How to Plan for a Balanced Assessment System While Keeping Curriculum in Mind

An Approach to Promote Coherence by Connecting Curriculum, Assessment and Instruction to Student Learning

State and district leaders are increasingly interested in implementing balanced systems of assessment, in large part to improve the instructional utility of assessment scores. 

Key assessment leaders have argued that districts are the appropriate entity to position such systems if the goal is to improve instruction and learning (Marion, 2018; Shepard, Penuel, & Pellegrino, 2018).  However, balanced assessment systems have been elusive to most school districts because, at least in part, of the dominance of large-scale summative assessments and commercially-available interim assessments. 

Those assessments are too distal from instruction and/or are administered at a time when they cannot support improvements in teaching. However, simply changing assessments in the system will not do the trick. Balanced assessment systems to support instruction and teaching must be situated within a high-quality curriculum, which provides the framework for designing rich and useful assessments. 

Balanced Assessment Systems Start with A Shared Vision of Student Learning

A shared vision of what students learn and how they learn it must serve as the backbone of the various assessments in the system. Thus, coherence is one of key criteria for any type of balanced assessment system (National Research Council, 2001, 2006). Vertical coherence describes the alignment of learning goals across the levels in the system (e.g., state, classroom), while horizontal coherence relates to the connections among curriculum, assessment, and instruction to enact this common vision of learning. 

I focus on horizontal coherence in this post, and specifically on the role of curriculum and related tools to promote such coherence. Supporting horizontal coherence requires having educators engage in curriculum and assessment mapping and develop curriculum and curricular units to ensure that students have meaningful opportunities to learn rich content and skills. These are the first steps needed for educators to design coherent curriculum, instructional, and assessment systems. 

Curriculum and Assessment Mapping

Once a shared vision has been clarified, district educators should map their existing curriculum and assessments to these learning priorities, determining any gaps, overlaps, or mismatches. Contrary to popular misconceptions, curriculum and content standards are not the same. Content standards are broad statements that define the learning goals and the general cognitive demands that students should attain by the end of a grade level or grade span. 

Curriculum provides the specificity and organizational framework that creates coherence among the standards, instruction and assessment and includes the materials, learning activities and resources to support instruction. Teachers typically plan their instruction based on the curriculum and embedded learning targets. Assessments must be aligned to the curriculum rather than skipping to the end-of-year set of content standards if they are to reveal where students fall along a progression of learning.

Development of Curricular Units Aligned to the Deeper Learning Expected from the Curriculum

Filling the gaps in the curriculum-based assessment system requires a re-visioning of the teacher’s role in the curriculum, instruction, and assessment process. Where previously-purchased programs and assessments have been put into place, district investment in both money and time needs to shift to engaging and supporting teachers in the design process for a system that builds deeper learning over time. One potential approach involves teachers engaging in the development of curricular replacement units. Curricular replacement units are defined as:

…units designed to address the similar or same topics as existing units, but would do so in ways that embody the standards or expectations not currently addressed, and promote deeper learning than what typically occurs. These units replace existing units and would not be an add-on to a curriculum (Marion & Shepard, p.1). 

Well-designed curricular replacement units can eliminate surface-level practices and, further, provide the foundation for designing instructional activities that are tied to big ideas of the discipline. Such units also inform the development of a unit-based assessment system where educators design pre-assessments, anticipate potential formative probes and observations, and create rich performance tasks for both instructional purposes and unit summative evaluations. 

As students engage in these unit-based tasks, whether for instructional or assessment purposes, teachers more clearly can differentiate and communicate various qualities of thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving.

The first essential step toward the development of a balanced assessment system requires district leaders and educators to focus on the hard questions, including to what extent do our curriculum, instruction, and assessments exemplify what we value in our students’ learning experiences?


Marion, S. (2018). The opportunities and challenges of a systems approach to assessmentEducational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 37, 1, 45-48
Marion, S. & Shepard, L. (2010). Let’s not forget about opportunity to learn: Curricular supports for innovative assessments. Dover, NH: Center for Assessment.
National Research Council. (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
National Research Council. (2006). Systems for state science assessment. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. 
Shepard, L.A., Penuel, W.R., & Pellegrino, J.W. (2018). Using learning and motivation theories to coherently link formative assessment, grading practices, and large-scale assessment. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 37, 1, 21-34.