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why alignment matters

I felt sick watching him realize that he did not pass the state exams. I immediately looked around the room to check the faces of my other students. I counted at least three more with the same defeated look. This was a day I dreaded as a teacher, not for me, but for them. In the blink of an eye, lively seventh and eighth grade students lost confidence and began telling themselves that they were failures at school. It terrified me that the erroneous belief could change the course of their lives.

Most educators strive to help their students succeed academically and develop a life-long love of learning. One of the ways teachers prepare students to be successful is by providing instructional materials that reinforce the knowledge and skills their students are expected to learn as articulated in the state’s academic standards for each K-8 grade level and high school course. In other words, one way that teachers help their students perform well in class is by providing instructional materials that are “aligned to” the state’s standards.

State standards establish the minimum expectations for what students are expected to know and be able to do upon completing each grade level and high school course. Each standard has three components: the content, context and cognitive demand, also referred to as the cognitive rigor or performance expectation of the standard.

Content describes what the student is expected to learn. Educators often refer to the content as the “noun” of the standard.
Cognitive demand describes what the student is expected to do in order to demonstrate that he/she has learned the content. Educators often refer to the cognitive demand as the “verb” of the standard. Examples of the cognitive demand of a standard include: understand, ask and answer, describe, analyze, compare and contrast or solve.
Context describes where the learning is taking place. Examples of the context of a standard include: in informational texts, poems, myths, word problems, lab experiments, investigative questions.
According to most educators, an instructional material is aligned to a standard only if it addresses all three components of the standard in a specified location (e.g., in a lesson, video, page or range of pages).