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March 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 6

Helping Students Climb the Common Core Staircase

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To prepare students for demanding assessments, we need to teach them how to examine and refine their own work.

Helping Students Climb the Common Core Staircase - Thumbnail
What's one way to reflect on the challenge the Common Core State Standards pose to us as educators? Imagine a staircase.
An important aim of the designers of the new standards was to create a "staircase" reflecting increasing complexity in what students are able to read. And the idea of presenting the Common Core standards as a step-like K–12 progression goes beyond the standards for reading: The very format in which the English language arts standards are organized makes abundantly clear how expectations progress for each grade level.
Figure 1, for example, shows the kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade standards for writing opinion pieces. Notice how the skills build on one another as the grades increase. Any 1st grade teacher can see not only what's expected at his or her own grade level, but also where students should be in terms of skills as they enter 1st grade—and how much they'll need to grow to be ready for 2nd grade.

Figure 1. Common Core Writing Standard 1, Grades K–2

Helping Students Climb the Common Core Staircase - table


Grade 1 Students

Grade 2 Students

Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book (for example, My favorite book is … ).Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure.Write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply reasons that support the opinion, use linking words (for example, because, and, also) to connect opinion and reasons, and provide a concluding statement or section.
Standards referenced above are from National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy. Washington, DC: Authors. Retrieved from www.corestandards.org/ELA-literacy.

A Steep Climb on Assessments

The concept of a staircase of progressively higher skills takes on even greater importance in light of the new Common Core assessments being developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarter Balanced consortia. These assessments, slated to be implemented in the 2014–15 school year, will feature more rigorous readings, more complex writing tasks, more sophisticated use of evidence, and more reasoning and nonroutine thinking in mathematics.
In addition to constructed-response items, extended-response items, and technology-enabled items, the new assessments will also feature performance tasks designed to simulate the kind of work expected in college and 21st century careers.
Here, for example, is the constructed-response portion of a larger research simulation task for Grade 7 in English language arts. Notice how the task requires students to assess a claim, synthesize information from multiple rigorous texts (provided as part of the item); analyze the quality of the authors' arguments; and develop a cohesive written response:
You have read three texts describing Amelia Earhart. All three include the claim that Earhart was a brave, courageous person …. Consider the argument each author uses to demonstrate Earhart's bravery. Write an essay that analyzes the strength of the arguments about Earhart's bravery in at least two of the texts. Remember to use textual evidence to support your ideas. (PARCC, n.d.)
Evidence that Common Core assessments will be more challenging for students and teachers comes from the results of pilot tests in New York and Kentucky. Both states recently administered their own Common Core–aligned tests, and both saw dramatic declines in students' test results compared with previous years. In New York, the number of 3rd through 8th graders achieving at the proficient level on the new tests fell by nearly 50 percent.

So How to Respond?

How should educators respond to this challenge? The truth is, we can administer all the Common Core-aligned tests in the world, but if we don't teach students how to plan, assess, and refine their own work, their performance on these tests will likely improve only —ally. Even worse, we won't be doing our students any favors when it comes to preparing them for college and careers, which call for high levels of self-direction. We need a more student-centered approach.
The approach we recommend can be represented metaphorically by (you guessed it) a staircase. Imagine a staircase that has four steps teachers and students take together, sequentially, to improve students' work and self-regulation. Each step builds on the one before:
  • Step 1. Establish clear learning goals. Teach students how to analyze tasks and learning goals—and what they demand.
  • Step 2. Provide models of high-quality work. Teach students how to identify the crucial attributes of the work.
  • Step 3. Teach students how to monitor and assess the quality of their work.
  • Step 4. Move from "grading to aiding" by providing specific, meaningful feedback.
This approach is informed by what assessment experts Chappuis, Stiggins, Chappuis, and Arter (2011) call "assessment for learning." To assess for learning, teachers help students continually ask and answer three questions: Where am I going? (What learning goals am I working to achieve?); Where am I now? (What's my current level of understanding?); and What can I do to close the gap (How can I use feedback, self-assessment, and learning opportunities to reach my goals?). When teachers use assessment in this way—to advance, rather than simply evaluate, student learning—achievement improves dramatically (Black & Wiliam, 1998).

One Step at a Time

Let's look at how teachers might carry out each step in this approach.

1. Establish clear learning goals.

Many teachers are committed to developing and posting clear learning goals or targets. Often, these goals are written in student-friendly language, beginning with "I will … " ("I will be able to explain the roles that producers, consumers, and decomposers play in the food web" or "I will be able to write an opinion essay, using evidence to support my opinion.")
We've found that in many classrooms, posted learning goals become "goal wallpaper," so much noise and clutter competing for students' attention. Instead, consider using a tool like backwards learning (Boutz, Silver, Jackson, & Perini, 2012), which teaches students how to analyze the cognitive demands of a task; identify the learning goals on their own (or with their teacher's help); and formulate a plan of action. To use backwards learning, allow students to examine the assessment task they'll be asked to complete by the end of the lesson or unit. Give them time (and help as needed) to respond in their own words to these prompts, each listed here with a sample answer in italics:
  • At the end of this lesson or unit, what will I be asked to do or create? (assessment task). Write an editorial that explains the difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy and takes a position on the energy crisis.
  • What will I need to know and understand? (_knowing_ goals). The differences between renewable and nonrenewable energy, causes and effects of the energy crisis, options for addressing the energy crisis, and the pros and cons of each.
  • What will I need to be able to do? (_doing_ goals). Conduct a comparison; research different options for addressing the energy crisis; write a persuasive editorial.
  • What steps will I take to achieve these goals? Keep a separate note sheet on renewable and nonrenewable energy and keep track of pros and cons of each; read about and research both forms of energy; learn what different experts have to say about the energy crisis; write a first draft of my editorial so I have time to review and improve it.

2. Analyze high-quality work.

If we expect students to produce high-quality work, we must give them the chance to get their eyes on some. Students need opportunities to analyze and figure out for themselves what makes exemplary work exemplary.
There are two good ways to make this work. With the high-performance approach, students—independently or in groups—examine three exemplary work samples with this question in mind: What do all three have in common? The teacher can focus students' attention on various aspects of the work ("Look at the opening paragraph of all three pieces. What do all three have in common? What can we conclude about the opening of a strong narrative?")
With the three-level approach, students examine work at various levels of proficiency, typically at least one exemplary piece, one average piece, and one below-average piece. Instead of thinking about what they have in common, students consider what makes each piece different from the others. With help, students learn to construct their own rubrics with elements like this:
  • What makes a high-quality position statement?Excellent: Writer's position is clearly stated and easy to find.Average: Writer's position is a little bit hard to follow or hard to find.Below Average: Writer doesn't take a position or position isn't clearly explained.
  • What makes for high-quality support of a position?Excellent: Position is supported with logical, relevant evidence.Average: Needs more (or more convincing) evidence to support the position.Below Average: Evidence is missing, unconvincing, or irrelevant.
One advantage of this approach is the "power of the below average." Below-average samples can be selected (or revised) to highlight common problems plaguing student work, bringing those problems into sharp focus. For example, if an English teacher notices that most students' arguments fail to anticipate counterarguments, she can show below-average samples that all lack counterarguments.

3. Teach students to assess their own work.

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande (2010) reminds us how underrated the checklist is in the quality-control process. In the classroom, checklists make students active players throughout the assessment process. Teach students how a checklist can be used before work begins (to mentally rehearse or plan a sound approach); during work (to continually refine one's approach); and after the work is done (to check for inconsistencies and errors and locate "pressure points" that need more attention).
The power of the checklist can be increased when we teach students to also use it for reflection and feedback. As Figure 2 shows, one 5th grade teacher added a column to the checklist she created for oral presentations to enable students to reflect and comment on their work. The teacher also used this column to offer feedback on each checklist item. Teachers can also introduce collaborative sharing tools like knee-to-knee conferencing (in which two students read and discuss each other's drafts using teacher-provided questions that spur reflection).

Figure 2. Student Checklist for Oral-Presentations

Helping Students Climb the Common Core Staircase - table 2

When I am giving an oral presentation …

Comments (student's or teacher's)

□ I make a conscious effort to speak slowly, loudly, and clearly.I was nervous and forgot. I think I rushed. [student] It's good that you noticed that you rushed. It will help you pace yourself next time. [teacher]
✔ I use visual displays like charts and graphs to clarify my points.You did use bar graphs, but some of your classmates thought they were a little confusing. How can you use bar graphs to better support your position? [teacher]
✔ I support my statements and positions with specific evidence and examples.Good examples of how changes in supply and demand affected prices! [teacher]
✔ I stop at various times to address people's comments or questions.Excellent job responding to your classmates' questions! [teacher]

4. Provide meaningful feedback.

The next time you're inclined to put a letter or number grade and a quick comment like "Great!" on a piece of student work, try instead this simple, effective way to give more meaningful feedback to that student. Ask yourself two questions: What glows in this student's work? and Where can this work grow? Then you might say (or write) something like the feedback this teacher gave a student named Brenda about her book review, written late in her 1st grade year:
Brenda, here are three ways this review "glows": You gave your opinion about which book was your favorite, you gave three reasons why you think so, and you spelled every word correctly. Great job! Here's one way your review can grow: You have a lot of very short sentences. Can you use some linking words—like and or because—to join some of those sentences together?
This feedback shows that this teacher is committed to helping her students climb farther up the Common Core staircase. Not only is the teacher's feedback clear and specific, it also encourages Brenda to actively improve her work. What's more, the teacher's "grow" feedback focuses on how to use linking words to create richer, more complex sentences—precisely the way in which the 2nd grade standard for writing an opinion piece differs from the 1stgrade standard (see fig. 1).
This teacher can see that Brenda is already writing arguments at the level of the 1st grade standard. Helping her climb higher means looking ahead to the next year's standard and helping her reach for it now.

Why It's Worth It

Thinking about the climbing that students must do to achieve at the level the new standards require, we found ourselves remembering famous staircases in literature and world culture: The "crystal stair" that any strong person must keep climbing in Langston Hughes's poem "Mother to Son"; the famous spiral staircase at the Vatican Museums; and, especially, the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art that boxer Rocky Balboa, in the film Rocky, triumphantly ascended as part of daily training for a fight no one thought he'd win.
Staircases represent aspirations and the steps people take to reach those aspirations. Building in our students the skills and habits they need to succeed in college and beyond is definitely a staircase worth climbing.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7–74.

Boutz, A. L., Silver, H. F., Jackson, J. W., & Perini, M. J. (2012). Tools for thoughtful assessment: Classroom-ready techniques for improving teaching and learning. Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: Silver Strong.

Chappuis, J., Stiggins, R., Chappuis, S., & Arter, J. (2011). Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right—using it well (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Gawande, A. (2010). The checklist manifesto: How to get things right. New York: Metropolitan Books.

PARCC. (n.d.). PARCC samples, ELA/literacy: Grade 7 prose constructed response from research simulation task (analytical essay). Retrieved from www.parcconline.org/samples/english-language-artsliteracy/grade-7-prose-constructed-response-research-simulation-task-0

Harvey Silver is president of Silver Strong & Associates and Thoughtful Education Press. An experienced educator, presenter, and coach, Silver has conducted thousands of workshops for schools, districts, and state education organizations throughout the United States.

Silver is the author of several articles and books on instructional tools and strategies, including some ASCD bestsellers: The Core SixThe Strategic Teacher,  So Each May Learn, and Teaching What Matters Most.

With the late Richard Strong, Silver developed The Thoughtful Classroom—a renowned professional development initiative dedicated to "making students as important as standards” and collaborated with Matthew J. Perini to develop the Thoughtful Classroom Teacher Effectiveness Framework.

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