Why Unpack Standards?

Unpacking standards is crucial in a standards-based environment to determine learning expectations, address content overload, and ensure assessment accuracy.

Editor’s note: Our “Unpacking” Series provides a deeper look into the ideas of Clarity, one of JumpRope’s Core Values.

Since the US started its journey to standards-based teaching and learning, national organizations and states have created, adopted, and revised academic standards documents to outline what students should know and be able to do upon leaving school. So, if these documents are meant to tell us what students are supposed to be able to do and know, why should JumpRope users bother unpacking them to figure out the learning expectations for students? Well, there are a couple of reasons unpacking standards and figuring out learning expectations is part of educators’ practice in a standards-based environment.

Reason 1: Unpacking to determine learning expectations is necessary in that there is way too much content in these documents. For example, in the 1990s researchers at McREL analyzed standards documents and determined that it would require over 70% more instructional time to teach all of the standards included in most standards documents. To address this impossibility, schools and districts try to distill the national or state documents into fewer statements. In some cases, the approach is to combine standards and create more general and encompassing statements. The examples below are general and encompassing statements condensed from a national document, but which still require further breaking down or unpacking.


Number & Operations in Base Ten – Understand the place value system and perform operations with multi-digit whole numbers and with decimals to hundredths.

Number & Quantity – Reason and model quantitatively, using units and number systems to solve problems.

Reason 2: Standards in state and national documents typically are broad and complex statements that lack what is referred to as unidimensionality (Marzano & Haystead, 2008; Hattie, 1985). Basically, when an assessment is aligned to a standard, any score on that standard should be applicable to a single trait or dimension. Broad standards, like the example below, have more than one dimension; they often have more than one skill or concept as well as perhaps differing contexts or processes, creating a problem for both teachers and students.



Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone. (anchor standard from common core)

Conceptual image that supports the idea of unpacking and understanding standards.

When schools or districts decide to use the broader statements from state or national documents as the standards they expect teachers to assess and report on, they may encounter a significant problem for implementing standards-based assessment. Let’s take the following standard as an example.



Students draw from concepts and processes in personal finance to understand issues of money management, saving, investing, credit, and debt; students draw from concepts and processes in economics to understand issues of production, distribution, consumption in the community, Maine, the United States, and the world. (third grade standard from Maine Learning Results)

Now, let’s assume a teacher gives three assessments associated with this standard, each focusing on a different dimension.

Assessment 1 – personal finance concepts in the community, Maine, the United States, and the world
Assessment 2 – personal finance management of credit and debt in the community, Maine, the United States, and the world
Assessment 3 – issues of production, distribution, and consumption in the community, Maine, the United States, and the world

Let’s also say that the scores for these assessments are a 3, a 3, and a 1. How should the scores be combined to give one mastery rating for the broad standard? No matter what kind of calculation a teacher uses, or whether he or she “eyeballs” a score using professional judgment, the score isn’t representing understanding on the whole standard. (Read more about ways to calculate standard mastery scores in this white paper.)

Broad and inclusive standards like this are difficult for a parent and student. They cannot easily interpret which part of the standard the student has not yet mastered. For example, what does a “2” or a “partially meeting” rating on this standard tell a student or parent? That is, which part of this statement does the student partially understand?

Whether your school is just starting the work of figuring out learning expectations, or you have a set of established standards, you may want to revisit the JumpRope blog post Unpacking Standards, Part 1: Figuring Out Learning Expectations. Also, stay tuned for blog posts that go further with the unpacking process and more that address creating scoring criteria and planning assessments to help you think further about the unidimensionality of your standards.


Hattie, J. (1985). Methodology review: Assessing unidimensionality of tests and items. Applied Psychological Measurement (9)2, 139-164.
Marzano, R. J., & Haystead, M. W. (2008). In Making Standards Useful in the Classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).