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Districts Turn to Nonprofit Group for Help In 'Realigning' Curricula To Parallel Tests

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Last year, the Gary County Unified School District in Junction City, Kan., asked a nonprofit education group known as epie to help it "realign" its curriculum for grades K-8, so that what was taught in each grade would more closely match what was tested by the state's minimum-competency test.

After that adjustment, the scores of Gary County's students skyrocketed.

On the mathematics section of the test alone, 4th graders' performance improved by 19.8 percent from 1986 to 1987; 6th graders' scores rose by 16.5 percent, 8th graders' by 9.9 percent, and 2nd graders' by 4.7 percent.

"It was a great morale-booster for our teaching staff," recalls Patricia M. Flanagan, principal of the Morris Hill Elementary School in Junction City. "We knew that we had competent people," she says. "We knew they were very hardworking. This sort of said to them, 'You've been doing just fine all along, but perhaps you've been concentrating on the wrong objectives."'

Gary County's dilemma--and its subsequent happy resolution--illustrates a growing concern among educators nationwide: how to ensure, in an era of teacher accountability, that curricular goals, textbooks, and tests are relatively congruent.

Without that match, known as "curriculum alignment," students may spend hours studying material that will never be tested, or trying to master information that is not in their textbooks.

And as a pending federal court case in St. Louis demonstrates, teachers may also find that their evaluations hinge on how well students assimilate material they were never asked to teach.

Analyzing 'Alignment'

Epie--the Educational Products Information Exchange--has sought to make the task of curriculum alignment easier by devising a computerized database that lets districts compare their curriculum goals with the content of popular textbook series and standardized tests.

An educational consumers' union affiliated with the publishers of Consumer Reports, epie has for 20 years provided teachers and school districts with third-party critiques of instructional materials, ranging from textbooks to computer software.

Its latest program--known as Curriculum Alignment Services for Educators, or case--grew out of the concern of epie's president, P. Kenneth Komoski, that in many instances tests, textbooks, and curriculum were at odds with one another.

"If the wheels of this country's school buses were as poorly aligned as the curriculum of many of its schools, an awful lot of kids would never make it to school in the morning," he says.

Most Common Problems

According to Mr. Komoski, a number of factors make curriculum alignment much worse that it should be.

One problem, he states, is the widespread use of standardized tests, such as the California Achievement Test, that may not reflect the curriculum of a particular state or district.

Another is that, within a state or district, different people frequently are responsible for the tasks of selecting textbooks, designing curriculum objectives, and developing testing programs.

Epie's curriculum-alignment service is now available for grades K-8 in mathematics and science. But the organization is expanding its database to include information about language arts, reading, and social studies. Several university-based groups--including the Center for Social Studies Development at Indiana University--are contributing to that effort.

So far, the state of Georgia, the District of Columbia, and school districts in 12 other states, including Alaska, California, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, have used case.

The service is part of a broader database at epie, the Integrated Instructional Information Resource, that provides educators with facts about curriculum guides, instructional materials, tests, and teaching strategies.

St. Louis Suit

The importance of curriculum alignment has grown with the rapid expansion during the education-reform movement of statewide testing and curriculum mandates. Both have been viewed as a means of making teachers and principals more accountable for student learning.

Last year, however, the St. Louis Teachers' Union filed suit in federal district court to prevent the school system from using students' scores on the California Achievement Test in the evaluation of teachers.

In a study commissioned by the union, epie concluded that the district's curriculum was so poorly aligned that teachers could not be held accountable for student performance on the exam. (See Education Week, June 3, 1987.)

On average, the research firm wrote, the city's tests, textbooks, and curriculum guidelines had only 9.5 percent of all "content items" in common for the four grade levels studied. A hearing in the case has not yet been scheduled.

But according to Mr. Komoski, the problems uncovered in St. Louis are not unique. Just this year, epie compared the 6th-grade mathematics objectives tested by the Stanford Achievement Test with the Chino (Calif.) School District's curricular goals for the same grade. Out of a total of 98 topics covered by either the test or the curriculum, only 20 were included in both.

State Comparisons

Epie has also begun to compare curriculum and testing programs across states.

In a look at three states' minimum-competency tests for 6th-grade math, it found that the exams shared only 5 of the more than 90 content items tested overall.

While preliminary in nature, such findings have sparked the interest of the nation's chief state school officers, who have advocated the comparison of student performance across states.

The assumption underlying such comparisons is that the curriculum remains stable enough across states to make comparative analyses valid.

To test that assumption, the chiefs have asked epie to compare the math objectives for grades K-12 for some 40 states and 14 school districts to see just how similar they are.

State officials surveyed last year by the Council of Chief State School Officers said they believed there was a core curriculum that transcended state boundaries. But epie's study will provide the first objective test of that view. The study is scheduled to be completed late next month.

Mr. Komoski says he believes that if states' curriculum goals were aggregated across all grades, the content that states cover would be quite similar.

The problem, he says, is at any particular grade level. What one state teaches in grade 2, for instance, another state may not require until grade 5.

In addition, most districts teach far more than is required by state mandates. O. Max Wilson, director of instructional media for the Georgia Department of Education, suggests that probably no more than 50 percent to 60 percent of what is taught in a local school system matches the state's curriculum objectives.

Ms. Flanagan of Kansas agrees. "You're never really going to have perfect alignment," she says. "I don't think you want it. You want some things in your curriculum that are local and that are, perhaps, particularly important to the group you're serving."

Resource for Teachers

According to Mr. Komoski, epie eventually hopes to provide school administrators and teachers with a customized computer database that they can use at the district level to select from among various curriculum resources. Epie would update the information in the database electronically.

The Northern Valley Schools in New Jersey, for example, recently used epie's services to compare the district's curriculum objectives in mathematics for grades K-8 with available textbook series.

On the basis of that review, the schools selected one publisher's textbook series for kindergarten, andnother's textbooks for grades 1-8.

Equally important, according to Edward A. Ciccoricco, director of curriculum and instruction for the school system, the schools now know which of their math objectives are matched by the textbooks at each grade level and which are not, and can provide supplementary materials to fill the gaps. The cost of comparing the schools' guidelines with the content of six leading textbook series was approximately $2,500.

According to Mr. Komoski, "one of the problems with textbooks is that they cover such a broad range of things--they try to be all things to all people."

As a result, he maintains, as much as 50 percent of a textbook's content may be irrelevant to a district's objectives for a particular grade level.

Epie would like to provide districts with what Mr. Komoski refers to as an "instructional road map" for each textbook, so that teachers would know which objectives were covered in which chapters, and which were not.

Such information, he suggests, could provide teachers with the confidence to rely less on textbooks and more on supplementary materials, which they could find out about through the database.

"This will achieve the ultimate purpose of epie's work," he said, ''which is to empower teachers and local curriculum decisionmakers with the information they need to best implement their local curriculum."

For now, however, some teachers worry that the whole notion of curriculum alignment is having some unintended, negative consequences.

Negative Aspects

In some instances, teachers complain that rigid mandates from above are forcing them to "teach to the test," and are reducing both their own creativity and their students' learning.

Ramsay Selden, director of the ccsso's state assessment center, notes that curriculum alignment is a "necessary but not sufficient" step for improving American education.

"It's just not productive to form conclusions from tests that don't correspond very well to what's actually going on in the classroom," he points out. "But the bigger question about curriculum is, what is the quality of the content and its coherence?"

"People like Diane Ravitch and Lynne Cheney are talking about the need for content in the American school curricula that is substantial, coherent, rich," Mr. Selden adds, "and that can't be achieved by alignment alone. Alignment just tells you whether the pieces that you use to implement the curriculum are consistent."

Concludes Mr. Komoski: "Curriculum alignment has some negative aspects to it, but it's probably a necessary process that we've got to go through, since schools have lost as much credibility as they have. Like anything, it could be taken to an extreme that is very restrictive of teachers and students. I think that would be a terrible mistake."

"We're determined to have it be a real help to teachers," he adds.

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