The Intersection

The Alignment Challenges of Standards-Based Reform

July 7, 2016


Alignment is at the heart of standards-based reform. A primary goal of this reform is for teachers to align their instruction with standards. To measure achievement against the standards, states are supposed to use aligned assessments. To support teachers in implementation, states and districts must support them with aligned materials and training.

And yet, research consistently finds that alignment is much harder to achieve in practice than it is to advocate for. I view this disconnect as perhaps the most fundamental challenge of getting standards-based reform to work.

There is ample evidence of misalignment in our policy systems. My own work, some of it conducted with co-principal investigator Dr. Andy Porter of the Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL), has found that:

  • State assessments in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era were weakly aligned with standards, often emphasizing lower levels of cognitive demand than were found in the standards or sampling content from a narrow slice of the standards.
  • Teachers’ instruction under NCLB was only moderately aligned with standards, though alignment was improving over time, especially in tested grades and subjects.
  • Elementary mathematics textbooks in the Common Core era are only moderately aligned with standards, again focusing excessively on the lower levels of cognitive demand in the standards.

Other research has reached the same conclusions. For example, EdReports has found that many mathematics textbooks claiming Common Core alignment are not well-aligned. Education researchers and authors Dr. Jim Spillane, Dr. Lorraine McDonnell, Dr. Heather Hill, and many others have found systematic misalignment among components of the standards-based reform system. In short, there is clear evidence of misalignment, despite the centrality of alignment in the theory of action that underlies standards-based reform.

How can we improve alignment among the elements of the standards-based policy system (and, ultimately, of teachers’ instruction with standards)? There is no one answer to this question, but understanding the factors that contribute to the problem can help identify strategies.

Certainly one factor that contributes to misalignment is the language of the standards themselves. An extended quote from Heather Hill’s work makes this point clearly:

Words have no inherent meaning. Instead, they signify ideas or actions ascribed to them by communities, and meanings for specific words often vary across those communities…

Even when standards are written to be precise, different folks can interpret them differently. Test developers, textbook writers, and teachers ̶ all must interpret what’s written in the standards.

Another contributor to our alignment struggles is our decentralized education system. With 50 state systems and thousands of school districts, there are many layers between the policy as written and classroom implementation, each layer an opportunity for misalignment. Further compounding the problem is the issue of capacity. Does each district or state have the capacity to conduct serious alignment investigations in order to make informed decisions? Do all 3 million teachers have the training or skills to construct their own aligned curricula? This is unlikely, on either count.

A third contributor is a general lack of seriousness about alignment, what it is, and how to measure it. Alignment has become one of the most overused buzzwords in education. Rather than applying systematic alignment methods, which often require extensive training and expertise, many districts seem to use a more “eyeball” approach to alignment that sometimes results in misaligned decisions or choices.

Of course there are many other reasons why alignment has been more difficult to achieve in practice than in theory. Regardless of the reasons, this issue remains an enduring challenge for standards-based reform. If we cannot achieve the alignment needed to ensure effective standards implementation, we will continue to spin our wheels and achieve only modest progress toward our goal of a better education for our students.

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