The Match Between Teaching and the Test

Discussions about current education-reform efforts are typically focused on three separate topics: the Common Core standards, the new tests, and the curriculum. The alignment among the three seems to receive little attention—though it is a critical matter, as the degree of alignment will determine the validity of student test scores. One may presume that the tests currently being prepared by the two consortia of states are closely aligned with the standards. But in cases where states are making or buying their own tests, there is less assurance.

The creation of a curriculum, the provision of instructional materials, and the training of teachers is the purview of the states. This will lead to what I call “the delivered curriculum”—what the students are taught in the classroom. The degree to which the delivered curriculum matches the standards, as well as the alignment of the test, will determine the degree to which the test results are valid. This would seem to be elementary, but getting it to happen is a daunting challenge.

It is daunting because the standards are considered higher than those now in most states. New pedagogies are required. The training is expensive and time consuming—and there is a question of how many qualified instructors are available to provide the training, as well as how much time already-busy teachers are being allocated for the training. Another question concerns what funds can be made available in cash-strapped states. The degree to which teachers are prepared will inevitably vary among states and school districts, and teachers in many states are already requesting more time to prepare.

Although there is no national picture of the situation, news is coming out in dribs and drabs that teachers and principals say the teacher training and efforts to equip them with needed instructional materials are often lagging. Pleas for more time are coming from many places. The NCLB era yielded little information about the fit between the delivered curriculum and the standards, although there were a few studies by researchers working in a few states. The findings on the degree of alignment varied from passable to bad. In one state, the delivered curriculum met the standards in an adjoining state better than those of its own state. (A bright spot with regard to reviewing teaching materials for alignment with the standards is Achieve’s project EQuIP.

If the tests are based on the standards, and if teachers are only partially delivering what the standards require, the students will be tested on subjects they were not taught—and the test scores will be meaningless. If test scores decline, as expected, how much of it will be because students didn’t learn what they were taught, and how much will be because they were not taught what the standards require? And if there is much unevenness in the alignment, how can scores be compared among the states—one goal of the standards initiative? Of course, aligning the delivered curriculum with standards will not mean the same in all states, since opinions will differ about what, within the standards, should be given the most emphasis, and test scores alone will not reveal such differences.

Leadership is needed of the kind that took on the standards and the testing based on them. It is critical that a way be found to assure that the tests students take are based on what they were taught in the classroom.

Paul E. Barton is the former director of the ETS Policy Information Center and author of National Education Standards: Getting Beneath the Surface.

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