A Simple Tool for Aligning Instruction and Assessment

This quick visual guide can help teachers ensure that their daily lessons align with their learning goals and assessments.


Teaching at our best is like anything else we pursue; it’s part science and part art. It’s a learned skill that requires time and patience to hone. Teachers, therefore, become frustrated when our self-efficacy is threatened by questionable policies and relentless new initiatives, particularly during a pandemic. But having a set of trusted pedagogical strategies can help us keep it together—even under extreme pressure.

In coaching schools, part of the initial work is to engage leadership in learning walks to see what’s happening in classrooms before investing time and resources to design professional development (PD). Classrooms will always be the incubator for what’s needed in education.

It’s challenging for administrators to keep their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening in their schools if they’re not interacting with teachers in classrooms or listening to them. These visits also allow school leaders to recommend appropriate tools and practices for empowering teachers.


Through no fault of their own, I have found that many classroom teachers don’t always see how assessment drives instruction or the alignment between summative assessment, learning goals, formative assessment, and teaching strategies/scaffolds. For example, a career switcher who didn’t participate in a preservice program or a teacher whose preservice program included very little instructional modeling may not have a set of pedagogical strategies at their disposal for planning and facilitating instruction.

There isn’t only one way to teach. But daily lessons must have flow and alignment.

Classroom teachers need to have fluidity and a reservoir of trusted strategies they know when to use. These strategies must be part of methods for attacking daily instructional problems with the flexibility to address unforeseen occurrences. A planning tool and framework for mapping instruction backward can be helpful in maintaining alignment no matter what we encounter in the instructional day.

To help support teachers, I’ve adapted the tool during lesson/project ideation sessions. It’s been helpful for teachers who may not understand how to rewrite standards into learning goals or for those who may need a refresher on scaffolding and creating instructional alignment. Some of the schools I work with have even added the tool into their lesson and performance task templates. See a template and completed example here.

The tool originates from PBLWorks and is inspired by backward design methodology by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins but does not replace McTighe’s Understanding by Design resources through ASCD. Instead, the tool is a simple table with four columns, easily allowing educators to map their instruction in alignment with summative assessment and daily learning goals.



Column one: Determine summative assessment. Well-designed summative assessments drive instruction when they align to standard(s) or a benchmark. The tool should be used to align instruction for summative assessments in the form of products, demonstration of a performance task(s), or literary composition.

For example, a particular unit or project plan can call students to create written, technology-based, or constructed products (e.g., reports, PSAs, model prototypes, etc.). Once we determine what we want our kids to do and make it by the end of a specified time, that goes into column one.

Column two: Compose learning goals. Developing learning goals for lessons and projects is a critical practice often neglected in PD and, therefore, is often excluded or not well thought out in curriculum unit design. Derived from academic standards and learning frameworks, learning goals are vital to teaching and observing learning and are the backbone of lessons.

Good learning goals drive what students will understand and what they will be able to accomplish following a lesson or project. They need to go beyond objectives on our whiteboard or lesson plan and should be unpacked during mini-lessons as the focal point of the academic conversation between teachers and students.

I use learning targets (LTs) to capture learning goals as statements about what students can do regarding completing the product or task in column one of the planning tool. Here are some examples of what can go in column two:

I can explain how human activity affects the health of bodies of water and the ecosystems they support.

I can collect and analyze data to inform my decisions and design better solutions to real-world problems.

I can present my conclusions to an audience using multimedia tools that more effectively convey my message.

EL Education has powerful video examples of how to use LTs across the grade levels.

Column three: Develop formative assessments. Each learning goal in column two will need formative assessment to check students’ understanding. Teachers can decide on both informal and formal formative assessments. I find conducting two formal checks (quizzes, essays, etc.) for each summative assessment good practice for determining where students need help, remediation, and challenge.

Informal checks can be used daily between our interactions with students to determine their instructional needs. Here are some we can use as quick checks for understanding.

Column four: Utilize instructional strategies and scaffolds. Instructional strategies and scaffolds are what we reach for to teach a particular lesson—or, in this case, the learning goal(s) in column two. Learning goals require us to explain, clarify, and model. Regardless, students will need time to practice—moving from guided (teacher-led) to independent.

Gleaning insights from formative assessment helps us put the appropriate scaffolds and interventions in place by updating column four. For example, to help students with their coding skills, I like using the workshop model to structure station rotations allowing them to move between working independently and working with the teacher or their peers. Both content and elective teachers can also use it for differentiating and choosing scaffolds that work best for their kids.

By Jorge Valenzuela