Standards & Learning Progressions: Same? Different? Related?

(part 1)

Standards & Learning Progressions: Same? Different? Related?


Over the past decade, the terms learning progressions, progress maps, developmental continuums, and learning trajectories have all been used in the literature to describe research-based, descriptive continuums of how students develop and demonstrate deeper, broader, and more sophisticated understanding over time. A learning progression can visually and verbally articulate hypotheses about how the learning of most students will typically move toward increased understanding. There is currently a growing body of knowledge surrounding the purposes and uses of learning progressions, as well as ongoing research in identifying and empirically validating content-specific learning progressions (Hess, 2010).


My conceptual view of learning progressions is one of overlapping “learning zones” along a broader continuum of learning – similar to Vygotsky’s work describing Zones of Proximal Development, based on an understanding of what a child can do today with assistance. At the lower end of the learning progression are “novice” or beginning performers (at any grade level), who may (or may not) demonstrate the necessary prerequisite skills or understandings needed to be successful. For example, does the student have the essential skills/concepts (knows letters and sounds, demonstrates concepts of print, can make and check predictions while reading, etc.) that can be built upon over time to become a confident reader? At the other end of the continuum are 

“expert” performers who not only have acquired the essential skills/concepts described in standards, but are able to transfer their learning to non-routine and more complex learning tasks, such as comparing themes across texts or using mentor texts to inform their own writing. When planning for instruction or designing assessment tasks (pre-, mid-, and post-assessments), it’s essential to conceptualize a possible progression of 

learning and be able to place a child along that continuum: what a child can do independently now and what a child should do independently in the future? Learning progressions help to find that zone of where to begin and how to “scaffold in” the instruction.


























Descriptors in the learning progressions – I call these descriptors “progress indicators” - help to ‘unpack’ how learning might unfold for most students over time, moving from beginner to expert. Progress indicators can be used in the design of pre-assessments that uncover whether or not students already possess the critical prerequisite skills and knowledge that instruction and learning can built upon; mid-assessments (comprised of ongoing formative assessments and performance tasks that may a bit less complex than the summative/post-assessment) used to identify how well students are making progress towards achieving proficiency; and post-assessments (such as end-of-unit tests, more complex performance tasks, and project-based assessments) used to indicate to what degree students are able to make connections and work independently across skills and concepts. I like to think of the pre-assessments and mid-assessments as the drills, the short practices, and the scrimmages that prepare students to “play the game” (assessments that require transfer and more sophisticated applications of the skills and concepts described in standards).


It’s important to understand that “what distinguishes expert performers from beginner performers is not simply general mental abilities, such as memory or fluid intelligence, or even general problem-solving strategies. Experts have efficiently coded and organized (chunks of) information into well-connected schemas … which helps them to notice features and meaningful patterns … that might be overlooked by learners at the earlier stages” (NRC, 2001). Building schema, therefore, is the true goal for learning over time – if I understand how text genres are structured differently, then I’ll be able to understand how the information presented is likely to be organized, even if the complexity of the text increases; if I look for numerical patterns and mathematical structures when I solve problems, that will help me to solve similar problems, as well as know how I might approach non-routine problems in the future.


Continued in August...

-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.