Assessment Overload or Seamless Teaching & Learning?

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Testing will never end and because of that, we need to end the angst testing brings to the lives of teachers and learners.

Testing will never end and because of that, we need to end the angst testing brings to the lives of teachers and learners.

For most of my teaching career, March represented testing season, typically followed by spring break and Easter holidays. Return to school was bearable as the April calendar flipped to May and Memorial Day signaled the final days of the school year. And then came Common Core and assessments related to the standards. Seems like the testing season has been extended. Yes, March continues to be testing month, but added to that will be those pesky end-of-year assessments.

When will it end…testing, testing, testing.

Frankly, testing will ever come to an end. High stakes testing and schooling have gone hand-in-hand ever since Harvard University administered the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) in 1934 as part of the selection process for 10 Midwest applicants (Lemann, 1999). On the heels of the SAT came the American College Testing Program (now known simply as ACT), released in the 1950s by E. F. Lindquist, a noted University of Iowa professor and statistician. Then as now, ACT claimed to be a test of learning achievement that could and can act as a guide in making school and career decisions. Since then, a plethora of testing companies and industries have sprung up across the country and the world, including Pearson–a British-based company controlling millions of assessment processes and dollars in the United States. The reality is that life and change propel us forward regardless of any longing for the “good ‘ole days.”

So given testing is nothing new to schooling, why do educators and the public have such disgust for the process and the  outcomes? The answer to that question is centered in the disparity between our goals and the realities. Current and traditional views of schooling are based on the general belief that “…people’s chances for success in life [are] primarily the result of a combination of talent, personal achievement, individual effort, and hard work” (Mehan, 2008, p. 43). But assessment outcomes bring attention to the effects of heredity, class, race, and gender on student achievement. And that is because testing systems like Educational Testing Service (ETS), SAT, the College Board, and ACT were designed to fulfill “the function of matching talent to positions in industrialized, capitalist societies” (Mehan, p. 44).

The goals of teaching and learning are to expand opportunities for individuals and societies while the goals of standardized assessment are to”…reproduce the status hierarchy that currently exists…” (Mehan, p. 49). To a great degree, the Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards and their assessment have caused testing companies to turn the mirror of reflection back on themselves and in that reflection, some have begun to restructure tomorrow’s framework for mass assessment through next generation assessments that measure skills rather than  content and higher order thinking, including application and analysis, over recall.

Reconciling Teaching & Assessment

How can we possibly reconcile the competing interests of standardized assessment and altruistic teaching? The Common Core Standards are one road to bridging the dichotomy between sorting and supporting. By valuing the cognitive skills that are the focus of the standards and teaching to those skills using developmentally appropriate content valued within the community of learners (which includes parents, educators, businesses, etc.), we can more equitably prepare and measure teaching and learning progress.

What do I mean by this? Given the variety of cultures within our country, there should be no surprise in claiming that not everyone values the writings of one author over another or finds more value in the appreciation of one genre over another. This same type of thinking is espoused in the C3 Frameworks for Social Studies. Content is not prescribed–skills are the focus of the frameworks: “inquiry skills and key concepts, and guides—not prescribes—the choice of curricular content necessary for a rigorous social studies program. Content is critically important to the disciplines within social studies and individual state leadership will be required to select appropriate and relevant content” (NCSS, 2013, p. 14). Decisions of content are left to the local level and such is and should be the case with ELA as well.

In the classroom, then, it would seem most effective and logical to focus the attention more on skills than content. If our students possess critical reading and thinking skills, the content will follow. Units of study could easily become centered on the skills of the  discipline and the content becomes the vehicle. For instance, in Glencoe’s (9th grade) Course 4 Literature (2009), the units are titled “Matters of Life and Death,” “Rewards and Sacrifices,” “Dreams and Realities.” Though these concepts are valid for reading, consideration, discussion, and internalization, the ability to analyze complex characterization in stories like “The Most Dangerous Game,” or analyze a subject or scene in stories like “The Scarlet Ibis,” or reconcile point-of-view and purpose in speeches such as Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address are equally–and yes, more important than the recall of the plot or language of any single story, speech, report, etc. Indeed, these titles are among those scattered throughout the units mentioned, but why give away the theme by organizing thematic units–interesting in light of the difficulty students have in determining themes within a text.

Why reinvent the wheel? PARCC has organized the standards into manageable task topics. Build on the tax money that has already been spent and use/adapt these models!

Teaching to Standards using Task Topics as Units of Study

How to start? Group standards into topics–why reinvent the wheel, PARCC has already done this–then go through your literature anthology and organize the texts under each topic to begin the design of a scope and sequence. At the right, you see the ninth-grade task topic organizer. The yellow boxes represent the Common Core literature reading standards; the green boxes represent the informational reading standards. Prose Constructed Response (PCR) simply means “essay.” So, let’s say you are going through your ninth grade anthology: place each text titles into one of these categories–poetry and short stories into the yellow topics and informational text into the green task topics.

In doing what  I suggest, you are now teaching standards-based tasks as units rather than teaching  “Dreams and Realities” or “Rewards and Sacrifices.” Your units will become titles such as, “A Study of Text Structure and Manipulation of Time.”   Under the column PCR (click here to read my blog explaining PARCC’s PCR) are the suggested standards for developing the writing prompt–but I suggest you also use those for speaking & listening opportunities. I also suggest you add standard 9 to some if not all of the tasks listed to further support the analysis of cross text study and communication and pair the texts accordingly. The standards listed under EBSR/TECR (click here to read my blog explaining PARCC’s EBSR/TECR) become supporting questions for writing, what you might call text dependent questions or questions to guide close reading.

Most grades have five performance-task topics representing the literature reading standards. Seventh grade, however, has the most topics for classroom grappling!

Most grades have five performance-task topics representing the literature reading standards. Seventh grade, however, has the most topics for classroom grappling!

Now, I want to keep this as simple as possible….so bear with me. As I view this structure, each task topic becomes a unit of study. They can be taught in any order–adapted to meet your own criteria, adjusted in any way you see fit. In most grades, there are four or five task topics delineated. At the left, note seventh grade has seven literature topics and six informational topics. What we know (after taking the first set of Common Core assessments) is that Next Generation Assessments test standards.  Within each unit must be activities and opportunities for writing instruction, but always (or most often) based on the reading. There must also be  opportunities for speaking and listening instruction and practice.

How to Manage the Informational Standards

Many of you had given the PARCC  or SBAC assessments, so you have a better understanding of where I am headed. Both consortia promised to equally assess students’ reading “comprehension” of science/technology texts, social studies/history texts, and informational texts. ACT already does just this through two subtests: art/literature and social studies/sciences. As we transition from content centered classrooms (in ELA and Social Studies as well as sciences) to skills based instruction and learning that fosters student engagement in content, we will need to think more about how our students communicate their thinking within and about disciplines.

Therefore, in these early times, I suggest ELA teachers focus on the literature task topics while science and social studies teachers look at the  informational task topics. At grades 6-12, there are six task topics representing the informational standards. My suggestion…science takes two of those topics that most apply while social studies takes two most applicable (note that Analyzing Primary and Secondary Sources is only found in the SS standards). And, if ELA takes two informational tasks alongside the literary task topics, in most grades that will result in a total of seven units for standards-based teaching and learning across a conventional thirty-six week school-year.

I’m not suggesting this will be easy, but I am suggesting, by teaching to the standards, we will be providing for our students in much fairer way…one that allows them to learn how to think and how to write, how to speak and listen, how to become successful–not just for a test but for everyday responsible living.

To help you in the process, click here and review Performance Task Planners or click here and review Common Core ELA/Literacy Standards Unit Planners. Want to learn more? Contact me and let’s put together a workshop for your school or district: [email protected]


Lemann, N. (1999). The big test. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Mehan, Hugh. (2008). A sociological perspective on opportunity to learn and assessment. In P. A. Moss, D. C. Pullin, J. P. Gee, E. H. Haertel & L. J. Young (Eds.), Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (42-75). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

National Council for the Socials Studies (NCSS), The College, Career, and Civic Life Framework (c3) for Social Studies State Standards: Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History (Silver Spring, MD: NCSS, 2013).

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