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Cramming for Core Assessments

A step-by-step guide to preparing for Common Core assessments.

Common Core-aligned assessments are on the horizon, and districts across the country are in preparation mode.

It's clear by now that there is no shortcut to Core readiness, no one thing you can do to make sure your students and teachers are fully prepared to ace the upcoming computer-based assessments.

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to get your students and staff ready. While some schools will participate in field tests of CCSS-aligned assessments in 2014, most students will take these assessments for the first time in the spring of 2015. That gives you about a year and a half to up your readiness. So take a deep breath and tackle test preparation bit by bit.

Lessons From New York and Kentucky
Early Core-aligned assessment results have not been pretty. In New York, just 31 percent of kids in grades 3-8 met or exceeded the Common Core standards in reading and math in 2013, down from 55 and 65 percent, respectively, the previous year.

Kentucky was the first state to try new Core-aligned tests when it administered its K-Prep assessment in 2012. In the test's first year, the number of students who scored "proficient" dropped a drastic 30 percentage points compared to a different assessment given the previous year. But there is some reason for optimism: In the test's second year, some groups made modest progress. For instance, proficiency rates rose for middle school students in reading (from 46.8 percent to 51.1 percent), as well as in math for elementary school students (from 40.4 percent to 43.9 percent).More important, educators in Kentucky and New York are using the results of their assessments to further tweak education and instruction, in the hopes of improving student performance.

"Before the assessment, we used multiple measures, such as the NWEA [Northwest Evaluation Association] MAP assessments, to try to predict how the student would do," says Mark Place, chief information officer with the City School District of Albany, New York. "Now we're taking a look at the results we got from the new state assessment and plotting those on top of where our students performed on the other assessments."

"Let's say a student scored only a level two on the New York State Assessment, and we need to get him to a level three to be considered proficient," continues Place. "We look at MAP scores of students who scored proficient on the New York assessment to set a target. We're using these internal measurements to identify the skills students need to work on during the school year to get ready for the upcoming spring assessments."

New York and Kentucky don't currently provide item analysis or line-by-line test results, but test consortium Smarter Balanced's website states that assessment data giving teachers information on how to differentiate instruction will be available. 

Sue Gendron, senior fellow at the International Center for Leadership in Education, says that interim assessments will provide more individual student information, while summative assessments will provide an aggregate report of student performance. That information will help teachers tailor instruction to increase scores.

Until then, try these six action steps to increase your students' and staff's chances of success.

Action Steps
1 | Check out these Core Priority items. The Common Core Standards Action Briefs at are a good place to start. Achieve is an independent nonprofit education reform organization working to raise standards and improve assessments and accountability. Its briefs are for both elementary and secondary school leaders. Each one "lays out 12 different things administrators can do, listed in priority order," says Doug Sovde, Achieve's director of PARCC content and instructional supports. (The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers is the other major consortium developing assessments for the Common Core.) "If you have time to do only one or two things, I'd start at the top of the list," advises Sovde, "and the first thing is to get to know the standards."

2 | Study the sample questions. Many educators have made the mistake of thinking the Common Core standards aren't dramatically different from previous standards—and have been surprised by the depth and rigor of the sample assessment questions that have been released by both PARCC and Smarter Balanced, Gendron says.

Task prototypes, sample assessment questions, and practice tests are available at and Have your students try some of the questions to see how ready (or not) they are for the upcoming CCSS-aligned assessments; their performance will reveal areas of instruction that need further emphasis.

3 | Adopt new rubrics. Smarter Balanced and PARCC have also released draft versions of rubrics that will be used to assess students' performance. You can see PARCC-proposed grades 3, 4-5, and 6-11 scoring rubrics for written response items online; Smarter Balanced has ELA rubrics, writing rubrics, and math specifications available. Carefully examine the rubrics with your teachers, noticing how they reinforce the CCSS, and consider adopting a version of them. Have teachers share the rubrics with students and parents so that everyone understands which skills need to be reinforced.

4 | Up your tech-savviness.
The Core-aligned assessments will be taken digitally, and that means all your students must be comfortable demonstrating knowledge via technology. If your students aren't using digital word-processing tools on a daily basis, it's time to increase their exposure.

"Kids today have digital devices in their hands all the time, but they may not be keyboarding," says Mary Jane Tappen, Florida's deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction, and student services. "Make sure that classroom environments and the library media center include computers and keyboards, and that students use those as a regular part of the classroom day."

Also, support your teachers as they move toward more digital instruction. At Michigan's Mona Shores Middle School, Principal Greg Helmer has lightened the teaching load of one of his technology instructors so he can serve as a tech coach. "He has a two-and-a-half-hour block in his day where he can work one-on-one with teachers, in small group settings, or with departments as a support person," Helmer says.
5 | Work together.
It takes time and attention to fully implement the Common Core standards, but if you need to make some quick progress, have departments work together to break down the standards and develop Core-aligned lesson plans. "We have a shared file in our district that any teacher can access," says Janiene Marlow, principal of Horseshoe Trails Elementary in Phoenix. "Any teacher can see, in real time, what has been done. That kind of collaboration is important because you're only as strong as your weakest teacher."

Consider revamping teacher schedules so that they have dedicated blocks of time to collaborate. "Research shows that the best type of professional development is when teachers have time to plan and work together, time to observe each other teaching and provide constructive criticism," Tappen says.

6 | Refine testing techniques. The CCSS-aligned assessments won't merely be fill-in-the-blank or multiple-choice tests; the assessment questions will instead require deep thinking and, often, multiple steps to get to the correct answer. Prepare your students by revising the tests they see on a regular basis."

We're getting rid of true-and-false and matching on all of our unit trimester assessments," Helmer says. "Instead, we're revising the assessments by modeling them on the types of questions Smarter Balanced has available."

Helmer brought in an external expert to help his teachers better understand the Common Core standards and write meaningful assessments. If you don't have that kind of time (or money), encourage your teachers to pattern assignments and assessments on the sample questions that are available online through the test consortia. "If teachers insert key language from whatever text the kids are working on, they can replicate those questions fairly easily," says Gendron. "Incorporating those kinds of questions into students' everyday lessons and units will be very beneficial."   


Late Fall 2013

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