Break It Down Before You Build It All: Deconstructing Standards to Build Learning Progressions

This won't be my sexiest educational post ever. I'm just going to name that right now. 

In this post we're diving into how to deconstruct standards to get to a manageable, student-friendly, targeted learning progression that can be used to help student reflect on the learning and take ownership over their next steps.

This is super important right now for two reasons. 

(1) As everyone starts ramping up for the year soon, I truly believe that the most important thing we can do is spend time really analyzing what we want students to learn. Really. I know planning the perfect sequence of lessons can be really fun, and designing those new unit guides to make them look really cool is a good creative outlet. If you want to do something that will move your teaching and learning forward though, start by analyzing the standards. 

(2) Everyone's talking about assessment practices coming out of last year, and a lot of people are going to be pushing for standards-based grading, so I want to make something clear. One of the (growing number of) hills I will die on is this: standards-based grading does NOT mean you are grading students based on the Common Core State Standards (or whatever your state has adopted). I really strongly believe that those standards are processes in which we engage in with our students and NOT things that we put into the grade book. 

Let me illustrate this with an example.

Take this standard: CCSS ELA 9-10.RI.2 - Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

Think about what you are trying to communicate when you put this into the grade book (which, is the whole point of putting something into the grade book - to communicate learning, nothing else). 

Are you communicating that they can determine a central idea? Or are you communicating that they can track its development? Oh, or how about how it's shaped by specific details? Or what about the totally random piece of this where they can provide an objective summary?

My point in saying this is that the CCSS aren't precise enough to clearly communicate learning in a way that is specific enough to make a difference for students. Think about this from the student end. If you get, say a 3 out of 4 for this standard, what are you going to work on next? How will this guide your learning?

So, this is why I truly believe the best use of time for those of us beginning to think about the coming school year is to start with a deconstruction of the standards. 

But the question then is, "What does that even look like?"

To start with, let me define how I use a few key terms to make sure we're on the same page.

1. Standard - process in which we engage
2. Power/Priority Standard - standard that get a clear instructional focus
3. Essential Learning - a targeted concept/skill from a deconstructed standard that is assessed 
4. Learning Progression - a sequence of concepts and skills that build towards proficiency with an essential learning

Deconstructing a Standard

This is way easier than you might think. Here's the easiest way to do it. Highlight the verbs in one color and the nouns in another. Before explaining why, let's take the previous example standard (which I would consider a priority standard - I'll write a post about why someday) so you can see what this looks like. In the example below, I will highlight the nouns in blue and the verbs in green. 

CCSS ELA 9-10.RL.2 - Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

What do you notice about what is highlighted above? The reason I like to start with this step is that now I know (in green) what processes the students should engage in and (in blue) the actual concepts they need to learn.

*Note: If you can tell above, there are a few verbs that are a lighter shade of green. Usually anything that comes across as a command in the standard is the process in which students should engage. The other verbs in the sentence (the lighter ones) are part of the concepts that need to be learned.

This is why it's so important to me that we deconstruct standards before just jumping in. We need to recognize that at a minimum, we have three separate skills for students to learn as well as five separate concepts for them to learn, too. That's A LOT, and if we don't break it down, we are approaching this in a way that doesn't allow students the chance to target their learning. It doesn't make sense to give it all to students at the same time and pretend like they're just learning on thing. 

Identifying the Essential Learning in the Standard

Now that we've deconstructed it, what exactly do we want students to learn? This is the stage where I target what I actually want students to walk away being able to do and put it into language that make sense. 

For the previous example, I would say (my opinion, you can have your own) that there are two.

1) I can analyze the development of a central idea.
2) I can provide an objective summary.

These are the skills that will eventually go into my grade book. These are targeted. They are clear. Students know exactly what they are working on. However, this isn't the step that makes this meaningful and helpful to all students. 

Thus far, all we've done is identify the finish line. That's helpful, but only to a degree. Thus far all we've said is, "You need to be able to do this," but we haven't provided the support or a pathway to get there. That's where the learning progressions come in. 

Building the Learning Progression

Last year one of the most valuable things I did was to get really intentional with learning progressions. It's one of the things my students told me was really helpful in my year-end evaluation. In thinking about it, it makes so much sense. For most of my career, my rubrics only had one access point. Let me illustrate this with an example, using the same standard from above. Here's what my rubrics looked like.

I can't identify the central idea of a text.I can identify a general central idea in a text, but I struggle to explain it.I can clearly identify a central idea in a text and identify details that connect to it.I can clearly identify a central idea and explain how key details build upon each other to develop the idea.

Notice that the entry point is the same across the board. The student must be able to identify a central idea in a text. I take a few issues with this. 

(1) It stigmatizes earlier stages of learning. There is no celebrating the first steps. Instead, it's just, "Why are you so bad at this?" We can pretend it's not as harsh as that, but read it again. All the student hears at the earlier stages is, "You aren't good enough." 

(2) It isn't accessible for all learners. If I have a gap in my learning and don't understand what conflict is, what plot structure is, etc., I won't ever find a way into this rubric. The question is, "Where are the on-ramps, the access points for this learning so that each learner can approach the concept?"

So, I'm guessing people are wondering, "What's the alternative?" Let me show you how I've changed my approach and begun developing learning progressions for the essential learning. (Side note: I always want to make this plural. Can we just accept the plural form 'essential learnings' and move on with out lives? Thanks.)

Okay, here's my learning progression for the standard we've been using.

I can explain what conflict, plot structure, and character development in a text.

I can define theme and thematic statement.

I can identify a theme and develop a thematic statement from a text.

I can explain how a theme develops over the course of the text by pointing to specific details.

I can explain how multiple themes develop over the course of the text, including how they interact with each other.

I want you to notice a few things:

(1) There is something to celebrate at each stage in the learning. Enough with stigmatizing earlier learners. We were there at one point, too. Let's highlight what they CAN do and what they've LEARNED at each stage, not simply point out that they aren't where we want them to be yet. Let them be where they are and celebrate that. 

(2) However, the goal is that they don't stay where they are but can move forward. Notice how clear this makes it for them. At each step along the way, there is a new concept for them to explore. These are the access points. If a student missed the previous stuff and has gaps in the background knowledge, there's an access point for them. If a student just figured out what a theme is, there's a clear access point for them to move into the next phase of learning. 

(3) This is where things get a little fun. Because each stage identifies a targeted piece of the skill, think about how easy it could be to add the teaching resources in there – videos, mini-lessons, PearDeck activities, etc. We could all be focused on the same concept, reading the same text, etc., but every student could be learning the material at their own pace while still being connected to the community and the text. 

Here's an idea of what this could look like. 

I can explain what conflict, plot structure, and character development in a text.

I can define theme and thematic statement.

I can identify a theme and develop a thematic statement from a text.

I can explain how a theme develops over the course of the text by pointing to specific details.

I can explain how multiple themes develop over the course of the text, including how they interact with each other.

Think about this from the student lens. Through your feedback and reflections, you determine you've learned the first three concepts, and as you're looking to move to the fourth concept, there's a resource right there to get you started. 

Need Some Help Getting Started?

There are two places I would point you towards. The first is Ohio's Extended Learning Standards. They pretend that they are Ohio-specific standards...but it's the CCSS with a fancy cover page. However, they've done so much work to deconstruct the standards and identify the concepts that go into each one. The piece I love is that it's designed specifically for students with IEPs, but it just shows how valuable this process is for all students. The second, and this only applies to 9-10 ELA teachers, but here's my collection of deconstructed standards.

Additionally, if you would like to make your own copy of a thinking tool I've used for myself and with other groups to walk through this process, click here to make your own copy.

Final Note:

Learning is never completely linear. When we create these, we are simply identifying the progression from background knowledge and key vocabulary up to being able to apply those concepts to a scenario and then eventually up to evaluation, synthesis, etc. However, this isn't a scripted path for every student to follow. This is a scaffold, a support. To use it otherwise is to potentially harm a student's learning. Everyone has their own route. These are intended to just be a map to help them on their way.

While I'm returning to the classroom full-time this year, I do have some availability to help your school or district, either live or via Zoom, when it comes to deconstructing standards and assessment practices. If you're interested, reach out on Twitter or email me at tylerrablin at


  1. I love this and the way you have built the progressions! Have you seen anything like it for the 11-12 standards anywhere?

  2. Learning progressions are done for 3 of my classes! Can't wait to see how they work "in the wild!"

  3. Hey I love this and just listened to the Cult of pedagogy episode you were on. Ijust have a question, at what point do you give your rubric to the student and do you allow them to continue adjusting their place on the rubric as they write and do they attach this rubri to the final piece of writing? Sorry for all the questions, but I am really keen to giv this a go!


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