Loading Curriculum
by Chase Young

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Curriculum alignment is the process of matching curriculum to assessment. This is a highly controversial issue, and it seems there are two extremes with many in-between. Most educationalists agree that alignment is necessary, but the method is typically in question. What comes first, the curriculum or the test? Though the answer is entwined in dialectic, curriculum writers are still faced with answering the question.

Frontloading and Backloading are two dichotomous ways to align curriculum. When assessments are developed based on the curriculum, the alignment is considered frontloaded. Conversely, backloaded curricula requires assessments to be created first, and curriculum is developed to meet the demands of the tests (English, 2010).

A playful lyric in a song by Barry Gilmore (YouTube - chaserboy82's channel.) says, “What do we do? We teach to the test!” The sarcastic production clearly voices many educators’ distaste for “teaching to the test.” In fact, English (2009) refers to this phenomenon as “The Bogeyman.” Of course, there are pros and cons of each method. As perceptions of testing vary across educational contexts, so does access to an equal education (Dooley & Assaf, 2009). Therefore, it is imperative to analyze both frontloading and backloading for their merits and detriments. Not only should these methods be analyzed, but the findings should be shared with educators to promote scrutiny in teaching. Then again, while the aim is to empower teachers, results may manifest themselves as frustration.

Frontloading is a joyful song that provokes spontaneous dancing among teachers (much like Def Leppard songs after midnight). Educators long for its empowering riff: curriculum drives the test (English, 2010). After all, a person regarded as a professional should have the ability to create an assessment that would accurately gage learning. Of course, the previous statement is woefully dangerous as this is not always the case. Local control of the curriculum assumes that local educators know best.

Local control of testing based on a frontloaded curriculum allows teachers time to teach higher level thinking and other skills not tested by state exams. However, research suggests whether state testing exists or not, higher level skills are often not taught (Yeh, 2001). Apparently, the drill and kill educators feel they are forced into their inherent modus operandi—at least now educators can blame something other than themselves for barraging students with worksheets and lectures. Thus, while the extra time for critical thinking is a good argument, it remains mute if the skills are not taught, regardless of testing.

A problem with frontloading and backloading, perhaps interpreted positively, is the inability to assess learning from a highly complex curriculum (English, 2010). Because educators cover so much, in many different ways, a comprehensive exam might be futile. While this is a problem with frontloading and assessment, it might not be considered a problem with a curriculum. One might strive for a complex, emergent curriculum. If one obtains this high aspiration, testing would prove to be difficult (Osberg, Biesta, & Cilliers, 2008). Essentially, if the established curriculum is not standard, then no standardized test can accurately measure it.

Assuming the frontloading perspective does not necessarily eliminate “teaching to the test.” Exams measure the efficacy of a curriculum. Local tests are developed and administered to students regardless of state control; therefore, “teaching to the test” can emerge in locally controlled contexts. In addition, if educators were not already pressed for time, the responsibility of developing curriculum and matching assessments would inevitably throw them over the edge (English, 2010).

While students might do better on the state exam with the aid of backloaded curricula, local controls need to determine what needs to be taught. A certain amount of frontloading is advised to enhance curriculum (English, 2010). For example, state administered multiple choice tests do not measure the ability for students to engage in high level oral discussions about written discourse. In the backloading model, this authentic instructional episode would be lost. It is imperative that educators or curriculum specialists provide a curriculum that exists beyond the criteria of “what is tested.”

Backloading the curriculum gives students the knowledge and skills to do better on state exams. However, the very nature of teaching breaks down the foundation on which test theory was built. One must assume school personnel and students are continuous variables. Unfortunately, the act of teaching is nonrandom—it is purposeful; therefore, the results are skewed. The only way to transform educational contexts into random variables would be to eliminate teaching. Even then, however, students will never be a random variable. Too many valid predictors (e.g. socioeconomic status) exist to define students as random (English, 2009). However, the push for accountability remains, creating the need for accountability measures, thus creating the need for curriculum to demonstrate competency in predetermined (politically prescribed) areas.

Regardless of the pros and cons of each method, educators work and live in reality. Currently, testing is reality; curriculum alignment is a reality; accountability is a reality. Although these two methods may represent two extremes, it is clear there is a need for both to meet the current educational demands even though it is this author’s contention that student learning and interest should drive the curriculum—perhaps a topic inappropriate for the comparison of backloading and frontloading. Then again, it is nicely infused in this quote by English (2010, p. 123), “Children are not the means to obtain better test scores. Rather, children are the ends of what education is about in the first place. And since tests can never completely measure them or their learning (or their inherent worth, ever), test scores should be viewed with great humility, deep skepticism, and sustained temporality.”
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© 2011 Chase J. Young. All rights reserved.