3 Ways to Evaluate the Quality and Rigor of Online Learning for Secondary Education

Support for Struggling Students

This is the second blog in a series where we will explore excellence in online curriculum for secondary education and what to consider when partnering with an online learning provider.

Not all digital curriculum providers are created equal and not all providers will design rich learning experiences that meet the individual learning needs of each student. When selecting a partner for online curriculum, it’s important to consider whether it deepens student understanding and prepares them for the next step in school or career. We recommend evaluating the following aspects of a curriculum provider to ensure the highest rigor and quality.


1) Support for Struggling Students. Because struggling students are often one of the first reasons a school or district may pursue an online curriculum provider, it’s important to evaluate whether the content is truly meeting their needs. This includes providing the relevant supports that below proficient readers, English language learners and students with learning gaps need.

Below proficient readers. To effectively support struggling readers, extensive literacy, language development, and academic support should be embedded directly into grade-level instruction. Literacy supports for below proficient readers should also include accessible text, layered assistance for academic vocabulary, carefully guided reading, writing, and notetaking experiences, as well as options for the text to be read aloud.  

English language learners (EL). Language development supports for EL students should begin with rich, non-text representations of key academic ideas than can be done through simulations, images, and videos as well as the use of simple language, vocabulary assistance and options for read aloud and translation to best support their needs.

Students with learning gaps. For students with learning gaps, the most effective learning experience integrates targeted remediation into the direct instruction while introducing new ideas through chunked, scaffolded instruction that builds on students’ prior knowledge and connections to simple, relevant examples. With literacy, language development, and academic supports built directly into the curriculum, struggling students will be able to overcome the barriers they face to access grade-level instruction.  


2) Aligned vs. Built to the Standards. When online curriculum is only “aligned” to academic standards, rather than “built” to the standards, there is a risk that students won’t be sufficiently prepared to take assessments or achieve to the standards. This could mean there are gaps in rigor and difficulty between the assessment and what students have previously covered, leaving students ill-prepared for what comes next. Ensuring alignment requires a couple of key components from quality providers, including Depth of Knowledge Certification and Understanding by Design.

Depth of Knowledge Certification. It has become the industry standard for education content providers to offer standards-aligned content, and partnering with the WebbAlign Depth of Knowledge Framework (DOK) Partner Certification validates the process for ensuring rigor, alignment of curriculum and content to learning standards. Through a study of standards, DOK develops a deep understanding of both the rigor — complexity of thinking — and difficulty — degree of “hardness” — needed for students to perform to standards on high-stakes exams. Ensuring providers are applying DOK, districts will be able to confirm that assessment questions and learning tasks are engaging students at the intended level of rigor.

Understanding by Design. Following DOK alignment, quality curriculum designers should be able to use Understanding by Design, or Backward Design, to build an effective and rigorous curriculum that’s within reach for every student. This means determining if students have mastered the standards being tested and designing the targeted assessment around it. The curriculum and instruction should then be built to prepare students to meet a specific requirement. Lessons should be designed for the assessment, and the curriculum should be built to meet the standards being assessed.

Confirming both of these approaches, districts can ensure the curriculum they are using not only equips students with the knowledge and skills to be successful in courses and on assessments, but also prepares them for the level of rigor and difficulty they’ll encounter on high-stakes exams.


3) Active Learning. At all times, students using an online curriculum should be able to see where they are, how they are doing, and what they need to do next. Visuals to track progress along individualized learning paths should offer dynamic feedback motivate students to excel. It will also ensure that students are active participants in their learning. Active instruction should ask students to observe, inquire, create, connect, and confirm their learning along the way. This continuous blend of direct instruction and “doing” confirms students stay engaged, apply their learning, and continuously receive feedback.

How Apex Learning Can Help

Learn more about how we continue to support struggling students to achieve success, our partnership with WebbAlign DOK and how we ensure students are actively learning when using Apex Learning curriculum. In the next blog, we will consider how important it is for curriculum to engage and motivate students and how this can impact student achievement.  

Read the next post on 3 Ways Online Learning Should Motivate and Engage Students.

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