One of the biggest shifts for educators coming from Common Core is to re-think the way we assess students. We are coming out of the multiple-choice standardized testing era and entering a new world of testing. But is it really new? The Common Core shifts testing from more rote memorization of content and process of elimination to the performance task! Well what exactly is a performance task and how does this differ from what we currently know as standardized testing? A performance task requires students to apply their knowledge. Students must do something with content. But isn’t that what real writers and mathematicians do? Exactly! The Common Core performance task seeks to make assessment more authentic and connected to college and career readiness by focusing on real world applications of knowledge. Sound simple? Well it is and isn’t. Part of bringing our education system into the 21st century is to recognize that there has been a big disconnect between what and how we learn and school and what colleges and employers require. CEOs have made it clear that they need candidates that have solid writing skills and can think critically on their feet. Businesses need folks who can collaborate, work effectively on teams and have strong presentation and technology skills. Time and time again, successful candidates not only have the steak but also sizzle! So how then do current forms of assessment align to 21st century skills? They don’t! That’s where the Common Core performance task comes in. Imagine a student at a computer. First she will watch a video and take notes on screen as she watches. Then, she will read a few articles also taking notes while she reads. Next she will complete constructed response questions in writing and finally, she will write a well thought out essay from a prompt using all of the materials she has been exposed to as resources for her essay – on demand and all on the computer. This is what a Common Core English Language Arts performance task looks like. Students will do something with content. Similarly in math, students will be presented with math problems that don’t have just one right answer but multiple possibilities that give them the opportunity to show what they know and also get partial credit for knowing some and not all of the math. A 6th grade Math performance tasks asks students to design a community garden with a set amount of variables in an hour and a half. Again students are asked to do something with content.
So what does this do to the landscape of teaching especially in the culture of teaching to the test. I’ve actually heard some teachers say that Common Core assessments are worth teaching to. The jury is still out on how the testing will get rolled out and we have a long way to go to feel that confidence. However, it is clear that we need to rethink how we do business in school. If students are going to engage in performance tasks then we, as educators need to create a performance task culture in our classrooms. A performance task culture will mean getting out of kids way so they can do stuff with our content. We need to bring back portfolio assessment and problem based learning. We also need to have students perform on demand in authentic ways so they build their muscle as critical thinkers, as writers and mathematicians, as presenters and team players.
But where do teachers and administrators begin? One way that can be very effective is to collaboratively analyze released performance tasks (sbac.org or parcconline.org), map the skills that surface back to the Common Core Standards and then create mini-performance tasks that are embedded with current content. For example, instead of writing the tried and true 5-paragraph, heavily scaffold and processed essay, think about creating a learning progression with current content that culminates in a process that mimics the ELA Common Core Performance task where students watch a video, read articles, answer constructed response questions and write an essay. Consider using content that is familiar to students when you are first establishing a performance task culture so that students experience some success and then you can increase their independence as the culture gets established. Another key here is to think about generating learning outcomes and activity progressions based on ambiguous provocative questions that students tackle. For instance say I am teaching Romeo and Juliet as a core text. I might ask students: How do the decisions we make impact our lives? The question lends itself to the play as students can chart the decisions that were made that led to the couple’s ultimate doom, but it also broadens the discussion and allows for exploration of a variety of texts and media sources.