It stands to reason that if what is taught is not closely aligned with what is assessed, students will not have been adequately prepared. A perfectly aligned instructional system would include a curriculum that addresses the state content standards, instruction that is based on the curriculum, and assessments that identify opportunities for students to demonstrate what they know and can do on the state content standards.
Mike Schmoker writes in The Real Cause of Higher Achievement, "We can't expect most students to do well on exams for which their preparation has been spotty or inadequate. But in too many places, it is just that. In some of our lowest-achieving schools, there is a patent mismatch between the real, taught curriculum and the actual standards that are assessed — by state, standardized, or district assessments. This shouldn't surprise us: For all our so-called common curriculum, very little has been done — let's be honest — to ensure that the taught and the tested curriculum are aligned. Prominent researchers have noted this discrepancy, including John Goodlad and colleagues who wrote that "behind the classroom door" all bets are off on what actually gets taught (1970). Judith Warren Little noted the discrepancy as well, finding curricular differences among English teachers to be so wildly divergent that even to call these courses by the same name — "English" — made no sense to her (1990). Susan Rosenholtz found that teachers teach a self-selected "jumble" of different topics and that getting them to teach to common standards is perhaps the toughest challenge schools face (1991). David Berliner detected the same pattern in his studies, that in the same grade and in the same school, one teacher taught 27 times as much science as her same-grade counterparts. No one in the school knew this until researchers came into the school (1979)."
A major shift for teachers in a standards-based system is their loss of autonomy in teaching whatever they determine to be important. Teachers are now responsible for moving their students to proficiency on their state's content standards. Consequently, they must re-examine their instructional program to ensure that classroom tasks and assignments are aligned with the content standards they are expected to teach and that are assessed by the state.
When teachers map their current instructional assignments and class work to the content standards, they will likely see a number of tasks and assignments that are not aligned. If teachers walked through the classrooms in their school to examine the student work on bulletin boards, in journals or on student's desks, they would also see that some if not many activities are not yet aligned to state content standards. Because instructional time is at a premium, and the charge to take all students to proficiency is a challenging one, teachers must use their instructional time effectively to ensure their teaching is aligned with state standards. This tight alignment has the added advantage of giving teachers a reason to weed out some current tasks and assignments and, even more of a time saver, to stop grading student work that isn't related to standards.
A number of strategies can be employed to help ensure the taught curriculum is aligned with the state standards. Curriculum mapping is the process of mapping a district's curriculum to the state standards. When teachers engage in this activity, they better understand what they are responsible for teaching and know where there are any gaps between their curriculum and state standards. Another effective approach to helping ensure alignment is to identify in your monitoring plan the content standard indicators you expect teachers to collect and submit classroom assessment data. Once you have asked teachers to collect classroom data on a specified set of indicators/objectives aligned to the state standards, you have made clear to them where they need to focus their instructional time.
Analyzing teacher assignments and assessments can reveal what cognitive level of thinking is being called for and what the intellectual rigor is expected as well as the extent to which it matches the cognitive expectation for content standard indicators. A study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research of 1,400 pieces of student work in Chicago Public Schools found that 70% of the work "presented either no challenge or minimal challenge to the students. They also found that if students were given more challenging assignments, they did higher quality work." Furthermore, students who received assignments requiring more challenging intellectual work also achieved greater than average gains on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills in reading and mathematics, and demonstrated higher performance in reading, mathematics, and writing on the Illinois Goals Assessment Program.
In the same way that formative assessments provide the teacher some insight into what the student understands, comments that teachers write on student work should provide the student some information about their performance and some guidance about how to improve their work. Letter grades, smiley faces, or comments such as "good work" don't provide useful information. Comments need to be focused on what the task was meant to assess. For example, if a student was asked to read a story and draw an inference and support it with evidence from the text, then comments should focus on the student's demonstration or lack thereof to do that task in a proficient manner. It would not make sense to comment on the student's spelling errors when trying to help the student understand how to find evidence to support an inference. Teachers and students benefit the most from assignments when they have a common understanding of what is being asked and what constitutes proficient work.
"Standards in Practice," on the Educational Trust Web site, describes a team-based professional development strategy for aligning assignments or programs with content standards.
"Authentic Intellectual Work and Standardized Tests: Conflict or Coexistence?" by Fred M. Newmann, Anthony S. Bryk, and Jenny K. Nagaoka describes findings from a study of the quality of student work in Chicago schools and the relationship of the work to student performance on standardized tests.
"Teacher Learning for Standards-based Education," Standards in Classroom Practice: Research Synthesis, McRel 2001 (pages 110-137).
Instructional Coherence: The Changing Role of the Teacher by Sandra J. Finley, Ph.D. on the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory Web site.