The reader is urged to complete Module 6: Usable Innovations, Lesson 3: Practice Profiles, and Module 3: Implementation Teams before beginning the Fidelity Assessment Module. The information in those Modules and Lesson is critical to understanding the information that follows in this Module.


Fidelity assessment is defined as indicators of doing what is intended. This definition requires a) knowing what is intended, and b) having some way of knowing the extent to which a person did what was intended. Knowing what is intended is the subject of the Module 6: Usable Innovation. Knowing the extent to which a person did what was intended is the subject of this Module.

Education and human services are based on people interacting with each other in ways that are intended to be helpful whether individually (e.g., clinician with client, teacher with student) or in teams (e.g., IEP team with a student and family members). Given the complexities of human behavior, there is no expectation that people will be the same from moment to moment or day to day. With such variation in mind, fidelity assessments are designed to help detect and support consistent and relevant instruction and innovation behavior. When evidence-based approaches or other effective innovations are being used in education, fidelity assessments measure the presence and strength of an innovation as it is used in daily practice.

It has been noted elsewhere that the Initial Implementation Stage of using an innovation is the most fragile (Module 4: Implementation Stages). It is during this time that new Implementation Teams are forming and learning to function in districts and schools that have recently decided to try an innovation. Under these conditions, the Implementation Team's supports for teachers may be inconsistent and not always immediately effective. The idea that teacher fidelity assessment results are the products of Implementation Team supports for practitioners (teachers, clinicians) will be detailed in a later section of this module.

Research and Rationales

Accountability and
administrative reviews
Fidelity assessments
Accountability and administrative reviews concern teacher employment, salary increases, and access to state and federal funding for education.  These are evaluations of teachers. In contrast, fidelity assessments concern the effectiveness of implementation supports for teachers who are expected to use identified innovations and other instructional practices in their interactions with students.

Given that Implementation Teams are accountable for effectively supporting teacher instruction, fidelity assessments are evaluations of Implementation Teams. This difference significantly impacts how the process is explained and introduced to teachers and school administrators and how information is collected and used.

For outcome studies showing positive results, the lack of definition of the innovation and lack of information about fidelity means success is not repeatable.

The lack of fidelity assessment is a problem in human services generally, including education. Dane & Schneider (1998), Durlak & DuPre (2008), and others summarized reviews of over 1,200 outcome studies. They found that investigators assessed the presence or strength (fidelity) of the independent variable (the innovation) in about 20% of the studies. In addition, only about 5% of those studies used those assessments in the analyses of the outcome data. Without fidelity assessment information about the presence and strength of the practices being studied it is difficult to know what the innovation is and know what produced the outcomes in a study (Dobson & Cook, 1980; Naleppa & Cagle, 2010). For outcome studies showing positive results, the lack of definition of the innovation and lack of information about fidelity means success is not repeatable. The only thing worse than trying an innovation and failing is succeeding and not knowing what was done to produce the success. Achieving good outcomes once is laudable – achieving good outcomes again and again is educationally significant.

For outcome studies showing a lack of positive results, the absence of fidelity data makes improvement difficult and confusing. Did poor outcomes result from poor use of the innovation (an implementation problem), or is the innovation itself in need of modification (an innovation problem)? Without fidelity data, we cannot separate the two and our efforts to improve will be inefficient and probably ineffective.

Crosse and colleagues (2011) surveyed a national representative sample of 2,500 public school districts and 5,847 public schools. In response to the survey, principals reported using an average of 9 innovations per school. Crosse and colleagues investigated the innovations and found that 7.8% had evidence to support their effectiveness. They further found that only 3.5% of the innovations met minimum standards for fidelity when used in schools. Without an assessment of fidelity educators do not know what the adults are doing to produce good outcomes or poor outcomes. They have no systematic way to detect effective innovations or improve innovations as they evolve in education settings.

Based on these data, the best guess is that about 1% of the schools in the United States use fidelity assessments on a regular basis. Poor practices in current use can go undetected and resources are invested in instruction and innovation strategies that may be effective on paper, but are not actually being used in practice. Names and claims are poor substitutes for actually using effective practices fully and competently in daily interactions with students to produce educationally significant results.

The critical features of fidelity assessments that do exist have been summarized (Fixsen et al., 2005; Sanetti & Kratochwill, 2014; Schoenwald & Garland, 2013).  The assessments can be categorized as shown in Table 1 (some examples are provided in the Table).

Table 1: Method to categorize fidelity assessment items.


Type of Assessment

Direct Observation

Record Review

Ask Others


Organization of the classroom and student groups

Lesson plan is available for review

Interview the Master Teacher re: teacher’s planning and preparation activities


Lesson plan followed during class period

Lesson plan contains key elements of an effective approach to teaching the subject

Interview Master Teacher re: use of agreed upon curriculum; ratings of Master Teacher regarding reliable inclusion of effective instructional approaches in lesson plans


Observation of teachers’ engagement of students with information and questions; and teachers’ use of prompt and accurate feedback

Review Coaching notes to see progress on instructional skill development

Interview students re: instruction methods used by the teacher.


Context and content are important aspects of fidelity assessment.  The critical dimension is direct observation of competence as a practitioner (teacher, therapist) interacts with others (student, patient) in the service delivery setting (classroom, clinic).

Fidelity assessment and Active Implementation Frameworks

The Active Implementation Frameworks (AIF) help distinguish fidelity assessment from teacher certification, accountability, or administrative review processes. The Active Implementation Frameworks are universal and apply to any attempt to use any innovation.  Some innovations are evidence-based and some have been operationalized, but the vast majority does not meet either of these conditions.

Fidelity assessments are most reliable when the core innovation features have been identified, operationalized, and shown through research and evaluation studies to correlate positively with outcomes. It can take many years to conduct the studies needed to validate a measure of fidelity by demonstrating that the items or measure correlates well with positive outcomes.

Many innovations are evidence-informed and consist of individual practices that are predicted to produce improved learning and outcomes.  But there are no validated fidelity assessments. In these instances, it is important to develop a fidelity assessment of some kind so that you can “get started and get better” at understanding and detecting the core features needed to produce outcomes.

Example: The PBIS School-wide Evaluation Tool

Download: Handout 19: The PBIS School-wide Evaluation Tool

An example of a fidelity assessment is provided by Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS is a well-developed and researched approach to reducing discipline problems and suspensions and improving academic achievement in schools.  State and national networks of trainers and coaches and a national data collection and reporting system support PBIS. The data supporting PBIS require specific features to be present if PBIS is to be effective. And research has been to demonstrate that higher fidelity is correlated with better student outcomes (PBIS,

In this example, fidelity assessment items are designed to detect the presence and strength of each PBIS core feature in a school environment. Notice that the data source may be a product, interview, or observation.  These ways of assessing fidelity are summarized in the handout.

Fidelity assessment and improving student outcomes

  • Frequent More frequent fidelity assessments mean more opportunities for improving instruction, innovations, and implementation supports (i.e., at school, district, and state levels). Fidelity assessments in education should be done for every teacher six times per academic year for the first 2-3 years after innovations are put in place. This will help assure frequent feedback to inform and focus improvement cycles to support teachers for effectively and efficiently.
    For more information see Module 5: Improvement Cycles

    Relevant: Fidelity data are most informative when each item on the assessment is relevant to important supports for student learning. That is, fidelity assessment items are tied directly to the Practice Profile for the innovation, and the Practice Profile is based on best research and evaluation evidence to date.
    For more information see Lesson 6: Practice Profiles
  • Actionable: Fidelity data are most useful when each item on the assessment can be included in an action plan and can be improved in the education setting. The teacher and coach/Implementation Team develop action plans after each assessment to improve supports for effective instruction.
    For more information see Implementation Drivers: Action Plan & Implementation Stages: Action Plan

These three dimensions combine to produce useful information for improving educational practices and student outcomes. If they are to be used frequently, fidelity assessments must be practical (e.g. a 10-minute observation). To be useful for improving supports for teachers, fidelity assessment items need to be relevant and actionable by Implementation Teams. Data linking fidelity information with student outcomes will help to sustain the assessment system.

As noted earlier, few fidelity assessments exist in education and human services.  This situation has persisted unchanged for decades (Moncher & Prinz, 1991; Sanetti & Kratochwill, 2014). A search of the What Works Clearinghouse in education yields few examples of fidelity measures, and very few of those relate to instruction practices in typical classrooms.

and administrative reviews
Fidelity assessments

There are accountability and administrative reviews and other evaluations of teachers that are conducted by principals and other school staff.  Typically, these assessments are used to determine teacher status (promotion, pay increase, retention) or meet state and federal standards for access to funding or to meet state and federal legislative mandates.


There are teacher fidelity assessments that are comprehensive and require extensive preparations of assessors and longer observations in order to ensure observers are obtaining valid and reliable information (Danielson, 2013; Marzano, 2007). 

Comprehensive teacher assessments have much to recommend them and provide relevant and actionable information.  Because they are comprehensive they also are cumbersome.  The time and effort required to conduct them mean they are not practical for frequent administrations for continual improvement of ongoing supports for teacher performance.

Again, very few fidelity measures are used in daily practice in education and human services (Crosse, Williams, Hagen, Harmon, Ristow, DiGaetano, . . . Derzon, 2011).  This presents a problem for Implementation Team members who are accountable for producing high levels of fidelity linked to good student outcomes in practice settings. 

The lack of fidelity measures also poses a problem for administrators and directors in education.  Instead of random acts of improvement based on best guesses, fidelity measures help diagnose problems and target attention on specific actions that lead to improved student outcomes.  Strategies to improve implementation supports (e.g. more coaching or more training from the Implementation Team) are very different from strategies to improve innovations (e.g. modify instruction or curriculum to produce better outcomes when used with high levels of fidelity).  Having fidelity assessment data helps to focus the use of limited resources in districts and schools. 


Activity 7.1

Activity 7.1
Designing a Fidelity Assessment

Implementing a fidelity assessment often poses a number of challenges for implementation teams. In this activity we provide an initial fourā€step approach for identifying, categorizing, and discussing challenges, then completing action planning.

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