Harvard Educational Review
  1. Succeeding with Standards

    Linking Curriculum, Assessment, and Action Planning

    By Judy F. Carr and Douglas E. Harris

    Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2001. 204 pp. $24.95.

    In Succeeding with Standards: Linking Curriculum, Assessment, and Action Planning, a practitioner-oriented publication from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Judy Carr and Douglas Harris provide a highly readable and relatively comprehensive resource for implementing academic standards. Harris and Carr assemble a wide range of materials, which they organize around building connections among classroom practice, curriculum, and assessment, and link the three in an action-planning process that focuses on clear standards for student performance. Almost all states have adopted or created academic standards — what the authors describe as “a balanced, coherent, articulation of expectations for student learning” — and most have begun to develop assessments that attempt to measure student performance in relation to these standards. This book offers timely support for practitioners at all levels who are responsible for implementing standards for student learning.

    The book begins with a systemic perspective on academic standards. Here, the authors unabashedly state the need for standards:

    Administrators, teachers, students, parents, and the community need a clear vision of what is expected in terms of student learning. Clarity is achieved when districts and schools formally identify standards and then use them consistently throughout the curriculum process. (p. 2)

    Although aligning standards with curriculum and assessment is necessary, in itself it is insufficient to achieve the linkage advocated for by Carr and Harris. Linkage requires that educators explicitly delineate the relationship between what students need to know and be able to do (learning standards), how learning is expected to occur (curriculum), and how progress is measured (assessment). It also requires that they delineate the relationship between the standards and other parts of the educational system. Specifically, Carr and Harris identify eleven areas that educators must monitor and integrate in order to link standards effectively: vision, what is currently being taught and assessed, a curriculum and assessment plan, school decision-making, resources, a professional development plan, supervision and evaluation, student profiles, a comprehensive assessment system, reporting, and an action plan. The authors qualify this assertion by noting that their framework represents a logical process, not a linear one, and that paying attention to the eleven areas is recursive, requires an ongoing commitment, and depends on understanding the systemic nature of reform. For each consideration, the authors identify key questions that policymakers and practitioners should answer in designing a well-integrated system that links the learning standards to the eleven areas. For example, under vision, Carr and Harris ask, “What are the standards, evidence, and learning opportunities to which the school or district is committed?” (p. 3). In considering professional development, the authors ask, “What do teachers need to know and be able to do in order to teach and assess? How will opportunities to address these needs be provided over time?” (p. 3).

    Carr and Harris provide several strategies for linking these eleven key areas. They borrow from previously published materials (e.g., by the Vermont Department of Education) and from practices and tools selected from their work with K–12 practitioners engaged in standards-based reform. For example, in chapter two, which focuses on the curriculum and assessment plan, the authors argue that “the fundamental decision in developing standards-based curriculum is assigning standards to specific grade levels, course, or classroom settings” (p. 25). They present a series of questions to help curriculum developers think through how to introduce concepts, gradually increasing in complexity and depth (what Harris and Carr call “spiraling”):

    • Which standards and evidence will be spiraled in the standards-based curriculum?
    • How will students experience the standards and evidence at each grade level?
    • What ways will students apply the standard at each grade level?
    • What ways will the student critically examine the standard at each level? (p. 28)

    In the same chapter, the authors provide an “assessment checklist” that raises questions about various aspects of assessment, such as consequences: “Is the assessment worth the instructional time?” (p. 33); fairness: “Does the assessment enable all students to demonstrate what they know and can do in the areas being assessed?” (p. 33); reliability and validity: “Does the assessment include explicit criteria for scoring and preferably a guide describing the application of these criteria?” (p. 33); cognitive complexity: “Does the assessment use tasks whose solutions cannot be memorized in advance?” (p. 34); content quality and coverage: “Does the assessment use tasks consistent with the instructional guidelines?” (p. 34); meaningfulness: “Does the assessment engage and motivate students to do their best?” (p. 34); and cost and efficiency: “Is the assessment administratively feasible?” (p. 34). The authors suggest that practitioners consider each of these areas when developing a comprehensive assessment system.

    The rest of the book provides examples, tools, and other information designed to help school and district leaders meaningfully link curriculum, assessment, instructional practices, and planning to clear standards for student achievement. For example, in the chapters on effective practice, action planning, and reporting, Carr and Harris provide graphic organizers, conceptual models, and other tools for reflection and/or assessment to guide the creation of a coherent, linked educational system. Although the tools illustrate how practitioners might build a coherent standards-based system and the models illuminate key concepts, the authors present them as a smorgasbord of possibilities. They do not provide much guidance about which tools complement one another, the specific situations that may call for the use of one over another, or issues likely to surface during implementation.

    Although this book provides some practical ideas and useful tools for creating a coherent system organized around clear expectations for student learning, the authors do not probe into many of the complexities of a standards-based approach. For example, Carr and Harris take as axiomatic the idea that it is good to have consistent practices across classrooms and schools. In the introductory chapter, they assert:

    Clear articulation of district-wide expectations in the areas of curriculum, instruction, and assessment leads to much greater consistency across classrooms. Clear articulation provides guidance for teacher decisionmaking and establishes a common language and focus for several important areas: professional and school development, supervision and evaluation, and planning for comprehensive assessment systems and action planning. (p. 10)

    Advocates for greater teacher autonomy, however, will take issue with the scant attention the authors pay to questions such as whether having high expectations for all students actually requires greater uniformity of practice. One can imagine clearly articulated learning standards pursued in a context of decentralized decisionmaking. Schools and/or teachers in this policy environment would have greater latitude in their practice while still being held accountable for student progress toward achieving a consistent set of standards. The current charter school movement in the United States reflects such a model. While Carr and Harris do an adequate job of explaining why the different parts of the system need to be thoughtfully integrated, they do not offer much insight into the complex nature of many of the larger issues touched upon in their book, such as where decisions about practice should be made or where accountability for results should rest. There is virtually no mention of the context in which practitioners have used the tools or developed the models. This risks oversimplifying the many challenges of organizational change, be it in standards-based educational reform or otherwise. Another area receiving insufficient attention is the role of leadership, which is periodically mentioned, but with largely superficial treatment. For example, the authors summarize the foundation of instructional leadership as staying focused on student results, understanding the origins of the results, and establishing improvement priorities (p. 59). Yet they do not discuss the necessity of professional development or instructional expertise.

    What Carr and Harris do provide is a clear argument for taking a systemic perspective, along with some tools to help reformers build a coherent strategy to link standards to curriculum, assessment, and action planning. In addition to numerous examples spread throughout the text, the authors include two appendices: 1) an example of an instrument to assess teacher training and on-the-job learning opportunities available to them, and 2) a sample district action plan that links the expectations for student learning to issues around curriculum, assessment, and budget.

    In this short, readable, and fairly comprehensive resource, Carr and Harris do not deeply examine many of the contradictions and complexities of a standards-based approach. They do, however, describe the logic of a systemic approach to standards implementation and provide several useful examples from the field. Succeeding with Standards is a resource useful to educators who are championing or leading the difficult process of implementing academic standards in K–12 public education.

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    Book Notes

    Succeeding with Standards
    By Judy F. Carr and Douglas E. Harris

    The Passionate Teacher
    By Robert L. Fried