Professional Learning

Common Core Big Idea 5: Consider Meaningful Assessment

December 7, 2012
Image credit: iStockphoto

Editor's note: This is the fifth post in a five-part series which takes a look at five big ideas for implementation of the Common Core State Standards, authored by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.

A prevalent misconception about standards in general is that they simply specify learning goals to be achieved. A more complete and accurate conception, in line with the colloquial meaning of the term, recognizes that standards also refer to the desired qualities of student work and the degree of rigor that must be assessed and achieved.

Think about what we mean when we talk about “high standards” in athletics, music or business: we refer to the quality of outcomes, not the inputs. We ask if work is up to standard, not whether we “covered” such standards as teachers. In this sense, the standards are at their core a set of criteria for building and testing local assessment. They tell where we must look and what we must look for to determine if student work is up to standard. Such information is crucial to guide local assessments and insure that these are validly anchored against national standards.

Ironically (and unfortunately), this important point is not made in the main body of the ELA Common Core Standards but in Appendix B and C. These Appendices are arguably the most important sections of the ELA Standards because there the authors describe the degree of text difficulty that students must be able to handle, the features that need to be evident in student writing, and the kinds of performance tasks that will provide the needed evidence. Accompanying samples of scored work illustrate the qualities of performance that must be attained to meet the Standards.

This performance-based conception of standards lies at the heart of what is needed to translate the Common Core into a robust curriculum and assessment system. The curriculum and related instruction must be designed backward from an analysis of standards-based assessments; i.e., worthy performance tasks anchored by rigorous rubrics and annotated work samples. We predict that the alternative -- a curriculum mapped in a typical scope and sequence based on grade-level content specifications -- will encourage a curriculum of disconnected “coverage” and make it more likely that people will simply retrofit the new language to the old way of doing business.

Thus, our proposal reflects the essence of backward design: Conceptualize and construct the curriculum back from sophisticated “cornerstone” tasks, reflecting the performances that the Common Core Standards demand of graduates. Indeed, the whole point of Anchor Standards in ELA and the Practices in Mathematics is to establish the genres of performance (e.g., argumentation in writing and speaking, and solving problems set in real-world contexts) that must recur across the grades in order to develop the capacities needed for success in higher education and the workplace.

Our recommendation to construct curriculum around assessments may lead to a related misunderstanding; i.e., that we need to assess each grade-level Standard in isolation, one by one. We think that this view is due in part to the layout of grade-level Standards and to the look and feel of traditional standardized tests, in which very discrete objectives are the subject of most test items. This confuses means and ends; it conflates the “drill” with the “game.” The authors of the Common Core Standards wisely anticipated this misconception and they caution against it: “While the Standards delineate specific expectations in reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language, each standard need not be a separate focus for instruction and assessment. Often, several standards can be addressed by a single rich task. (ELA Standards, p. 5).”

In sum, moving from standards to curriculum requires careful reading and thoughtful interpretation to avoid the predictable misunderstandings noted above, while building the curriculum backward from worthy tasks offers the pathway to the performances envisioned by the Common Core.

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