Standards-Driven vs Standards-Aligned Digital Curriculum

March 13, 2017

Consider this: One of the primary reasons students fail high-stakes exams is because they’ve never before encountered a test or test content with that degree of difficulty or rigor. This is understandable, considering the time it would take teachers to write exams to the appropriate level of rigor and difficulty for classrooms with increasingly diverse student populations. However, an outside vendor has the time and resources to create digital curriculum that prepares students for success on high-stakes exams — if it’s developed correctly.

How a digital curriculum is built can mean the difference between meeting state academic standards and achieving success on high-stakes summative exams, or falling short of academic goals. Some digital curriculum providers simply align curriculum to standards. Apex Learning, on the other hand, develops digital curriculum that is driven by them.  

Standards-Aligned Digital Curriculum

When a vendor aligns digital curriculum to standards, that typically indicates that the curriculum has been built around criteria of the vendor’s choosing. It’s only after the curriculum is created that the vendor aligns it to the standards. In other cases, a vendor may take an older digital curriculum and make changes to create alignment.

There is a troubling flaw in this approach. When digital curriculum is only aligned to academic standards, there is the risk that students won’t be prepared to take assessments or complete tasks that the standards demand of them. There could be gaps in rigor and difficulty between the assessment and what students have previously encountered, leaving students ill-prepared to achieve success and creating the potential for students to fall short of graduation requirements. As a result, your school may not meet academic goals and could see graduation rates decline.

Though penalties for failing to meet standards have shifted under ESSA, the stakes of negative student outcomes remain high. States must meet academic standards, and schools are held accountable for helping diverse student groups thrive. States judge district graduation rates and expect schools to provide students with exam preparation that leads to achievement on high-stakes tests. ESSA’s goal is for students to be college- and career-ready, and a standards-aligned digital curriculum won’t always prepare students for exams and what comes after them.

Standards-Driven Digital Curriculum

In comparison, Apex Learning’s digital curriculum development starts with standards, grows from standards and ends with standards. Two processes are central to creating a standards-driven digital curriculum:

  • Depth of Knowledge
    Apex Learning begins designing its digital curriculum by deconstructing standards using Depth of Knowledge, which was developed by the renowned Dr. Norman Webb at the University of Wisconsin. Through a rigorous study of standards, we develop 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. Depth of Knowledge helps Apex understand what knowledge and skills students must acquire and how they’ll need to prove content mastery.
  • Understanding By Design
    Our curriculum designers then use Understanding by Design, or Backward Design, to build an effective and rigorous curriculum that’s within reach for every student. First, we establish how to determine if students have mastered the standards being tested and design the target assessment around it. Everything that follows is done to build the curriculum and instruction to prepare students to meet that requirement. Lessons are designed for the assessment, and the curriculum is built to meet the standards being assessed.


Through the use of Depth of Knowledge and Understanding by Design, Apex can ensure that we’ve built a digital curriculum that 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 so that they may perform to expectations. A standards-driven digital curriculum provides schools and districts with the appropriate tool set for achievement. Teachers can better deliver effective instruction and intervention around college and career readiness, and every student has the opportunity to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills necessary for high stakes exams, higher education and life.

Apex Learning Digital Curriculum: Built for Standards

Apex Learning constantly studies and monitors state standards to stay informed. We know when standards will be revised and when new standards will be adopted, and we respond in those instances with the most rigorous and effective standards-driven digital curriculum available. In cases when one state’s standards differ greatly from others, we develop state-specific curriculum to fulfill special requirements. When selecting a digital curriculum, ask vendors to walk you through their development processes, and always request third-party verification — Apex Learning’s is provided through EdGate Correlation Services.

Explore our website to learn more about our standards-driven digital curriculum, including Comprehensive Courses and Tutorials.


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