Learning Center‎ > ‎

Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit (I-CAT) Tutorial


The Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit (I-CAT) is a set of processes and web-based tools that can be used by school districts in Iowa to collect, store, analyze, and use curriculum alignment data free of charge. Here you will find information that will help you not only learn more about I-CAT's history, foundational principles, and research support, but how to access and use the processes and tools as well.

Purposes and Uses of I-CAT

This page contains the information needed for education professionals to use the Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit (I-CAT), as well as the technical information upon which the I-CAT is built. I-CAT is a web-based tool that can be used to collect, store, and analyze curriculum alignment data. Briefly, the concept of curriculum can be divided into three categories: intended, enacted, and assessed curricula (Porter, 2004; also see Figure 1). 

Alignment can be defined as “the extent to which and how well all policy elements work together to guide instruction and, ultimately, facilitate and enhance student learning” (Webb, 1997). In the case of I-CAT, the policy elements are the intended, enacted, and assessed curricula in the state of Iowa. In all cases, data collected using I-CAT should be used with other data (alignment or otherwise) for when making decisions related to each of these purposes. The I-CAT can currently be used for the following purposes:

  1. fulfill regulatory/compliance requirements,
  2. support school improvement efforts, and
  3. assist with the professional growth of staff.

Before detailing how the I-CAT can be used for the preceding three purposes, it is important to explain what the I-CAT should not be used for. This includes, but is not limited to, the following inappropriate uses of I-CAT:

  1. evaluation of teachers within the formal evaluation system;
  2. evaluation of the impact of professional development;
  3. experimental or quasi-experimental examination of the impact of alignment on student performance;
  4. public reporting of alignment results specific to individual teachers, buildings, or districts; and
  5. making decisions about individual students’ opportunity to learn as a part of the special education evaluation and determination process

In regard to fulfilling regulatory/compliance requirements, I-CAT can currently be used to fulfill the summative self reporting requirement Outcome 4 of the Iowa Core Implementation Plan framework. In general, the training materials that accompany I-CAT indicate when and how the I-CAT should be used at the end of a course for summative reflections by individual teachers. Training materials are available when a district has its training on using the I-CAT.

The potential uses of I-CAT for school improvement efforts and professional growth of staff are varied and often depend on local district efforts. In general, however, alignment data collected using I-CAT can be used to determine gaps and overlaps of instructional content not only with the Standards/Essential Concepts/Skill Sets and Details of the Iowa Core , but in the following combinations as well:

  1. teacher-to-teacher, same grade/course; and
  2. teachers-to-teachers across grades/courses within grade spans from the IC

These data can be combined and analyzed to get snapshots about how the enacted curriculum are articulated across the school system. Such data can be used, for example, as part of curriculum cycles often used by districts for school improvement efforts. At the same time, these data can be used for individual and groups of teachers’ reflections on their own practice, especially to enhance a common understanding of the Standards/Essential Concepts.

Policy Issues

Work began on I-CAT originally in response to the requirements set forth in Senate File 2216 of the 2008 legislative session of the Iowa state legislature. Senate File 2216 built upon previous legislation and, in part, required the following subject areas to be taught in grades K-12: (a) literacy, (b) mathematics, (c) science, (d) social studies, and (e) 21st century skills.

Charged with further defining the actions districts would need to take in response to Senate File 2216, the Iowa Department of Education developed an implementation plan framework that consists of six outcomes. Of these six outcomes, the outcome focusing on curriculum alignment (Outcome 4) requires districts to engage in an examination of the alignment of teachers’ enacted curriculum to the intended curriculum, defined in this context as the Standards/Essential Concepts/Skill Sets of the Iowa Core. Within Outcome 4 are two methods by which enacted to intended curriculum alignment data are to be collected and used by districts: (1) summative self reports by teachers, and (2) observation and dialogue of teachers’ instructional content. I-CAT is a tool that districts may use to engage in the first of these two required data collection and use activities (i.e., summative self reporting).

Outcome 4 requires that enacted-to-intended data be collected, which is a horizontal alignment process (labeled "A" in Figure 2). Furthermore, Outcome 4 requires that the dimension of alignment data to collect is topical/conceptual knowledge (labeled "B" in Figure 2). Finally, Outcome 4 requires data to be collected at a coarse-grained level of analysis (labeled "C" in Figure 2).

Foundational Concepts and I-CAT Applications

An extensive treatment of foundational curriculum alignment concepts and research can be found here. Currently, I-CAT is capable of being used to collect, store, analyze, and use data for enacted-to-intended curricular comparisons (see Figure 1). That is, what teachers actually teacher and how that aligns with what is found in the Standards/Essential Concepts/Skill Sets and Details from the Iowa Core.

Figure 1. Curricular components and direction of alignment analysis required in Outcome 4.

These comparisons are considered primarily horizontal in nature. Teacher-to-teacher or sequential grade levels/course examinations, which are possible after collecting horizontal data, are considered vertical in nature. Currently, the I-CAT can only be used to collect data on the dimension of topical/conceptual knowledge. Finally, I-CAT can be used to collect both coarse- and fine-grained data. Data at the Standard/Essential Concept/Skill Set level (i.e., the "mandatory" level of implementation) are considered relatively coarse-grained, while data at the Standard Breakdown/Details level are considered relatively fine-grained. Note that coarse-grained data can be collected by themselves, or generated after collected at the fine-grained level and data are aggregated up.

 Figure 2. Alignment characteristics required for Outcome 4.

Preparation and Training

Database Set Up and Data Entry

Using the I-CAT requires preparation and training. This involves some logistics in terms of scheduling times to meet, securing/reserving rooms and other equipment, and working with professional development and teacher schedules. This also involves working with Heartland staff who are trained to work with the I-CAT. Heartland staff qualified to engage in I-CAT work include members of the alignment team (within their specific roles and expertise) and other Heartland staff who have completed alignment-specific training. The current details regarding preparation and training for the I-CAT are detailed in Table 1 below. The details of each activity are explained during the initial planning meeting (Activity #1).

Table 1. District Commitments for Using the I-CAT


Time Commitment

1. District and/or building leadership planning with AEA staff

Minimum of one to two hours

2. Enter participating teachers and courses to be rated into I-CAT

Varies depending on number of participating teachers and courses

3. Teacher training

Approximately 90 minutes

4. Initial data entry*

Approximately 90 minutes

5. Planning next steps

Minimum of one to two hours

*Note: Initial data entry occurs immediately after teacher training. Teachers will be able to continue data entry after the session if need be since the database is web-based.

In order to ensure that use of the I-CAT goes well, a list of expectations of both district and AEA staff has been developed. These have been developed in part because Heartland is and will continue to be in a process of continuous improvement with the I-CAT. The expectations are listed in Table 2.

Table 2. I-CAT Expectations for AEA and LEA Staff

Expectations for Heartland

Expectations for District

1. Participating teachers and administrators will be able to access the data that are collected.

1. The district ensures that the data in Heartland’s PeopleBox database are up to date.

2. There will be Heartland staff available and capable of helping districts enter and use data.

2. One or more district staff make sure the participating teachers and the courses to be reflected on are entered into the database before the training session.

3. Heartland staff will be knowledgeable of the Iowa Core Curriculum and implementation requirements.

3. Teachers read the IC before training sessions.

4. The I-CAT will be fully capable of meeting the summative self reporting requirements for Implementation Outcome 4.

4. Teachers have access to the IC during trainings.

5. Heartland staff will be professional and responsive to teacher needs during the session.

5. At least one district and/or building leader is present for and helps provide the training.

6. Remain flexible with scheduling.

6. Remain flexible with scheduling.

7. Exercise patience and understanding during the process.

7. Exercise patience and understanding during the process.

8. Heartland will use feedback data collected during field studies to improve its services.

8. Provide feedback to help Heartland works to improve the I-CAT and associate training/support.

The training structure can be best described as flexibly standardized. Training is standardized in that the district commitments detailed in Table 1 must be followed, the session objectives remain consistent from session to session and district to district, and there is specific content that must be covered in a particular sequence. The session objectives focus on the following for individuals and the group:

  1. Enhance a common understanding of curriculum and alignment concepts and terms
  2. Explain the implementation outcome for alignment
  3. Explain the purpose of the alignment process
  4. Implement the alignment process

Training is flexible in that the amount of time it takes varies district by district (i.e., anywhere from 2 to 3 hours), questions posed by trainees can alter what is learned from district to district, and updates in policy decisions or the I-CAT itself can also somewhat alter the content of training. For example, sometimes participants have a lot of questions about policy issues (e.g., which part of the Iowa Core Curriculum is mandated?), and other times participants want to learn more about how to use the data entered into the I-CAT. Given the general time constraints around training, these sort of variables do not alter the training substantially. Nevertheless, Heartland staff will work with districts to meet their unique needs within these parameters.

Data Analysis and Use

Currently, services related to data analysis and use are exclusively in the field study phase. That means these services are less structured, continue to evolve, and are only being done with districts who have already entered data into the I-CAT. However, some foundational information related to data analysis and use with the I-CAT is presented in the following section. If you are with a district that already entered data into the I-CAT and wish to engage in a field study around data analysis and use, contact Brad Niebling (bniebling@aea11.k12.ia.us, skype = bniebling) or Kim Thuente (kthuente@aea11.k12.ia.us).

Data Entry, Analysis and Use

Data Entry

The I-CAT and associated processes and materials are all designed to facilitate the accurate collection, analysis, and use of curriculum alignment data. This is accomplished primarily through the use of field tested, standardized procedures (see field testing results in the following section). Any deviation or use of materials that have not been created by Heartland AEA 11 or the Iowa Department of Education are not endorsed or supported by either agency. Training to use these processes and tools is performed or supervised by Brad Niebling. This happens exclusively for Department of Education, Area Education Agencies, and Urban Eight Network staff to be used as part of the state-designed support structure. 

In general, the initial I-CAT experience follows a six-step process that culminates in data entry (see slide below). A specific set of PowerPoint and related materials are used to execute each of these steps. Steps A, B, and C have been described in previous sections of this tutorial.

Step D, Learning the Coding Process, is a multi-step process unto itself. It is in this step where standardization is crucial. The coding process entails the mindset, decision-making guidelines, order of actions, and the nuts and bolts of using I-CAT. If the training and directions are not followed precisely as laid out within the standardized training materials by a trained facilitator, it can significantly alter the interpretability of the results. The slides pertinent to Step D are in the slide show below. There is also a training video for how to use the I-CAT below the slideshow. Please note, viewing these materials is not a substitute for being trained by a qualified facilitator. This information is presented as background information for the reader.

Data Analysis and Use

There are a few important points to share here. First, data are available to I-CAT users in real time. That is, as soon as data are entered, teachers and administrators can generate reports using the "View my Data" and "Compare Data" buttons from the main screen (see below).

Second, there are three basic questions that reports from the I-CAT can help answer. These questions are:

Third, results are generated at multiple Levels of Analysis, and some are quantitative in nature.

You can also view data, row by row, examining the degree of similarity between different courses and what is in the Iowa Core.

Field Testing (Model and Results)