Teaching standards shape what students learn because teachers are required to have their students meet the standards when it is time for testing. Every student is expected to meet the standards set forth by their respective school district. Indirectly the standards have an effect on what the students learn, as core curriculum must reflect the standards to be met. That does not mean, however, that the curriculum is standardized. Teachers still have to choose their curriculum, they just have to be sure that it allows the students to pass the tests in benchmark grades.
Teachers teaching in a standards based system have goals for their students. All students have to meet them and they provide a focus for the students. With benchmark testing it is possible to track results to see how the students are doing. So students are all learning the same things. However, the standards allow for self-expression and developing one's own style. So while all the students in one district are taught the same core subjects to meet the same standards, it does not result in all of the students being clones created from the subject matter. The core curriculum in Language Arts, Mathematics and Science all require individual thinking and independent style. Students are encouraged to choose methods that work for them and use various types of experimentation to achieve results.
In this way, standards make learning easier for students. There are goals written out that each student must achieve. Teachers know them; students know them, as do their parents. They can work within the framework of the curriculum to achieve the score at each benchmark and move on to the next.
There are some detractors who feel that teaching to the standards, or teaching to the test as it is sometimes called, is not fair to the students. They are afraid that students will not be able to express their individuality or creativity, as they will be too busy trying to achieve the goals set by the district. Others are afraid the standards are too high or too low, resulting in disenfranchising either the over-achievers or the under-achievers. Drop out rates are a concern for those who feel if the goals are set too high, the students who fail early will give up.
Teaching standards vary from state-to-state and even from district to district. So while every student learns what is essential to pass the test, they are all not learning the same things. This is where the standards shape what the students learn. For instance, elementary school students in the fifth and sixth grade are expected to be able to write at a certain level; they should be able to write various types of essays, personal narrative, literary criticism and more. All students are taught the basic skills necessary to achieve that goal. But the standards do allow for freedom within the goal. Students can write to their experiences and be creative and funny or not. So the standards have shaped what the students learned, but did not stifle them or force them into a box or mold.
Standards give the teachers guidelines to follow; teachers still have the final say as to what goes on in the classroom and what shapes their curriculum. Within a standards based system, everyone is on the same page when it comes to expectations and that is positive. As long as the standards makers don't forget that within the guidelines there must be room for individuality and self-expression, teachers can continue to teach and they will be the ones who shape what students learn.