Standards & Learning Progressions: Same? Different? Related?



This article is a continuation of July's Blog Post. Click here to see the first half of the article.



How are Learning Progressions Different from Standards?


Learning progressions are developed based on the pathways that learners generally take as they build deeper understanding in a content domain. Standards, and specifically the Common Core State Standards, was developed “backwards” from grade 12, first identifying the skills and concepts that professors at U.S. colleges and universities said were needed for students to be college and career ready. The Common Core does not suggest any instructional sequencing (or learning) plan. As a matter of fact, the introduction to Common Core for mathematics states, “…just because topic A appears before topic B in the standards … does not necessarily mean that topic A must be taught before topic B. A teacher might prefer to teach topic B before A, or might choose to highlight connections… of her own choosing that leads to A or B” (CCSSM p. 5). This implies that to reach the standards, any route will get you there. While that may be true, most people would prefer to study a map or use a GPS system when planning a year-long trip to a designated destination. A well-thought-out plan can be more effective and probably help to avoid some bumps in the road along the way.


Many people confuse “standards progressions” with LEARNING progressions – they are not the same thing! The grade level content standards do not show teachers how to get from one grade level’s content to the next grade level during a school year or across school years. Breaking down – or unpacking – a standard is not the same thing as considering what the earlier instructional building blocks might be for students to demonstrate mastery over time. For example, in my research into developing expertise in mathematics, we find that is essential for students to first understand conceptually the symbols used, before they apply procedures with them (e.g., students understand equivalence before using an equal sign; or “joining together” before using a plus sign).


  • Unlike content standards, learning progressions are based on empirical research describing how learning typically develops over time for most students. Some early stages of learning may not look like the later stages, but include some important steps to get there.

  • Learning progressions sometimes include typical pre-conceptions along the learning pathway.

  • Learning progressions suggest an intentional mapping of how to teach and build upon earlier concepts. They should not be thought of as linear or lock-step sequencing, however.


Learning Progressions help a teacher think about how to build on a student’s prior learning by looking at the path students typically follow when they learn.  We are still researching how students with the most significant cognitive disabilities learn, however we can start with the same research-based progressions found in general education and build our understanding from there..





Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010).  Common core state standards for Mathematics/CCSSM.  Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers & National Governors’ Association.


Hess, K. (2008). Developing and using learning progressions as a schema for measuring progress. Paper presented at 2008 CCSSO Student Assessment Conference, Orlando, FL.


Hess, K. (2010). Using learning progressions to monitor progress across grades. Science and Children, 47(6), pp. 57-61


National Research Council. (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment. Committee on the Foundations of Assessment. J. Pellegrino, N. Chudowsky, & R. Glaser (Eds.), Board on Testing and Assessment, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.


-Dr. DoK

Karin Hess, Ed.D, is a recognized international leader in developing practical approaches for using cognitive rigor and learning progressions as the foundation for formative, interim, and performance assessments.



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© since July 2014 Karin Hess, Ed.D.