Is There a de Facto National Intended Curriculum? Evidence from State Content Standards

Andrew Porter, Morgan Polikoff, and John Smithson
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis
September 2009

This report has several purposes; here are the three most important: to find out whether state curricula are more similar than we think, creating what the authors call a "de facto national intended curriculum"; to see if state standards in math and science are aligned to the national professional standards in those subjects; and to ascertain whether state curricula contain common topics that might be seen as a "core curriculum." In short, the answers are no, no, and yes, a little. The study examines state content standards in English/language arts and reading (ELAR), science, and math from 14 states in two specific grades (4 and 8) and across the span of elementary grades (K-8 or 1-8, depending on the subject). An "alignment index" was used to gauge the similarity of content and of cognitive demand (meaning the types of skills that students are asked to demonstrate, such as memorize, analyze, or apply), on a scale of 0 (no alignment) to 1 (perfect alignment). In individual subjects in fourth and eighth grade, average alignment was pretty low (0.2). And when standards were aggregated across grades (K-8 in ELAR and 1-8 in math and science), the alignment was only moderately stronger (on average, .5 for ELAR, .4 for math, and .3 for science). Math and science alignment to national professional standards was not much better. There was, however, some evidence of a small core curriculum in each subject: In ELAR, eleven topics, mostly related to writing emerged; in math, thirteen topics were common; while science had eight. It's important to remember that these topics do not necessarily represent what is taught, just what is intended to be taught. Still the report provides empirical evidence that state content standards vary widely (we explain more in our own State of State Standards). All the more reason to hope that the current push for common standards is done smartly, swiftly, and successfully. You can purchase the report here.

More By Author