“Educators and policymakers must avoid the trap of limiting their discussions to questions which the existing data can readily answer, a practice reminiscent of the old joke about looking for lost car keys under the streetlight because that is where the searcher can see, not where the keys were lost.” Chrys Dougherty, a principal research scientist with testing giant ACT, includes this little warning in his recent policy brief. He certainly isn’t stuck under the streetlight—he shows educators, district leaders, and state leaders how data could be used to ensure all children get a rich, well-rounded education and all teachers have meaningful opportunities to learn from each other.

While almost all states and many districts jump right from standards to assessments, Dougherty emphasizes the importance of “a content-rich district curriculum that states clearly what students are expected to learn in each grade and subject” including “science, history, geography, civics, foreign language, and the arts.” For all those leaders who have yet to grasp that standards are not curriculum, he offers a great synopsis of what a strong curriculum ought to provide, in addition to stating precisely which topics are to be taught:

By providing greater detail, the curriculum can align content across grade levels more precisely, so that what students learn in preceding grade levels prepares them to understand what is taught in subsequent grades. The curriculum can address the levels of student learning that are expected— for example, by the use of model student assignments and samples of student work. The curriculum can allocate learning time across topics in a given subject so that students are given enough time to learn each topic in sufficient depth and detail. The curriculum can also allocate learning time among subjects so that sufficient time is devoted to each subject in every grade. The curriculum can take advantage of connections across subjects, so that, for example, if the students are learning about volcanoes in science, they might read a story about Pompeii in language arts and perform computations about volcanic activity in math class.

Informing this policy brief is a case study of two districts that are focused on using data to enhance their curriculum and instruction. In both, the districtwide curriculum and curriculum-based assessments gave students a more equal opportunity to learn:

Educators in the two case study districts took special care to ensure [their benchmark] assessments matched what had been taught… School leaders in the case study sites also encouraged teachers in each grade level to administer common assessments every two or three weeks to provide even more up-to-date information on the students. The timeliness of these assessments make them particularly useful in identifying student needs, modifying instruction to meet those needs, placing students in short-term interventions, and setting and monitoring goals for students and teachers.

It takes a lot of care and flexibility to ensure that all teachers have the same goals and all assessments test what was taught, as a teacher explained with an example from Algebra I:

The district specialist writes the district benchmark and … all the Algebra I teachers get into a room with her. They all take the test together. That’s our way of vetting the test. They take the test so they can see what’s on the test. The test doesn’t leave the room. That way we’re not teaching the test. But they have an idea of where we’re trying to go. Then that happens at the beginning of each nine weeks. And then three weeks before we actually administer the test the teachers look at it again and they say to the district specialist … “That week we had homecoming and a parade and a pep rally … and we missed three days of instruction over this. And so we didn’t get that far. So that test item needs to come out.” So we’re working really hard to keep those benchmarks to be a true reflection of what we’ve taught.

Of course, collaboration like this doesn’t just happen; the districts created time and space for it:

The districts in our case study regularly convened teachers of the same course- or grade-specific content in different schools—for example, Biology 1 or third-grade social studies—to review curriculum and assessments and to share instructional ideas. The timing of these meetings was based on the six- or nine-week grading periods in the district curriculum so teachers could look at results from the latest benchmark assessment. Less frequently, district leaders convened vertical teams of teachers from different grade levels—for example, elementary, middle, and high school teachers of US history. Interviewees in the study expressed a desire for increasing the frequency of these vertical team meetings.

Students and teachers in these two districts are benefiting greatly from focusing on districtwide curriculum, assessment, and professional development. What a shame that such efforts are so rare!


Shutterstock Image
A strong districtwide curriculum connects teachers across schools, grades, and subjects. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

5 comments on “Collaborating on Curriculum and Assessment: Two Districts Lead the Way”

  1. 1
    Tom Sundstrom on June 18, 2015

    As usual, your post makes perfect sense. The outcome improvements are no surprise because the processes followed are perfectly logical. We have described the general case here: http://sundryeducation.com/AlignedMaterials.html. We absolutely agree that standards need build out to clearly define teachable and measurable learning objectives.

    One point in the Case Study (page 14) not mentioned here is that the districts used classroom walkthroughs in multiple ways to ensure there was actual classroom teaching and learning of the defined objectives at the intended cognitive level. Getting the content alignment right at the “point of instruction” is the most critical part.

  2. 2
    Ponderosa on June 24, 2015

    I wonder whether the fixation on alignment hurts the quality of the lessons. In such a district, I know I’d have to scrap many of my idiosyncratic (though roughly standards based) lessons. Did the study investigate whether the students found the new regime stimulating or stultifying?

  3. 3
    Districts Could Do More for the Most Vulnerable Students « The Core Knowledge Blog | The Echo Chamber on June 30, 2015

    […] my last post I highlighted two districts that are equalizing opportunity to learn and increasing teacher […]

  4. 4
    Victoria Medlock on March 21, 2017


    The concept of creating time and putting effort into collaboration to create a content-rich curriculum is such a beneficial process! As educators, we need to find ways to connect our curriculum, instruction, and assessments together to enhance student learning. Teaching should not be an isolated profession and it is essential to collaborate and communicate with our colleagues to design lessons that engaging and that motivate students.

    I believe that the idea of curriculum mapping both vertically between grade-levels and horizontally through subjects helps teachers develop a timeline of how content and standards fit in each class and grade-level. I am a ninth grade physical science teacher and my district has recently put more focus on the vertical curriculum mapping to try and help students make more connections with content as they move on from one grade to the next.

    I also love the idea of creating common assessments. We just started initiating this idea for our midterm and final exams, but have not made the effort to go further than that. We need to decide what to not do with the data that we collected from these two exams. The idea of common assessments supports the idea that all students can learn the same standards, but does not take away from the creativity of the teachers. It is important to actually use the assessment data that we collect to drive our instruction to best support our students.

    What type of challenges did these districts have in getting all teachers on board? This has been one of the biggest obstacles at my school. There are so many of colleagues that are willing to work on collaborating to create an enriched curriculum, but how do we go about convincing our district to allocate time, space, and professional development? I look forward to hearing more about the effects of your case study!


  5. 5
    Carmen A Burnette on March 28, 2020

    Teachers and educators must develop rich and practical curriculum that can be uaed to inspire and allow students to learn from a wide variety of resources. Gorn are the days when students are able to answer only questions with answers right infornt of them without doing any critical analysis. The curriculum must be content-rich zand clearly state what students needs to learn in each grade.
    The curriculum must be co-hesive and coordinated so students can transfer learning. If they are learning about fruits in science .theycan read a passage on fruits in language arts and calculate word problems about fruits in Maths. The curriculum must build a bridge between grade. For instant, students should be able to cover a topic in one grade before they enter the next .
    Teacher leaders may want to instruct teachers to administer assessment on a regular bases to evaluate the level at which students are learning the content, to be able to identifyn problems, and weak areas,
    so that modification can nbe made to the instruction to meet the needs of the students.
    Th district , educators and stakeholders must creat space and time for collaborative work. Teachers are able to share ideas and foster educational development and improvement, measure testings and evaluate the effectiveness of various instructional measures. They are able to share ideas and from a teacher leadershipposition influence the faculty. ” Effective communication and collaborationare essential to becominga successful learner. It is primarily through dialoglogue ans examining different perspectives that students become knowledgeable, strategic, self-determined.and empathetic.” ” Collaborative learningaffords studentsenormous advantages not availablefrom more traditional instruction because a group -whether it be the whole class or a learning group within the class can accomplish meaningful learning and solve problems better than any individualcan alone.” ( Tinzmann, Jones, Fennimore, Bakker,Pierce, 1990). This method of collaboration can also be applied to teachers and teacher leaders working together for the common good of the students.

    Tinzmann, M. B. , Jones, B. F. ,Fennimore, T. F. ,Bakker, J. , Fine, C. ,and Pierce, J. (1990). What is classroom collaboration. NCREL, Oak Brook.

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