Our website will soon move to GOV.UK Please read our blog post to find out more.

Hide this message


Standards are at the heart of what we do. But the term ‘standards’ can have many different meanings. Standards over time, international standards and educational standards all refer to very different things. Without a common, agreed meaning we cannot have meaningful conversations with others who have an interest in assessment and qualifications.

We could spend years debating the ‘best’ definition of standards but even the experts in the field have struggled to agree a common definition. To take a sporting analogy, high-jump standards can be defined as the height of the bar that people have to jump over, or the number of people who can jump over the bar.

We believe it is important to be clear about what we mean when we talk about standards in the context of assessing people’s knowledge and skills.

What do we mean by ‘standards’?

There are many different aspects to standards. We are most concerned with:

  • content standards
  • assessment standards
  • performance standards (or grade standards)

Content standards

When we talk about content standards we mean the demands of the syllabus, curriculum or programme of study that sets out the content to be learned. Content can include knowledge, skills and understanding as appropriate to the subject.

Content can be made more or less demanding by increasing or decreasing the breadth or material to be learned, or the breadth of skills to be acquired. Content can also be made more or less demanding by increasing or decreasing the depth to which the subject matter is studied, or the level of proficiency of the skills to be acquired.

Assessment standards

Assessment is the process by which we can test whether a student has acquired enough of the required content to be awarded the qualification, or a particular grade in the qualification. When we talk about assessment standards, we mean how demanding a particular assessment is.

Performance standards

Performance standards are about how well something has been done. When we talk about performance standards we mean the outcome for the student. In some cases – for example licence to practise qualifications which are needed for work – there is a single performance standard, which is the threshold for students to pass the qualification. In other cases – GCSEs and A levels, for example – there are several performance standards, also referred to as grade standards, at key grades.


All three – content standards, assessment standards and performance standards – relate to the level of demand. Demand means how challenging an assessment or qualification is for the person who takes it. Demand is usually shown through a combination of the following factors:

  • level of subject knowledge required
  • skills or processes to be applied
  • level of abstract thinking needed
  • strategy required to respond to an assessment

It is possible to set a highly demanding assessment of content that might be seen as low demand.  You can also have very demanding content with assessment that is low demand.  Neither is likely to result in appropriate performance standards.


Last updated: