By Tony Frontier
A year from now, students around the country will be sitting at lunch tables talking about the new standardized tests they’ve taken. Removed from the politics and processes of these new tests, students will not talk about the development processes used by the PARCC or Smarter Balanced consortia. They will not talk about the merits of the Race to the Top program. They will not talk about the validity of value-added measures. They will talk about one thing: was the test easy or hard?
Although these tests are a single isolated event in each child’s schooling experience, the classroom opportunities a student has each day to develop the new skills and understandings—articulated in the standards to which these tests have been aligned—are the schooling experience. The conversations teachers have in the staffroom today will have a profound effect on the lunchroom conversations kids have tomorrow. Here are six important questions that can guide these crucial conversations among curriculum leaders, principals, and teachers.
New Standards Mean Different Gaps
1. What evidence do you have from daily work and classroom assessments that each student can independently demonstrate an understanding of the content, concepts, and skills associated with each standard? We should celebrate areas of strength in student learning as aligned to the new standards. And we must address areas of need to ensure that curriculum is augmented, revised, or (if warranted) completely changed to turn those areas of need into new opportunities for student learning.
Opportunity to Learn
2. What processes are in place to ensure that each student has the opportunity to learn the content, concepts, and skills associated with each standard? Although there is a significant amount of flexibility afforded by the standards—including how content is taught and how students develop and demonstrate competence in their day-to-day classwork—the rigor of the Common Core standards requires a systematic approach that scaffolds specific student learning needs across lessons, units, and grades or courses.
Shared Language and Vocabulary
3. How is the language of the standards incorporated into each student’s learning experiences? Words like recount, determine, distinguish, and interpret are in the 3rd grade standards. A student who has not been exposed to this vocabulary may shine when prompted to “tell what happened in the story,” but that same student might not even attempt to answer when prompted to “recount the main events in the text.” If the standards include academic language to describe the quality, direction, and complexity of student work, we must see that same academic language as a crucial component of our curriculum.
4. How will students’ learning experiences look different in classrooms that intentionally address the Common Core State Standards? Among other shifts, the standards emphasize interpreting informational text, citing textual evidence to support analysis, and using data to construct viable arguments. So instructional strategies that were efficient for presenting content to students to recall later may not align well to other instructional strategies that address the standards’ new emphasis. Standards implementation requires an intentional alignment process and intentional shifts in classroom practice.
Rubrics, Feedback, and Formative Assessment
5. How will the learning targets we create and the feedback we provide be aligned to the quality and rigor of the standards? Building a shared, K–12 language of quality that uses words from the standards—such as clear, coherent, relevant, logical, and plausible—on rubrics helps ensure everyone’s efforts are aligned. An effective rubric can be used to guide teachers’ efforts to prioritize the skills and strategies that are most likely to influence and guide students’ efforts to produce quality work.. Each student’s work serves as feedback to the teacher as to the extent that the instruction guided students toward quality while the feedback teachers provide to students guides their efforts to get even better. This formative approach ensures students and teachers see the language of the standards as a tool to guide, rather than judge their shared efforts.
Engagement and Authenticity
6. How will the system of curriculum, instruction, and assessment that is put into place not only align to the standards, but meet students’ needs to engage in meaningful, authentic learning experiences? Although the Common Core State Standards have been delineated and defined, the standards are not the curriculum. 100,000 curricula could be derived from the standards. Some will be fragmented and didactic, and some will be coherent and meaningful. The challenge—and opportunity—for teachers is to develop a curriculum that tends to the interests and learning needs of their students. Few students wake up in the morning eager to tackle standard W.6.1 and 6.G.A.1 on a Monday morning. However, some students may be thrilled to write a letter to the mayor that explains the feasibility of how a vacant, 12,328 square-foot lot could be converted into a skateboard park.
These six questions can guide classroom, school, and district leaders’ efforts to connect students to the standards. If they are addressed strategically and systemically, they have the capacity to improve student learning to change those lunch table conversations next school year. After students have a short conversation about how easy the test was, they can move on to even more important conversations about the interesting book they just finished, why their favorite football team will win on Sunday, or maybe even the mayor’s support of their plan to build a new skateboard park.
To learn more, join Frontier and his colleagues at a Common Core Institute this spring or summer.
Tony Frontier is an ASCD faculty member and an assistant professor of leadership studies at Cardinal Stritch University. He is co-author of the recently published ASCD book, Five Levers to Improve Learning: Prioritizing for Powerful Results in Your School.