Reprinted here with the permission of the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse. No further republication or redistribution is permitted without the written permission of the editor.

ENC Focus, 2000 - Volume 7, Number 2

Eisenhower National Clearinghouse

Aligning Assessment with Learning Goals

Concerned about aligning assessment with national and state standards? Help is on its way from Project 2061.

by Natalie Nielsen, American Association for the Advancement of Science

At the end of this article, see:

By now, most educators are familiar with the standards movement. National learning goals specifying what students should know and be able to do in science and mathematics have been developed by Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Research Council, and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In addition, most states have attempted to derive from these national goals their own standards or curriculum frameworks to guide their education reform efforts.

With these learning goals in place, researchers and educators have taken the next step to link standards and benchmarks to curriculum materials and instruction. But what about assessment, which exerts extraordinary influence on the lives of students and their families, and on every level of the education system?

A Lack of Guidance

Highly publicized, high-stakes tests are often the most visible indicator of education success or failure for political leaders, parents, and concerned citizens. Since this is unlikely to change, it is crucial for such assessments to be developed thoughtfully.

Nearly everyone recognizes that to effect meaningful improvement in science and mathematics education, curriculum and assessment have to be aligned with specific goals for specific learning. In addition to this alignment, Blueprints for Reform: Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education (AAAS, 1998) recommends that assessments should:

  • include a variety of techniques,
  • encourage students to go beyond simple recall of data or facts,
  • close the gap between the classroom and the real world, and
  • include opportunities for students to perform tasks and solve problems.

As reasonable as these recommendations might appear, most assessments do not do these things. Furthermore, the classroom teachers, administrators, and test developers--those who are required to choose and develop assessments--have little to guide them. Although some 40 states are currently engaged in developing statewide assessments, Andrew Ahlgren, associate director of Project 2061, notes that there is "no useful synthesis of the latest thinking on assessment, much less practical advice on how to judge alignment of assessment with learning goals."

Tools for Change

Project 2061 intends to provide some guidance. With a recent three-year, $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project is gearing up to develop a guide on how to evaluate--and hopefully improve--the alignment of assessment to specific learning goals. Project 2061 intends to:

  • develop criteria and an analysis procedure for judging alignment of assessment tasks to specific learning goals (see box on this page for a summary of the draft procedure); and
  • produce case studies to illustrate the use of the criteria to revise existing assessment tasks and create new ones.

According to Ahlgren, "This guidance will also be useful to classroom teachers who are required to develop and assemble their own tests, interpret students' responses, and make instructional decisions based on those responses." Together with the project's other reform tools, the assessment guide will offer educators the opportunity to make well-coordinated improvements in science and mathematics education for all students.


American Association for the Advancement of Science (1989). Science for all Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993). Benchmarks for Science Literacy. New York: Oxford University Press.

American Association for the Advancement of Science (1998). Blueprints for Reform: Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education. New York: Oxford University Press.

Natalie Nielsen, a writer with Project 2061, is currently a doctoral student in education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

About Project 2061

Begun in 1985 when Halley's Comet last appeared, Project 2061 takes its name from the year when the comet will again be visible from Earth.

Hailed by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development as the "single most visible attempt at science education reform in American history," Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is a long-term initiative to help reform K-12 education nationwide so that all high-school graduates are science literate.

Working with panels of scientists, mathematicians, and technologists, Project 2061 set out in 1985 to identify the basic knowledge and skills adults should have in five subject areas: biological and health sciences; mathematics; physical and information sciences and engineering; social and behavioral sciences; and technology. These learning goals were eventually integrated into the landmark document, Science for All Americans (1989).

In 1993, Project 2061 collaborated with teams of teachers from six carefully selected school districts to create Benchmarks for Science Literacy, a curriculum design tool that translates the literacy goals of Science for All Americans into expectations of what students should know at the ends of grades 2, 5, 8, and 12. Both documents have had a major impact on education, providing the foundation for national and state science education standards.

To assist educators in meeting science literacy goals in their own districts, Project 2061 is now developing a coordinated set of reform tools. For full information on available publications and services, visit the Project 2061 web site.

AAAS Project 2061
1200 New York Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20005
(202) 326-6666 / Fax (202) 842-5196;

Project 2061 is currently supported by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Hewlett-Packard Company, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the National Science Foundation.

Summary of the Draft Project 2061 Assessment Analysis Procedure

The purpose of the procedure is to determine whether specific assessment tasks focus on ideas or skills in benchmarks and standards. Reviewers examine each assessment task including the scoring guides or rubrics.

If there is a content match with benchmarks and standards, reviewers proceed to the next step, in which they examine other assessment characteristics that, if present, will increase the likelihood that the assessment will actually find out what students know and can do. These characteristics include:

Depth of Understanding.

  • Does the task avoid allowing students a trivial way out, like repeating a memorized term or following rote steps in a procedure?
  • Are concepts or skills applied and connected in responding to the task (e.g., by asking students to explain phenomena or solve related problems)?


  • Does the task provide guidance to help the teacher interpret students' responses or scores?
  • Are the scoring and other additional information that accompany the task helpful in modifying instruction?


  • Can all students demonstrate what they know and are able to do?
  • Are there alternative formats, a variety of contexts, or situations that are familiar to students from many backgrounds and to both genders?

Nielsen, Natalie. (2000). Aligning Assessment with Learning Goals. ENC Focus 7(2), 47-48. Reproduced with permission of Eisenhower National Clearinghouse; visit ENC Online (