Alignment between academic standards and student tests is critical to the success of standards-based school improvement. Traditionally, “alignment” meant going through a checklist to see if a test question measured a standard.
The nonprofit group Achieve, which works to promote state standards and assessment initiatives, based its alignment work on the idea that the traditional method was not good enough to tell students, parents, teachers, and the public whether test results reflect the attainment of standards.
What is good enough? While no mathematical formula exists for matching a test to a state’s standards, Achieve has devised some guiding criteria:
Content. Does the test evaluate what the state standards indicate all students should know and be able to do at a particular grade level? If not, is it because the standards are too vague to make a determination, or is it because test items measure only part of what the standards ask for?
Performance. Are students asked to demonstrate the skills the standards expect? For example, if the standards say that students will analyze the characteristics of various literary forms, does the test ask them to evaluate different literary forms, or does it merely ask students to identify one type of literature?
Level of difficulty. Are test items easy, medium, or hard, and is the range of difficulty appropriately distributed across all the items? What makes them difficult--the content they are assessing, or another factor, such as the language of the question? Overall, is each assessment appropriately rigorous?
Balance and range. Does the test as a whole gauge the depth and breadth of the standards and objectives outlined in state standards documents? If not, are the standards that are assessed the most important ones for the grade level? Overall, do the assessments for elementary, middle, and high school focus on the most important content that all students should know?
Once the tests are analyzed against those criteria, Achieve uses the data to help states answer fundamental questions about their standards and assessments.
First, does each test measure only the content and skills reflected in the standards? In other words, can everything on the test be found in the state standards? That question gets at the heart of the fairness issue: If schools and students have used the standards to guide curriculum and instruction, they should not be surprised by material on the tests.
Other important issues center on the emphasis the tests place on certain content and skills. Does each assessment effectively sample the important knowledge and skills in the standards? To what extent does each assessment measure the core content and skills for that grade, and, taken together, do the tests for elementary, middle, and high school stress the most important concepts?
Finally, do the assessments for elementary, middle, and high school grow in sophistication and rigor from grade level to grade level?
Answers to those questions are intended to help states understand if their assessments are truly aligned to their standards, and whether the standards and tests taken together are a solid foundation for school improvement.
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2001 edition of Education Week