Curriculum and Assessment: Two Sides of the Same Coin - ASCD
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May 1, 1993

Curriculum and Assessment: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Educators in Eugene, Oregon, found a way to implement the basics of a concepts-based integrated curriculum.

  • help students acquire and apply strategic processes, including processes used in thinking and social interactions;

  • use assessment techniques and instruments other than standardized tests;

  • integrate new technology into the curriculum;

  • identify and teach to a variety of learning styles;

  • increase each teacher's repertoire of teaching strategies;

  • assign higher priority to global and multicultural concepts; and

  • use appropriate heterogeneous grouping to reduce stereotyping and tracking.

After about two years, it became clear that, although a number of district sites were trying to incorporate the district's goals into classroom practice, teachers were having trouble assimilating all the pieces. They also had difficulty talking about the changes with colleagues, parents, and community members.

The Coin Metaphor

As a result, we began to use a coin metaphor to help district educators understand our Model for Curriculum and Assessment. One face of the coin represents curriculum; the other face, assessment. Like the two faces of a coin, curriculum and assessment are inseparably fused.

Once the faces have been designated, what will we teach and assess? To answer this question, visualize the coin cut into two interlocking pieces. These pieces describe the two major areas of curriculum and assessment; curriculum involves learning core conceptual knowledge and strategic processes, and assessment determines whether core conceptual knowledge and strategic processes have been learned.

We defined core knowledge, sometimes called declarative knowledge, as key conceptual ideas, as opposed to rote factual knowledge. A strategic process, sometimes referred to as procedural knowledge, is a set or series of interconnected actions that combine skills and strategies to produce a particular result.

Thus what we will teach and assess is the acquisition and application of both core conceptual knowledge and strategic processes.

From this teaching, we might expect two general outcomes. The core knowledge outcome is comprehension: students will construct meaning and integrate relationships among these ideas until key concepts are fully understood.

The strategic processes outcome is application. We teach students to use such processes as reading, writing, and problem solving, and we expect them to expand the use of these processes to other learning contexts.

The edge of our metaphorical coin represents substantive synthesis projects, or orchestrated efforts in which students apply core conceptual knowledge and strategic processes to create personally meaningful knowledge. These projects enhance and extend the two outcomes, comprehension and application, on both faces of the coin.

The Core Knowledge Piece

In our former curriculum, core knowledge was slotted into discrete subject disciplines and rigidly delineated by grade levels. In adopting an integrative education approach we reversed these practices.

First, we shifted instruction away from the memorization and recitation of minutiae to more substantive concepts.

Second, although our conceptual ideas were rooted in traditional subject disciplines, we did not want to study the concepts through the standard subject discipline lenses. We wanted to focus instead on creating connections among several concepts within conceptual themes like communities, systems, change, power, interactions, form or structure, relationships, and identities.

Third, before starting an integrated unit of study, we planned for teachers and students to generate key focus questions about the themes and related concepts. In developing a unit on conflict within the theme of power, for example, a key focus question might be, how does conflict evolve, and how is it resolved?

Such questions are posted in the classroom for the duration of the unit to provide structure for the unit and create clear linkages between the day-to-day activities and the major concepts. Further, in requiring students to pursue answers, the questions call upon students to produce, rather than just consume, knowledge. And, as individuals construct meaning and answers to questions, they naturally come to understand the subjective nature of knowledge.

Students demonstrate their conceptual understanding by constructing personally meaningful yet plausible answers to the key questions. The answers may be expressed in a variety of forms, including personal interviews, the creation of graphic representations (such as models and concept maps), the generation of metaphorical images, and of course written essay tests.

Thus teachers have two opportunities to assess the comprehension of core conceptual knowledge. They can evaluate both substantive synthesis projects and answers to key questions. To rate students' answers, teachers construct scoring rubrics that credit key conceptual points, the plausibility and comprehensiveness of the answers, and other characteristics as jointly determined by students and teachers.

The Strategic Process Piece

The strategic process piece of the coin consists of a hierarchical structure with skills as the foundation, strategies in the middle, and the process at the top. Figure 1 represents the relationship of skills, strategies, and process used in reading.

Figure 1. Hierarchy of Skills, Strategies, and Processes in Reading


Skills are relatively narrow and well-defined learned abilities, proficiencies, and dexterities. In reading, for instance, a useful skill is using guide words to locate a definition on a dictionary page.

A strategy is a mental maneuver made up of one or more skills. A useful reading strategy, for example, is determining the meaning of an unknown word, which might call for decoding skills, dictionary skills, context clue skills, or some other comparable tactic. Other “first reading” strategies employed by expert readers include making predictions, asking questions, and relating new information to prior knowledge. A problem solver must select and apply appropriate strategies at each step in a process.

A process is a series of steps used to execute a complex operation. Approaching a reading task, for instance, involves prereading, first reading, rereading, and using or sharing information. Processes call for the deployment of a combination of skills and strategies.

  • communication, which includes reading, composing/creating, speaking, performing, and listening;

  • thinking, which takes in problem solving, decision making, and investigating; and

  • social interactions, such as interpersonal exchanges and personal management.

  • Prepare—think and plan before actually beginning;

  • First Dare—make a first attempt to implement the plan;

  • Repair—evaluate the results and possibly modify the approach; and

  • Share—use or share the results.

In the meantime, however, students will see that their strategic processes are only as good as their strategies, which are only as good as their skills. Thus, skill acquisition makes sense, because the linkage between competence with skills and competence with strategic processes is made unmistakably explicit. Because we cannot possibly teach students everything they will need to know to lead productive adult lives in the 21st century, we teach them broadly applicable processes for learning how to learn.

Assessing how well students apply processes is more challenging than assessing core conceptual knowledge. Teachers can, however, assess the selection of the process, how effectively students follow the steps in the process, and how effectively they choose and apply appropriate strategies.

These measures can take different forms: direct teacher observation, interview conferences, reflective writing, and scoring rubrics that give credit for identified traits. Teachers can also assess the product of processes, like published papers and performances, which often form parts of substantive synthesis projects.

A Project on Columbus

A team of three 8th grade teachers at one of our middle schools has developed a 12-week Literacy Block unit focusing on relationships. The related concepts are interactions, power, justice, exploitation, cause and effect, and point of view.

In initial unit activities, students explored personal views related to the theme, concerns such as different types of relationships, loyalty, and how relationships change. These issues were expanded in a three-week study of the Columbus Quincentenary. Students reviewed Europeans' arrival in the Americas, the impact on native cultures, and the colonization of the New World. The development of reading and writing processes was emphasized, and students used the four-step prepare, first dare, repair, and share model.

  • In what ways do people interact with one another?

  • What types of relationships foster justice and respect?

  • What types of relationships foster the abuse of power and exploitation?

  • What were the characteristics of the interactions between Columbus, his crew, and the Taino Indians?

  • What motivated Columbus to explore the New World?

  • What were the results of the Columbian exchanges?

  • From the Taino viewpoint, were the results positive, negative, or both?

  • From a Spaniard's viewpoint, were the results positive, negative, or both?

  • From our contemporary point of view, have interactions among peoples changed since the 1400s?

The instructional strategies used during the unit included teacher-directed whole-group presentations, cooperative groups, team teaching, and individual research. Because the unit was taught at the beginning of the year and teachers wanted to show students how to develop a substantive synthesis project, the unit also included a guided dry run on developing a project.

At the end of the quincentenary study, the teachers wanted to gauge how well students understood the key concepts and how effectively they could apply the writing process. The project therefore required students to write an original piece of historical fiction about the arrival of Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492. The story was to use both historical facts and imaginative scenes, from either a Taino Indian or a Spanish sailor's point of view. The answers students had generated to the key focus questions served as background knowledge.

Students and teachers together designed a scoring rubric to evaluate the projects. The scoring rubric rated the application of the writing process, the comprehension of the core conceptual knowledge, and the literary quality of three writing traits studied in the unit: an engaging opening, apt character development, and vivid descriptions of setting.

To evaluate the core conceptual knowledge piece of the coin, teachers graded stories according to (1) the degree of in-depth understanding and integration of factual information concerning the events of 1492–97, and (2) the degree to which students had addressed the key concepts of interactions, power, justice, exploitation, cause and effect, and point of view.

To assess performance on the process side, the teachers observed students at work, examined written drafts, interviewed students, and read reflective journal entries to determine how well students were applying the steps in the writing process.

The project was substantial—it took a week and a half for students to prepare, first dare, repair, and finally share their stories. And the project did require synthesis. In general, students demonstrated both procedural and declarative knowledge in creative and personally meaningful ways.

It is germane to remark, too, on the enthusiasm that students brought to their work. Both students and teachers rated the projects as more revealing and more rewarding than traditional instruments.

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