As a vector by which foreign species invade coastal and freshwater waterbodies, ballast water discharge from ships is recognized as a major environmental threat. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) drafted an international treaty establishing ballast water discharge standards based on the number of viable organisms per volume of ballast discharge for different organism size classes. Concerns that the IMO standards are not sufficiently protective have initiated several state and national efforts in the United States to develop more stringent standards. We evaluated seven approaches to establishing discharge standards for the >50-μm size class: (1) expert opinion/management consensus, (2) zero detectable living organisms, (3) natural invasion rates, (4) reaction–diffusion models, (5) population viability analysis (PVA) models, (6) per capita invasion probabilities (PCIP), and (7) experimental studies. Because of the difficulty in synthesizing scientific knowledge in an unbiased and transparent fashion, we recommend the use of quantitative models instead of expert opinion. The actual organism concentration associated with a “zero detectable organisms” standard is defined by the statistical rigor of its monitoring program; thus it is not clear whether such a standard is as stringent as other standards. For several reasons, the natural invasion rate, reaction–diffusion, and experimental approaches are not considered suitable for generating discharge standards. PVA models can be used to predict the likelihood of establishment of introduced species but are limited by a lack of population vital rates for species characteristic of ballast water discharges. Until such rates become available, PVA models are better suited to evaluate relative efficiency of proposed standards rather than predicting probabilities of invasion. The PCIP approach, which is based on historical invasion rates at a regional scale, appears to circumvent many of the indicated problems, although it may underestimate invasions by asexual and parthenogenic species. Further research is needed to better define propagule dose–responses, densities at which Allee effects occur, approaches to predicting the likelihood of invasion from multi-species introductions, and generation of formal comparisons of approaches using standardized scenarios.