Standards and Instruction Alignment

Align standards and instruction, explain by authors Shimmer, Hillman, and Stal, “is the process of analyzing and unpacking standards to create meaningful learning progressions that allow students to move from the simplest to the most sophisticated demonstrations of learning,” according to their book Standards-Based Learning in Action. I broke down the process into three focuses: aligning standards and instruction, analyzing and unpacking standards, and creating purposeful learning progressions to better understand the process.

Align Standards and Instruction

Shimmer, Hillman, and Stal believe strong alignments make the instructional sequence and progression transparent. This way, students understand how individual skill development contributes to higher-level thinking. The alignment between instruction and standards is necessary to maximize outcomes for learners. Therefore, educators’ goal is for students to meet the proficiency of standards. To do that, you need to analyze and unpack standards.

Analyzing and Unpacking Standards

What analyzes standards mean? When teachers identify the level of cognitive complexity of the standard and do it again for each learning target, they are analyzing the thinking-level that derives from Bloom’s Taxonomy. It will allow teachers to match assessment method to specific learning target. This is important for engagement in students’ learning. Authors Eric Jensen and Leann Nickelsen say this is critical because “The Common Core State Standards are asking us to take students past Engage to Build Basics and on to the Engage to Explore and Engage to Own Zones.” Jensen and Nickelsen name this as The Three Engagement Zones. I share the link for the Engagement Zones below:

According to their book Bringing the Common Core to Life in K-8 Classrooms, authors use table 3.1 (attached in the above PDF) to explain of how students can move from Engage to Build Basics (Zone 1) to Engage to Explore (Zone 2) and Engage to Own (Zone 3).

Zone 1 allows students to explain in simple terms what they know or are learning at the time to build basic background knowledge for future learning. The skills students exhibit are to define, explain partially, draw, and start wonder about their learning. It is a great introductory lesson for a standard.

Zone 2 creates students who want to learn and explore more in the classroom. They generate questions, compare the learning to other concepts they know, sort content, research, and make personal connections with the content.

Zone 3 cognitively engages students at the ownership level, where they apply the content to benefit others, transfer knowledge to other discipline, scrutinize texts to challenge authors’ and students’ own beliefs, and even want to create something new after learning about it. When students enter this zone, they think outside of the box and like to share what they come up with.

Each zone explains descriptors of how students can think, how to know when to use certain zones in a lesson, and which strategies support which zone. Once you have decided which engagement zone is best for each of your students, you will need to turn your chosen standards into a target.

You should already unpack the standard and identified nouns (content) and verbs (skills) at this point.

Jensen and Nickelsen Design a Three-Step Target:

Every lesson needs a specific target formed from the broad standard and from the broad standard you create the specific, daily targets that are measured within the one to the three days spent teaching the lesson. Jensen and Nickelsen note targets have three requirements:

  1. Do-The Thinking Verb. What will students do within this lesson? The verb choice will determine the rigor and length of the strategy; thus, defining which engagement zone the target will fall into. Every target needs a powerful verb to show how the students will be thinking. If your verbs are consistently in the lowest cognitive engagement zone (Zone 1), then you will need to revise some of your targets, because the CCSS asks students to think at a higher level. Most of our lessons should focus on depths.
  2. Know-Specific content they should know for this lesson. What do your standards tell you they should master? This is very specific and measured in one to three days.
  3. Show-The Result. How will the students prove they DO and Know? We give the students the specific criteria for success for this assessment product. The criteria clearly define what we expect in the DO and Know so students know exactly what they needed to show they mastered this target.

I have attached a pdf template that teachers can use to identify the DOK level.

Standard-to-Target Example:

First Grade Language Arts

Standard: Ask and answer questions about key details in a text

DO: Ask and answer questions (ask is a Zone 2 verb, since it involves generating questions based on details gathered)

Know: Understand key details in the informational text Garden Helpers

Show: Create a T-chart with questions and detailed answers

Target: Student will ask and answer questions by writing key details from the text Garden Helpers as a T-chart

  • In student friendly language: I can ask and answer questions by writing key details in a T-Chart
  • Model for students what key details look like, then ask students to do it with a partner
  • Ask students to self-assess their level of understanding by using thumbs up and thumbs down
  • When students are ready, they can complete one question-and-answer pair on the T-chart on their own and check for understanding

Criteria for Success: There are a variety of questions written on the left-hand side of the “T”; answers are text-based and writer across from the question on the right side of the “T”; answers show understanding of the article; students used the question stems to help create the questions

Once teachers have analyzed a standard, the next step is to unpack the standard. According to their book Standards-Based Learning in Action, authors shown four possible methods for unpacking standards. I will briefly mention them below:

  1. I Can statements–communicate powerfully to students that these are attainable goals that will lead them to proficiency with the standards
  2. Know, understand, and do (KUD) statements-can break down broad standards into categories of knowledge, overarching understandings, and skills that, when blended, create an environment where student can showcase mastery
  3. Benchmarks from the academic state or provincial or national standards-These benchmarks can be learning targets, but it is important that teachers review them to ensure understanding of the language, purpose, and focus before using them with students
  4. Learning Goals ladders-can organize I can statement into learning goals ladders to show learning progression, from the emerging stages to standard fulfillment

Educators often use I can statement and KUD statement. You can choose any method of unpacking you feel comfortable with. I have attached a standard with learning target pdf template and an example of Unpacking Standard pdf template:

Aligning Units to Standards

One tip I found to be useful is authors of the book Standards-Based Learning in Action suggest a process that teachers can use when either auditing a previously constructed unit or creating a new one. While planning, teachers can ask themselves these questions:

Step 1: What are your standards for assessment in this unit?

Step 2: How did you unpack them and make them meaningful for students?

Step 3: What is your summative assessment? Does it address all the standards? Can a student show a 4 (mastery)?

Step 4: What are your formative assessments or checks? Do they address the standards?

Step 5: Does daily instruction align with the standards? Is there ample daily opportunity to practice with the standards?

Creating Purposeful Learning Progressions

Learning progressions provide teachers with a blueprint for instruction and assessment, i.e., identify both what to assess and when to assess it. Essentially, learning progressions have 2 functions:

  1. Layout in successive steps, more sophisticated understandings
  2. Describe the typical development of a student’s understanding over an extended period

The intention of developing learning progression is sequencing instruction from the simplest (targets) to the most sophisticated (standards) demonstrations of learning. Remember what Jensen and Nickelsen said, this was crucial because “The Common Core State Standards are asking us to take students past Engage to Build Basics and on to the Engage to Explore and Engage to Own Zones.”

After developing learning progressions, teachers can use effective assessment strategies to identify where instruction should begin, so teachers can gain instructional efficiency. Effective pre-assessment can determine their individual and collective levels of readiness for new learning. Teachers need not always begin from the beginning because standards often overlap and spiral through and between grade levels according to Shimmer, Hillman, and Stal.


I understand aligning standards and instruction process feels new for many teachers. So, here are some suggestions from authors Shimmer, Hillman, and Stal to make it more palatable:

  • Discuss the academic standards in learning teams. Focus on the verb and the applicable DOK level to deepen understanding as a group.
  • Deconstruct the academic standards into student-friendly learning targets.
  • Organize the learning targets meaningfully for students and parents.
  • Plan the assessment process (both summative and formative) based on the standards, the targets, and what they demand.
  • Align units of study to the learning targets, building up to the standards in sum.
  • Communicate the standards and learning targets to all stakeholders.

You can learn more about how to design learning targets in my blog post Raise Trajectory of Learning.