The underlying assumption of the importance of setting standards is that there is a national need to raise standards and to equip pupils finishing an Israeli high school with the knowledge of English that the modern world demands. In order for pupils to achieve the standards, teachers will have to changes the way they think about teaching and about how and what pupils learn in a foreign language. As a result, radical changes in teachers’ perceptions of how pupils are assessed will have to be considered. 

If the standards movement is to gain momentum in Israel, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport needs to encourage chief inspectors of other subjects to develop standards-based curricula, as it is will not be sufficient for only one subject area to implement such a curriculum within a national educational system. Moreover, national assessment policy that is congruent with a standards-based curriculum will have to be formulated. Lastly, the Ministry of Education has to appropriate funding for developing materials for teacher training and writing classroom materials for both instruction and assessment. 



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Brown, R. (1989). Testing and thoughtfulness. Educational Leadership, April, 31-33.
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Evers, B. (1997). Keep the academic bar high. New York Times OP-ED. Sept. 23.
Fiske, E.B. (1998). Quest for standards splits US Educators. International. Herald Tribune. Feb. 9.
Foreign Language Standards. (1998). URL: (Accessed March 23, 1998)
Harris, D.E. & Carr, J.K. (1996). How to use standards in the classroom. Virginia: ASCD.
Herman, J. L., Aschbacher, P.R. & Winters, W. (1992). A practical guide to alternative assessment. Virginia: ASCD.
Genesee, F. Gottlieb, M. Katz, A. Malone, M. Managing the assessment process. (1998). Virginia: TESOL.
Howe, H. & Vickers, M. (1993), Standards and diversity down under. Education Week, July, 36-37. 
Markee, N. (1994) Curricular innovation: Issues and problems. Applied Language Learning, 5, 1-30.
Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport. (1998). Standards for Pupils of English: A Curriculum for Israeli Schools. Jerusalem: Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport.
Kentucky Department of Education. (1998). Designing an effective performance task for the classroom. URL: (Accessed April 5, 1998.)
National Standards in Foreign Language Education. (Pre-publication manuscript). Standards for foreign language learning: Preparing for the 21st century. 
Ravitch, D., (1996). 50 states, 50 standards - The continuing need for national voluntary standards in education. The Brookings Review, 14, 1-9.
Shanker, A. (1994). National standards. In C.E. Finn, Jr. & H.J. Walberg (Eds.). Radical education reforms (pp. 3-20). CA: McCutchan Publishing Corporation.
Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. (1996). ESL standards for pre-K - 12 students. Virginia: TESOL, Inc.
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Appendix 1

Standards for Each Domain

S t a n d a r d s


Pupils communicate in English, orally and in writing, in different settings with people from varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
Access to 


Pupils obtain and make use of information in speech and writing from a variety of sources and different media.


Pupils present information and ideas in an organized manner in a variety of formats in spoken and written English on a variety wide range of topics.
Appreciation  of Literature and Culture, and Language
Pupils appreciate literature that is written in the English language and develop sensitivity to a variety of cultures.

Pupils appreciate the nature of language and the differences between English and other languages.

Appendix 2

Domain of Social Interaction


Pupils communicate in English, orally and in writing, in different settings with people from varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

Standards for Each Level

Foundation Level
Intermediate Level
Proficiency Level
Pupils interact and convey simple messages using comprehensible language.  Pupils use English fluently and appropriately to the social situation, using basic language structures accurately. Pupils maintain effective communication in a wide range of social interactions using rich vocabulary, idioms, idioms and accurate language.

Criteria                                   Continuum 
With errors 
Limited awareness
 Appropriate use
Pupils will meet the standards for the domain of social interaction when they:
  • Proficiency
  • ask and answer questions about routine matters using comprehensible language
  • ask and answer questions to gather and share personal information and opinions on past, current and future events
  • ask and answer questions on a wide range of general topics accurately
  • express feelings, likes and dislikes in everyday situations 
  • express personal wishes and opinions about general topics such as current events and leisure activities
  • interact and respond appropriately in conversations and discussions on a wide range of topics
  • give and follow simple directions and instructions in familiar contexts
  • give and follow directions and instructions in less familiar contexts
  • engage in a simple conversation on personal topics such as family, hobbies
  • converse fluently on familiar topics
  • engage in a conversation confidently, adapting language to suit context, audience and purpose
  • give and receive information in familiar contexts orally or in writing, such as notes
  • give and receive information in a variety of  contexts, orally or in writing, in person or by mail or e-mail
  • give and receive information using accurate language and varied vocabulary