Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I-CAT Updates Starting This Afternoon 4/20/11

Ok folks, after several delays, we are FINALLY going to start updating the content and new features of the Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit (I-CAT) after 5:00 pm today, April 20th, 2011. Here is what that means for you, if you are a current or aspiring I-CAT user:

1. After 5:00 pm today, we need to you not log into the I-CAT. Things will be changing and looking different, and may need some on-the-fly changing. If you are in there, things get complicated and messy for all of us.

2. Unless otherwise notified, you should be able to begin using the I-CAT tomorrow morning by 9:00 am.

3. There will likely be small cosmetic changes to the I-CAT after 9:00 am tomorrow morning. Not to worry. You can be in the I-CAT while these happen.

More detailed information and resources will be available here on this blog and elsewhere in the coming week about the exciting changes to the I-CAT. So stay tuned here, and/or follow me on Twitter (@bniebling) and the I-CAT hashtag (#ICATAlign).

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

First of Two Updates to the I-CAT Complete

You may recall from my last blog post that there have been some delays in getting the Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit (I-CAT) updated. Tonight I am pleased to announce that the first of two major updates to the I-CAT have been put in place.

Briefly, most of the structural updates needed for the I-CAT to accommodate the different structure of the Iowa Core content due to the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in Literacy and Math have been put in place. However, you will not actually notice most of these updates until the content itself has been updated.

The main difference you will notice is on the screen just after you select a content area to reflect on, which starts with the phrase "
Please select the information you wish to work with..." The drop down menus are in a slightly different order than they were before. Furthermore, what used to be an open field to indicate which school year a teacher wants to reflect on has been changed to a drop down menu.

Other changes do appear now when generating reports using the View my Data and Compare Data tools. However, training is just starting to roll out for these tools, so most users will be unaffected by these changes as well.

Please note that all trained I-CAT facilitators have been provided with the documentation they need to support end users in using the I-CAT given these changes. Once the content is updated, I will post a more extensive description of all changes, as well as provide facilitators with more detailed documentation. I hope to get the content updated in the next two weeks.

Please check back here for more information about I-CAT updates. Thanks to everyone for your patience and dedication to doing quality alignment work.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Latest I-CAT Update Information

In my last blog, I provided some information about where things were with the Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit (I-CAT). Briefly, with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards to become the "new content" for the Iowa Core, it became necessary to update the I-CAT to reflect these changes. Between these updates, as well as the omission of the updated version of Civic Literacy for 21st Century Skills when Social Studies was updated in October 2010, we were left needing to update all five subject areas of the Iowa Core to some extent.

While I was optimistic that we could institute the updates to the I-CAT within the next 3 or 4 days, it now looks like it will take a little longer. There are four reasons why the I-CAT is taking some time to be updated.

1. Structural Changes:
There are three big structural differences between the previous version of the Iowa Core and the current version that impact the I-CAT: (a) grade-level specific K-8 standards instead of spans; (b) in Literacy, the high school grade span has changed from 9-12 to 9-10 & 11-12; and (c) there are content-specific Literacy standards that need to be placed into Science, Social Studies, and 21st Century Skills. While we can make all of this work, it took some time to decide on solutions, and it also takes some time to program and test those solutions.

2. Measurement Precision Project: The current version of the Iowa Core sometimes has multiple concepts/skills embedded in a single standard. This can lead to over- and/or under-representing what is actually taught (i.e., the enacted curriculum). If we can accept that everything listed in the standards, unless noted as "an example," is something students are to know and be able to do, we therefore want to make sure the structure of the I-CAT allows teachers to reflect on whether or not they taught each of the concepts/skills listed in a standard.

To accomplish this goal, the standards need to undergo a process of being broken down into smaller statements when appropriate, without adding, subtracting, or substantively changing the content of the standards. We are in the middle of this process, which is called the Measurement Precision Project (MPP). Please note, this is only being done for the areas of Literacy and Mathematics. The work is being done by Iowa education professionals with in-depth knowledge and experience not only in their content areas in general, but with these Iowa Core documents in particular. Once the I-CAT is updated, a detailed description of the project and results will be posted at

3. Updated Report Features: The structural and content changes to the Iowa Core also call for some of the reporting features of the I-CAT to be updated as well. We are excited about these updates, as they will allow data to be generated and displayed in more targeted manner than previous versions of reports.

4. Bug Fixes: We have discovered a few bugs in the I-CAT over the past several months, and we will release fixes to those bugs with the other updates. For example, it was discovered that a teacher could enter data into the I-CAT without indicating a course name. While the data entered does get saved, there is no way to get back to the data once the teacher finishes data entry. While this problem can be avoided by just selecting a course to reflect on before starting data entry, it is still a loophole we want to close.

When the I-CAT is finished being updated, I will tweet it, and post it on this blog. So stay tuned, we are working diligently to improve the I-CAT. I appreciate your collective patience, and enthusiasm for alignment work. If you have any questions, post them in the comments to this blog entry, or tweet them to me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I-CAT Updates and an Apology

Well blog readers, sometimes we make a mistake. When we do, we need to take responsibility for that mistake and apologize. Below is some information about updates we are making to the I-CAT. Most of it I'm sure you will see as good news. But the last item addresses a mistake I made. Please read below for more information. And know that I am sorry I made the mistake. If you have questions, give me a holler. Spread the word. Thanks folks!

Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit (I-CAT)

Upcoming Changes


How will changes to the Iowa Core in Literacy and Math affect the I-CAT?

Revisions to the Iowa Core in Literacy and Mathematics require the I-CAT be updated to include these changes. These changes will affect all five content areas of the Iowa Core: Literacy, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, and 21st Century Skills.

Literacy and Mathematics will be completely replaced in the I-CAT with the new content approved by the State Board of Education on November 17th, 2010.

Portions of the new Iowa Core in Literacy also apply to Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics. This means that Science and Social Studies also need to be updated with this new content in the I-CAT.

If I already entered data into the I-CAT this year, will I have to start over?

Literacy & Mathematics. If you have entered data into the I-CAT for Literacy and/or Mathematics while reflecting on the 2010-11 school year, you and your district should consider entering data again once the I-CAT is updated. Your previously entered data will remain in the database if you want to use it for a report, but it can’t/won’t be carried forward to pre-fill a new version. A new version date will be assigned for these two content areas. The version date will be the day they are loaded into the I-CAT.

Science & Social Studies. If you have entered data into the I-CAT for Science or Social Studies while reflecting on the 2010-11 school year, your data will be carried forward into the newer version. That means your existing data will remain in place, and you can just reflect on the additions.

A new version date will be assigned for these two content areas. The version date will be the day they are loaded into the I-CAT. In addition, the old version date will disappear. Please note, the data will not disappear, just the version date label that was used when the data were entered. In other words, don’t be scared when the version date you started with is gone, but there is a more recent date there. This is done by design.

There is a discrepancy between what is in the I-CAT and on the Iowa Core web page for Civic Literacy for 21st Century Skills. Why is this and what are the implications for the I-CAT?

When the Social Studies portion of the Iowa Core was updated in the I-CAT in October, 2010, this included changes made to Civic Literacy. Unfortunately, those changes were not applied to the Civic Literacy portion of 21st Century Skills in the I-CAT. Both sections of Civic Literacy are intended to be identical. This oversight is completely my responsibility and fault (Brad Niebling, Heartland Alignment Specialist).

What this means for users of the I-CAT is that if you entered data for the Civic Literacy portion of 21st Century Skills on or after October 27th, 2010, you were reflecting on an older version of the Iowa Core.

We are currently working on a solution that will allow the data you entered for the other four Disciplines for 21st Century Skills (i.e., Employability Skills, Financial Literacy, Health Literacy, Technology Literacy) to be carried forward. This way, you would only have to enter new data for Civic Literacy in 21st Century Skills. As soon as the I-CAT is capable of doing this, the field will be notified. In the meantime, it is recommended to skip the Civic Literacy portion of 21st Century Skills until the correction to the I-CAT is made.

Again, I am incredibly sorry for this mistake. It is our goal to make the I-CAT and related alignment services both helpful and of minimal invasion to your valuable time and energy. Please know that we will work both quickly and diligently to fix this problem, and to prevent something like this happening again in the future.

When will these updates to the I-CAT be ready for the field to use?

The documents for all five content areas are still being formatted for uploading into the I-CAT. Furthermore, the programming needed to enact the actions listed in the previous questions is under development and testing. The goal is for all changes to be completed and the I-CAT ready for use by the last week of February or first week of March.

Once the I-CAT is ready for use, it will be announced through the following channels:
  • Iowa Core State Network Team Communique´
  • Twitter (@bniebling)
  • Heartland Alignment Services Wiki, under Recent Alignment Announcements here and here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why is K-16 Alignment a New Idea?

I recently came across an Education Week commentary on Twitter called High School to College: The New Alignment. So, being the alignment aficionado I am, I, well, actually, put off reading it for a few weeks. January has been crazy busy!

Anyway, I finally had a chance to read the blog, and I wanted to share a few reflections not necessarily on the blog, but rather on some of the issues raised by the author, Jordan E. Horowitz.

The Problem. The basic premise is this: many students are not ready for the transition to 2- or 4-year institutes of higher education. The main hypothesis posed by the author seems to be that K-12 academic standards (and the standardized tests that are hopefully aligned with them) are not the same as college- and career-readiness standards, which in turn are not the same as college-entrance expectations. While there is likely merit in these distinctions, it tastes like so many "education meals" people have tried to feed me since I got into the alignment biz in graduate school: grown-ups arguing semantics while nothing ever changes for kids and teachers in classrooms.

To the author's credit, he has been working on solutions to this potential problem.

Alignment Redux, Good or Bad. Relatedly, the idea of alignment redux is posed for our consideration. To quote: "...we continue to align high school curricula and work to state standards and assessments." First of all, most of the research and experiential evidence I've examined would contradict this statement. Our alignment with state standards and assessments is typically quite low. But let's go on with the premise laid out by Horowitz.

Here's my take: if we aren't aligning something to something else, then we are purposefully setting up a system designed to confuse and frustrate all members of that system. The problem isn't alignment redux. It's that what we are aligning our assessments (and hopefully instructional content) to isn't the right "stuff." Hopefully the work of the Iowa Core, now with the Common Core State Standards in English/Language Arts and Mathematics, will get us closer to what students need to be successful beyond the K-12 system (college-bound or otherwise).

Why is K-16 Alignment a New Idea? To answer my own question, I have no idea. I don't think it is. I just don't think we've spent much time genuinely considering the idea and doing something about it. The culture of education in the United States is one of autonomy, though I fear this doesn't typically lead to individualizing student learning experiences.

We should not be surprised many students struggle when they make the transition to college. If the culture is one of autonomy, by definition we would expect to see a potentially infinite set of educational experiences. Let me be clear on this point: we may need a wide range of instructional methods and experiences to best meet the needs of each and every student, but when we provide them drastically different opportunities to learn different topics, concepts, and skills, we are setting students up to struggle.

Like it or not, prior learning affects current and future learning. We may want students to be able to generalize and transfer learning to new and novel situations with minimal direction from teachers, but research from both constructivist and "direct instruction" or behavioral perspectives both point to the need for practice with feedback. This gets difficult if the topics/concepts/skills are repeated with shallow coverage, or if big gaps exist between transition points in the K-16 system.

Potential Solutions. Before we can talk about solutions, one has to perceive there to be a problem. Since I'm the blogger here at the moment writing this, we'll go with my perception, which is that there is a problem, and alignment can and should be part of the solution. Horowitz suggests three potential solutions to tighten alignment between high school and college.

(1) "First, postsecondary institutions must be able to clearly state and explain what is expected of entering students."

(2) "Second, we must develop longitudinal student-data systems that allow us to track students from year to year, school to school, and educational segment to segment."

(3) "Finally, this must be done by faculty members."

I think these can all be part of the solution, no doubt. I actually really support these ideas. I have some additional ideas as well.

(1) Purposefully engage in increasing the degree of alignment in the K-12 system. If we aren't working on alignment at all times in the K-12 system, it will be impossible to work on alignment with the post-secondary system. Misaligned + ?? = Misaligned. We are beginning this work with the Iowa Core in Outcome 4, as well as with the work of other Outcomes like Assessment for Learning in Outcome 6.

(2) Include groups like ACT in the process for creating an increasingly aligned K-16 system. Despite the ever-increasing loudness about the shortcomings of large-scale standardized assessments, ACT in my opinion continues to provide useful information and services. This Iowa-specific report provides some potentially useful information about student preparedness for college. ACT provides reports like this for all of the states, as well as overall.

Collectively, I think improving K-16 alignment is potentially a win-win. The K-12 system has a better picture of what they are supporting their students to get to, and the post-secondary system should be getting better-prepared students. That is why we are all in education, right? For the students?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Is the Iowa Core Rigorous?

If you read my last blog post on "Iowa Core Foundations are What Matter," you will know that I am a big fan of developing common definitions/understandings about key concepts and terms we throw around in education. I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter about what the word "higher" means. I'm starting to think that Twitter is going to be my inspiration for many Heartland Alignment Services blogs.

Briefly, I responded to a statement about how "high" the "standards" of the Iowa Core were. Turns out I was somewhat misinterpreting the original poster's statement, so I'm glad he clarified for me. The tweeter did follow up with a great question:

"you ask key question about "higher". is it test scores, graduation rate, ability to think critically, problem solve, etc?"

I actually wasn't thinking about any of these when I asked him the question. Perhaps I'll spend some time on these issues at a later date. For now, I will focus on whether or not the Iowa Core is more or less "rigorous" than other similar documents around the country or world.

Let me start with my conclusion: There are no publicly available data about the Iowa Core that indicate it's "highness" or "rigor." All we have are the documents themselves and a lot of opinions. This is not enough to either endorse and condemn the Iowa Core in my opinion. So let's take a few steps back and explore this issue.

The Iowa Core describes what students are supposed to know and be able to do across the K-12 system (as well other things, but that's for another blog). These are called "standards" now for Literacy and Math since the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by the state board of education. For Science, Social Studies, and 21st Century Skills, these are called Essential Concepts/Skill Sets and Details. There are several methods of determining how "high" these statements are. And by "high," I mean challenging for students.

The method I prefer to use for determining how "high" these learning statements for students are is to determine the cognitive complexity called for by the statements. For educators, this has historically meant where do the statements fall along Bloom's Taxonomy, particularly the Cognitive dimension. This is by no means the only way to examine cognitive complexity, but it tends to be the way most educators are familiar with.

Scoping out how to determine the cognitive complexity/"rigor"/"highness" of the Iowa Core is well beyond getting into right now. What I can is this: it is possible to determine how "high" or "rigorous" the Iowa Core is. We can do so with relatively objective, evidence-based methods. These processes are not new, just underutilized. To carry on a theme of mine, making sweeping public statements about how "high" or "rigorous" things like the Iowa Core, Common Core, or anything else are does not move our work forward in the best interest of students. It is somewhat informed opinion at best, and grandstanding without merit or foundation at worst. We can do better than that. Our students deserve significantly better than that.

In the field of alignment, curriculum analysis, and policy analysis, the following are the sorts of things we should all expect if we are going to start making statements about how "high" or "rigorous" the Iowa Core is, in no particular order.

1. Content Experts: If you want someone to determine how rigorous curriculum documents or assessments are, you need people that understand the content inside and out, straight and simple. These could and should include teachers, administrators, state-level content consultants, and university personnel.

2. Standardized Procedures: The process by which content experts determine curriculum or assessment rigor needs to be standardized. That means there are directions and steps that apply to everyone involved.

3. Multiple Raters: There should be multiple sets of eyes independently reviewing and rating rigor of the curriculum documents. Depending on the nature of the work and who is doing the rating, the number of reviewers of each document should typically be between 3 and 7 people.

4. Consensus Steps: The main reason there need to be multiple raters is that it is necessary for consensus decisions to be made about the document's rigor. This helps increase the reliability and validity of the results.

5. Numerical and Visual Results: Although narrative commentary is welcomed and typically necessary, alone it is not enough. The results should be quantifiable. If they are, then they are also capable of being visually displayed. This makes interpreting and using the information significantly easier, including the use of any collected narrative data.

6. Public and Transparent: The design of the process, the participants, and the results should all be available to the public for scrutiny and discussion.

Until we have a process that includes at least the six characteristics listed above, any statements about how rigorous the Iowa Core is or is not, standing alone or compared to something else, are nothing more than shallow, unexamined statements. Let's do better than that for our teachers and students.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Iowa Core Foundations are What Matter

When I logged into TweetDeck this morning, I expected the usual: some nice quotes, a few helpful links, and a few questions. What I found instead was my name tied to a very heated conversation. It appears that there is some proposed state legislation to eliminate the Iowa Core. After jumping into the fray on Twitter this morning, these are the big things I took away from that conversation:

1. Defining words matters. Words like "content," "rigor," "improvement," and "assessment" get tossed around. Sometimes for cheap attention. Sometimes in an effort to understand and improve. If these terms, or more importantly the concepts they represent, are really that important, we need make sure of two things: (a) we are all talking about the same things when we use them, and (b) the claims we are making about the nature of their existence in our school system are accurate. However, point "b" is impossible unless we have accomplished point "a." Furthermore, it is possible to examine these things systematically and objectively. We can do better than throwing words at each other, let's get on the same page and work together towards real solutions.

2. Alignment matters...a lot. I've seen and heard a lot of conversations over the years, well-intentioned I assume, talking about why how we teach is more important that what we teach, and vice versa. I find this debate to be relatively fruitless at best, and cannibalistic at worst. I appreciate the sentiment, but in my opinion, these two elements go hand in hand, and must influence each other. With that said, my main gig is focusing on the "what" of instruction. I will certainly blog about the research behind this area in the future, but for now, I'll state my perception briefly: alignment of the intended, enacted, and assessed curriculum matters, and usually it matters a lot.

3. The Iowa Core is more than just content. The content of the Iowa Core is what receives most of the attention in schools and in the press. But the Iowa Core is about much more than that. My friend and colleague Bridgette Wagoner speaks very eloquently about this here. Check it out.

I will advocate from the top of my lungs the importance of content, but if that's all we deal with, writing down what we want students to know and be able to do in a set of content standards, we've fallen well short of helping teachers and students improve. For example, read this.

4. The Iowa Core may go away someday, but the foundations should not. The names and acronyms of the latest and greatest solutions for improving our public schools change on a regular basis. But the foundation upon which many of these are built on rarely does. The Iowa Core is about providing equity in the opportunity to learn a rigorous and relevant curriculum, yes. But it's also about quality pedagogical and assessment practices, leadership, and collaborative learning amongst all educators.

It is what we have learned from research and experience that should fuel innovation and change, not the loud arguments we hear from all corners. The Iowa Core is built on a solid foundation. Can it be better? Yes, and I hope it does get better. Or, more importantly, I hope we get better, even if the Iowa Core goes away.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Alignment Resources for the Iowa Core

I get questions daily about alignment work and the Iowa Core. I love this, of course, being the "alignment guy." One of our running mantras about alignment work is that "it isn't just an event, it's a process." Quality alignment work is ongoing. To support district, AEA, and Department of Education staff, we have been busily developing a wide range of tools and resources. I hope to blog about many of these resources and time goes on. Below are some links to resources, as well as a brief description. Click on the purple links to visit the resources.

The Iowa Curriculum Alignment Toolkit: Otherwise known as the I-CAT, this web-based tool allows teachers to quickly record what they taught over the course of the school and how it relates to the Iowa Core. The I-CAT also allows teachers and administrators to generate reports that can be used to help districts work on improving equity in opportunity to learn for all students. This work is the focus of Iowa Core implementation Outcome #4. The I-CAT is free (that's right, $0) for districts to use. Staff at every AEA have been trained on how to provide districts with I-CAT support.

Heartland AEA 11 Alignment Website: Heartland has developed a website to provide Iowa educators with access to tools and information on alignment research and best practices. Included are opportunities to Skype, collaborate online using Adobe Connect Pro, and participate in discussion groups, just to name a few features. Although some information is Heartland-specific, most of the information is applicable and usable for any educator in Iowa.

Check these out and let me know what you think!

Brad Niebling
Heartland AEA 11 Alignment Specialist