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Summary of Research Findings

Introduction


Defining curriculum and alignment paints a picture of the "what" of curriculum alignment. It does not, however, describe the "why" of curriculum alignment. Although one could make several conceptual arguments for why we should spend time, energy, and resources on curriculum alignment efforts, one of the most compelling arguments is based on findings from research. Although alignment is a relatively new field in terms of research, methodology, and tools, evidence for the importance of alignment continues to grow.


Brief Summary of Research

The purpose of this summary is to provide examples of some findings from research on alignment, not to provide a comprehensive treatment of the research. The studies discussed below are from the work done by Adam Gamoran and his colleagues, and S. Alan Cohen and his graduate students. These two sets of work are illustrative of our general understanding of the impact of alignment on student outcomes, and are based on well-designed research. If you would like a more extensive treatment of the research on alignment, you can visit the pages dedicated to the alignment Reading List that we have compiled, the animated History of Alignment (Coming Soon) page, and the Other Links that provide additional alignment information and resources.

A great deal of alignment research is correlational or descriptive, which means we cannot treat the relationship between alignment and student outcomes as causal in those cases. However, advances in research methods have allowed researches to use better controls in their studies, such as using methods like Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM). These improvements, combined with many research findings for alignment being replicated, allow us to draw increasingly more decisive conclusions about the relationship between alignment and student outcomes.

Alignment and Student Outcomes

The idea that students tend to perform better on assessment activities when they have had a chance to learn the things they are being assessed on seems like a no-brainer. It turns out that in this case, the evidence from research on this issue seem to support this idea. In general, research evidence indicates that as student's as a student's opportunity to learn increases, so to do student outcomes (e.g., Cohen, 1987; Gamoran, Porter, Smithson, and White, 1997).

Alignment and the Size of Impact on Student Outcomes

Research findings indicating that alignment impacts achievement other only paint part of the picture. Another logical question is "how much does alignment impact student outcomes?" Some research indicates that the effect of opportunity to learn what is assessed ranges from approximately 1.0-3.0 (Cohen, 1987), while other studies indicate an impact around 0.40 (e.g., Gamoran, Porter, Smithson, and White, 1997). Although this is a wide range, controlled research studies in education with effect sizes of these sizes are usually considered practices worth pursuing.

Alignment and Other Factors Research Has Indicated Impact Student Learning 

When practices or factors that are proposed to affect student learning are researched, it can be misleading to look at only one thing at a time, because there could be many factors affecting student performance at any given time. That's why it is helpful to examine multiple factors and practices at the same time. For example, one study found that opportunity to learn had a positive impact on student learning even when taking into consideration factors typically associated with students who cannot and will not succeed in school (e.g., low prior achievement, low socioeconomic status, membership in a culturally and ethically diverse group) (e.g., Gamoran, Porter, Smithson, and White, 1997). Put another way, the impact those other factors usually have was almost completely eliminated by alignment. 

Alignment and Closing the Achievement Gap

One of the primary drivers behind the legislation and development of the Iowa Core was to provide equity in opportunity to learn for each and every student in Iowa. As is the case nationally, we have not only seen a stagnation in achievement gains amongst all students, we continue to see a gap in achievement between the groups like those studied in the Gamoran et al study (1997) here in Iowa. A reasonable question at this point is "can alignment help close the achievement gap?" What Gamoran and his colleagues discovered was that increased alignment between the enacted and assessed curriculum has shown to play a role in closing the achievement gap (e.g., Gamoran, Porter, Smithson, and White, 1997). That means that the difference between low performers and high performances was decreases. In other words, the rate of learning for lower performers was higher than for high performers.

Summary

In summary, research evidence continues to grow supporting the importance of alignment in positively impacting student learning, regardless of what individual students bring to the table. The studies cited here serve as an example of the effect, as well as the replication across multiple studies, years, and researchers. While the proportion of impact alignment has on student learning may vary from study to study, it continues to demonstrate a noticeable impact on student learning. 

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