How to Align Standards and Instruction

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.

Raise Trajectory of Student Learning in 4 Steps

Learning Target Affects Assessment
Learning Target Affect Assessment

I am sure many of you (teachers) including myself remember being asked to write a lesson objective on the board for students to view. You do this partly because it is part of your evaluation. The other part is for students to know what the lesson is about. But have you ever wondered, do most students understand the purpose of the lesson and the intended outcome? Probably not. For this reason, I want to show how you can raise the trajectory of student learning so students know the purpose of the lesson and understand the target they are aiming for.

This subtitle: Mining the Instructional Objective: What is this lesson’s reason to live, Chapter 2, How to design Learning Targets of the book Learning Targets, puts my thinking about the lesson objective from a fresh perspective. Moss and Brookhart, author of the book, emphasize to plan effective instruction, teachers need to know three things about today’s lesson:

  1. What is the essential knowledge (facts, concepts, and generalizations or principles) and skills (procedures) for the lesson?
  2. What is the essential reasoning content for this lesson?
  3. What is the potential learning trajectory in which the lesson is situated?

Moss and Brookhart reasoning is you will have the raw materials you used to design the learning target if you mine the instructional objective for these three elements. You can think of these three elements as ingredients: the lessons “reason to live.” If the essential elements do not advance learning on a trajectory toward more learning, then the lesson becomes questionable whether we should teach it at all. The point of standard-based instruction is individual lessons, overtime, which will amount to achievement of a larger standard. See Figure 2.1 below:

A Guide to Learning Trajectory

Four Steps of Designing a Learning Target

Step 1. Define the Essential Content for the Lesson

This step requires you to have a deep understanding of the intended learning. This deep understanding is not merely to list the facts and concepts that students should know, but placing them into any larger learning picture. Besides a deep understanding of the intended learning, you need to have a clear idea of what a lesson-sized “chunk” of your instructional aim looks like. What portion or aspect of the instructional aim are you going to work on during today’s lesson? All of it or part of it? Moss and Brookhart suggest you should communicate longer-range goals to students, but do not lose the sight of the fact that students need a learning target for today’s lessons.

Once you have a deeper understanding of the instructional aim and what aspect or aspects of it, you will base your lesson on, ask yourself the following questions suggested by the authors:

  1. What content knowledge does this lesson focus on? Content knowledge should be more than facts; it should also include concepts and generalizations or principles.
  2. How will this lesson add to what students have learned in previous lessons?
  3. How will this lesson increase students’ understanding of the content? Will students develop a more sophisticated understanding of a concept, or will they tackle a brand-new concept?
  4. What skills does this lesson focus on? Skills is a broad term, encompassing abilities like outlining, summarizing, questioning, graphing, etc.
  5. Will students learn a new skill, practice one they have yet to master, or apply a highly developed skill to a new context?

6th grade Math Example:

6.SP.1 Recognize a statistical question as one that anticipates variability in the data related to the question and accounts for it in the answers.

6.SP.2 Understand that a set of data collected to answer a statistical question has a distribution which can be described by its center, spread, and overall shape.

The teacher begins work on these standards and wants students to develop a basic understanding of the concept of variability and build on their previous work on graphing to move into the concept. Thinking about her students’ learning trajectory and mindful of the standards toward which trajectory is leading, the teacher writes these instructional objectives:

  1. Students will explain how the element of chance leads to variability in a set of data.
  2. Students will represent variability using a graph.
Potential Learning Trajectory ConsiderationsElements for the Lesson
Step 1. Define the essential content (concts and skills) for the lesson.*My students can create a simple bar graph given a set of data.
*My students have a naïve idea about the concept of chance, and this lesson will deepen that understanding.
*My students have a solid understanding of how to look for and represent a pattern.
*My students already know that chance exists in games like bingo, dice, cards, etc., but do not understand that chance exists naturally in the everyday world.
* My students must learn that chance occurs naturally during everyday procedures- like why they make cookies.
*My students must learn that chance causes the values in a data set to vary.
*My students must learn that variation in the data creates a pattern.
Step 2. Define the reasoning processes essential for the lesson.*My students have little practice with mathematical prediction.
*My students have experience with analysis.
*My students can build on what they know about cause and effect.
*My students know how to brainstorm.
Reasoning Processes
*My students must learn to analyze on everyday procedure to recognize the elements of chance embedded in that procedure that might cause a data set to distribute itself randomly.
Step 3. Design a convincing performance of understanding that will develop student understanding and provide interesting evidence of student learning.*My students can observe and analyze a simple procedure.
*My students need to show an understanding of cause and effect reasoning.
*My students have practiced brainstorming reasons for common occurrences.
Performance of Understanding:
*My students must engage in a performance of understanding that stimulates naturally occurring elements of chance in ways that require them to observe, graph, analyze, and explain the effect that chance has on data pattern.
*My students will use data on the number of chips in chocolate chip cookies for these purposes.

You can see from the chart above: as the teacher thinks about the learning trajectory, she recognizes students have already developed some relevant concepts and skills. Other relevant concepts and skills shown in elements for the lesson needed to develop by students.

Step 2. Define the Reasoning Process Essential for the Lesson

In this step you need to think about what students must do and how they do it. Author of How to Unpack your Learning Targets, identified this in the Cut the Fluff section. Moss and Brookhart suggest using Bloom’s taxonomy and provide guiding questions for the reasoning processes essential for the lesson:

  1. What thought-demanding process will allow my students to build on what they already know and can do?
  2. What kinds of thinking will promote deep understanding and skill development so that students can analyze, reshape, expand, extrapolate from, and apply and build on what they already know?

Teacher uses the same thought process in the previous step for concepts and comes up with the reasoning for skills to focus on analyzing everyday procedure to recognize the elements of chance embedded in that procedure.

Step 3. Design a Strong Performance of Understanding

When thinking about designing a convincing performance of understanding, it is important to ask yourself “what performance of understanding will help my students develop their thinking skills and apply their new knowledge?” Another word, what evidence of learning students can produce that you will design in your lesson to help them learn and develop the skills they will need to apply their new knowledge.

Moss and Brookhart note that as the facilitator of student learning, the teacher can select performances of understanding and other lesson elements from the larger picture, which include what learning came before and what will come after. However, students are “in” the learning and know only the things they either encounter in the lesson or have prior knowledge of (Bell’s going off in my head- this is what someone had told me before). So far students doing well on performing understanding is the goal at that time and place. For the teacher, it is only one indicator of learning.

Teacher uses these conclusions to decide that her performance of understanding must give students a chance to use some skills they already have (observing, graphing, and analyzing) to learn new tasks, namely to develop a mathematical understanding of how chance operates in a data set from everyday life. The teacher plans her performance of understanding by asking students to count numbers of chips in a set of chocolate chip cookies and construct a bar graph of what they find. Students will do this in groups to share the work of breaking up cookies, counting the chips, and constructing the graphs. The result will be five graphs, one from each group, and they will all be a little different. The teacher will lead the discussions of students’ observations of the graph by using open-ended questions. This leads to Step 4 State the Learning Target:

We will observe a pattern in graphs that we estimate about the number of chips in our cookies, and we will explain what causes that pattern.

The teacher presents this target at the beginning of the lesson, and students can refer to the target while they work, and revisit at the end of the lesson.

Learning targets represent the difference from a student’s view. Between complying with the teacher’s requests and pursuing their own learning, students who take responsibility for their own learning can show increased motivation, learn more, and develop stronger problem-solving skills.

Learning Target Action Tools from Moss and Brookhart

The next Step is