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Everything You Need to Know About Common Core Testing

“When in doubt, just pick B.”  —Anonymous

These words, uttered by teachers, parents, and students, have been part of standardized testing folklore for many years. I’ve “just picked B” many times throughout my educational career, and I’ve survived to tell the tale. (I’m pretty sure I'm not alone!) As many current state-level accountability measures are dominated by multiple-choice questions with only four options, guessing has seemed almost strategic. 

Well, things are about to change.

The dawn of the Common Core Standards has been coupled with the creation of new assessment methods. The organizations designing these new assessments have committed to test designs that measure critical thinking and original thought. At this time, there are two Common Core assessment options for schools: the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Smarter Balanced is developing a computer-adaptive test. This means that the questions delivered to students will be dependent upon their answers to previous questions on the assessment. If students are doing well, the level of difficulty will increase. If students are answering questions incorrectly, then easier questions will be provided. Most of the questions on the assessment ask students to generate an answer, not merely choose one.

On the other hand, the PARCC assessment draws from a collective bank of questions at each grade level. Unlike with the Smarter Balanced assessment, students at a particular grade level get similar questions regardless of their performance on previous questions. On the assessment, students are often asked to do more than choose the right answer. Many questions require written justifications or the selection of multiple correct answers from a list.

But much more than the format has changed.

Just as the Common Core Standards include significant shifts for learners, both assessment consortia have made intentional assessment shifts in their designs. The three assessment shifts are context, rigor, and synthesis. Let’s take a closer look at each of these ideas.

Assessment Shift 1: Context

Currently, most state-level assessment items are provided out of context. Essentially, students are asked to provide answers to “teacherly” tasks, not real world problems. Consider the two examples below.

This is a released item from a third-grade math test in Pennsylvania.

Math testing item

Students are asked to merely compute the answer correctly. In this example, students are asked to merely acquire and regurgitate facts without relating the learning to a real-world situation.

By contrast, this is a third-grade released task from PARCC:

PARCC Math testing item

The newly designed assessment items ask students to consider a specific situation for a specific audience. And while some state-level accountability measures have tried to incorporate context, these antiquated tests currently require much more “telling” than “solving.” This trend also holds true in English/Language Arts (ELA). On the Common Core assessments, students are asked to consider what passages actually mean instead of merely identifying text elements or naming figurative language.

Assessment Shift 2: Rigor

The second major shift relates to rigor. In ELA, both assessment consortia use reading passages that have higher reading levels than most state-level accountability measures. Also, math concepts are more advanced and require multiple steps.

In Kentucky, the first state to pilot Common Core assessment measures, proficiency rates dropped by about one third at both the elementary and middle school levels. The most dramatic drop was in elementary reading, where the population went from 76% proficiency to 48% proficiency.

Other states, such as New York, are preparing the public for drops in achievement by launching substantial public relations campaigns. On subways and billboards across New York City, PSAs are preparing all stakeholders for the changes.

Assessment Shift 3: Synthesis

Both the math and ELA items included in the new Common Core assessments require students to synthesize multiple pieces of information.

Consider the following seventh-grade prompt taken from the PARCC test:

Sample PARCC testing item

Students are required to read three different pieces of informational text before determining a position backed by evidence. In math, students have to answer questions with multiple parts, and each part increases in complexity.

So, What Should Our Curriculum Look Like?

All three assessment shifts demand that teachers abandon traditional test prep methods. You simply can’t prepare students to solve difficult problems using drill-and-kill.

Preparing students for the new Common Core assessments requires thoughtful curriculum design and technology use. Teachers have to create learning experiences that ask students to do much more than “remember” and “tell.” Instead, students need to research, create, and solve meaningful problems while incorporating evidence from a variety of sources and subject areas. In many cases, technology is the tool that enables such authentic work by providing students with instant access to news, trends, graphs, and maps.

In school, students should discover solutions that meet the needs of a real audience.  Technology can help us create these connections, whether it’s through Skype, Google Hangouts, or asynchronous message boards. In short, learning should be messy and collaborative. If every question you ask students has a definitive answer, then you should go back to the drawing board!

Further, the research reminds us that educational transfer is most likely to happen when students have many opportunities to apply their learning in a variety of situations.

Consider this quote from How People Learn: “A way to improve flexibility is to let students learn in a specific context and then help them engage in ‘what-if’ problem solving designed to increase the flexibility of their understanding.”

Superficially covering many topics directly inhibits the type of thinking demanded by both the Common Core Standards and the new assessments aligned to them. We need to provide the time and support to consider fewer learning topics more deeply.

So slow down. Allow kids to create digitally. Ask tough questions.

And while the transition to the new Common Core assessments may not be simple or completely seamless, most worthwhile changes never are. Let’s make learning more than a guessing game.