Common Core and Assessments: Creating a Performance Task Culture in Classrooms

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 ( or, 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.

The little things that mean the world to kids…..

Students know what makes them feel good about themselves and what makes them feel successful. When I asked my students what makes them feel good here’s what they said:

  • Smile when you see me.
  • Call me by my name.
  • Listen to me when I talk.
  • Let me know that you missed me when I was absent.
  • Recognize my own special talents even if they don’t show up on my report card.
  • Give me a chance to succeed in at least one small way each day.
  • Praise me when I do something well.
  • If you do not like something I do, please help me understand that you still like me as a person.
  • Respect me even if I still struggle to respect others and myself.
  • Show me that I have a lot of options for the future, and that I can set my own goals.
  • Encourage me to aim high. Always.

Try to reach a young person with these self-esteem builders every day.  High self-esteem builds stronger people and stronger communities. Remember, students experiencing success, even if small, is key to motivation. Motivation is key to learning.

California’s Common Core State Standards: An Overview for Parents

What is the Common Core?

The new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a national set of educational standards adopted by 48 states that represent the work of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in collaboration with educators across the country. The CCSS have clear focus on what students need to know and be able to do in order to be successful in college, careers and beyond. The CCSS call for a change in what and how we teach students to better prepare them for the demands of the global economy. The state of California adopted California’s Common Core Standards (CCCS) in August of 2010.


 Why do we need new standards?

So why do we need a new national set of education standards? The traditional way we taught students in the past simply isn’t in alignment with the demands of college and careers today and in the future. The role of student as empty vessel and teacher as holder and giver of knowledge are antiquated. Common national standards and assessment will provide students learning goals that will be more consistent state by state and give us a clearer picture of how the U.S. performs internationally. Our school and schools throughout the country are working to improve teaching and learning so all children will graduate high school with the 21st century skills they need to be successful.  According to CEOs interviewed, the following skills were most sought after in potential employees:


  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration and Leadership
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Accessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination


The Common Core aims to “upgrade” the current way we teach content knowledge in English, Math, Science and Social Sciences by requiring more applied skills and independent learning. Students will need strong writing skills and be required to work in teams to collaborate to solve problems. Students will need to be able to make arguments and back up what they say with lots of evidence. They will need to be independent thinkers and learners. To make the Common Core live in classrooms, many changes will need to be made.


Changes in English Language Arts

In English Language Arts and literacy there are several changes that teachers and parents will need to consider. Students will, in addition to stories and literature, be required to read more non-fiction to learn important facts and background knowledge in history, art and science. They will need to read more challenging texts more closely and will be asked the kinds of questions where they will need to reflect on and analyze what they have read to find answers. Students will need to not only find the main idea or arguments presented in what they read but make arguments and provide evidence drawing from multiple viewpoints to support their ideas.


Changes in Mathematics

Like English Language Arts, the new Math standards focus on the application of “real world” math including problem-solving skills. The new math standards require students to develop a more solid foundation as they progress through the grades by going deeper with the concepts they will use as the math gets harder. The new standards are more connected and extend and build on previous learning.  In other words, we are trying to move away from only studying one math topic at a time, say for instance, fractions or algebra, to studying what math students need to solve the problem and how many ways can they solve the problem. The Math standards now point out the importance of teaching both Mathematical Content and Mathematical Practices such as problem solving, reasoning, argument and critique, using math tools and modeling.


Changes in how students are tested

Perhaps the biggest change is how students will be assessed. The current assessment system, STAR, will sunset (yay!) and new assessments will be administered in the 2014-15 school year.  The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium is in charge of developing the new tests called performance tasks. Performance tasks ask students to demonstrate their knowledge. The tests will have less multiple choice and more variable option test items and much more writing will be required. The assessment will be on a computer and will adapt to students’ level of proficiency. The benefit of the assessment is it can give teachers and parents good information about what are strong areas and areas for growths for students. A performance task might ask students to use math to design a community garden or to argue for or against uniforms in schools.


So is this a good thing?

Establishing common education standards is one way we can work to address the disparity between individual state standards to ensure that all children, regardless of geography, socioeconomic status, or life history, receive an education that values their potential.

Common standards are good for students because:

  • They help prepare students with the background knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and careers.
  • They help make transitions smoother for students moving to different states or districts because the learning goals remain consistent.
  • Clearer standards help students understand what is expected of them and allow them to engage in more self-directed learning.

Common standards are good for parents because:

  • They help parents understand exactly what students need to know and be able to do at each step in their education.
  • They help facilitate conversation between parents and teachers about how to help their children reach those education goals.
  • They assure parents that their children have access to the same high-quality education other students receive in other parts of the country.

Common standards are good for teachers because:

  • They allow for more focused professional development and promote collaboration.
  • They can inform the development of a curriculum that promotes deep understanding for all children.
  • They can give educators more time to focus on depth of understanding and richer units of study rather than focusing on “coverage” and “fitting everything in.”

The standards are research- and evidence-based and clearly articulate expectations to parents, teachers, and the general public about what students should know and be able to do as they progress through school and at graduation from high school. The National PTA has announced its support of the initiative.

Student success is the result of the collaborative work of educators, parents, policymakers, and the broader community to better understand what students need to build a promising future. The Common Core State Standards are an opportunity to strengthen this collaboration. For more information, please visit and

As one senior executive from Dell said, “Yesterday’s answers won’t solve today’s problems.” The Common Core Standards provides educators a roadmap more aligned to college and career readiness and are a potential strategy to solve tomorrow’s problems.


6 Strategies for parents to encourage creativity and critical thinking skills:

1.  Try to build in choice and flexibility – observe your child’s interests and offer a range of reading. Is my child in to fiction, graphic novels, or non-fiction? Reading should not be a chore.
2.  Read to your child often to model for them.

3.  Answer questions with questions whenever possible. Ask your child what they think the answer could be. Help them use reason and use the process of elimination.

4.  For the reluctant reader, ask them to replace the name of an animal or character in a story with a familiar name from your child’s life, a pet or friend will do.

5.  Use math to solve problems and calculate. Point out practical applications while shopping using money. Play games with your child. Encourage them to build and count and compare. Find numbers and patterns in everyday life!

6. Find out what motivates your child and help them develop curiosity by deeply exploring a topic. Don’t worry if all they want to read about is cats for a couple of months or if they tire of a subject and move on. Find the zone that’s right for your child.

Linked Learning: A Critical Pathway for Transitioning to the Common Core

The following article appeared in WCCUSD’s June Monthly Common Core Reporter newsletter and describes the Common Core and Linked Learning connection as well as describes some of the great work I have had the honor to be a part of.

Before the common standards were written, Linked Learning was taking hold as an innovative strategy for high school reform in California through the California Linked Learning District Initiative. This initiative supports nine districts, including WCCUSD, to develop systems of high-quality, career-themed pathways that prepare students to be college and career ready at high school graduation. In Linked Learning classrooms students can be seen engaging in collaborative and complex outcome-based integrated projects with authentic industry themes.

Linked Learning pathways have four main components:

  1. College-prep academic core that emphasizes real world application
  2. Technical core of four or more courses that meet industry standards
  3. Work-based learning
  4. Student supports including academic and social and emotional support and college and career guidance counseling

WCCUSD’s is proud to support 22 Linked Learning pathway programs including 19 California Partnership Academies (CPA) at the high school level. All 6 of WCCUSD’s high schools house at least one CPA with industry themes such as Health, Engineering, Multi-Media, Creative, Visual and Performing Arts, Tourism and Hospitality, Information Technology and Law and Justice.

When WCCUSD Pathway teachers were introduced to the ELA Common Core Standards during last summer’s WCCUSD Linked Learning Summer Institute, they knew right away that they were in the driver’s seat already! Linked Learning and Common Core are complimentary. Given their shared emphasis on real-world applications of knowledge and skills, linked learning is the ideal “how” to the “what” of the Common Core. Central to both the Common Core and Linked Learning is the belief that students experience deep learning when they have multiple opportunities to apply content and higher order analysis skills while solving real world problems. The collaborative structure of pathway teams lends itself to Common Core implementation and the Common Core focus on performance tasks is something pathway teachers have been engaged in for quite some time.  Pathway teachers were excited to align their existing outcomes, rubrics and integrated projects to the Common Core and to utilize the Core for their planning moving forward. It was also clear to teachers that even as strong as the Linked Learning connections to Common Core are, we have work to do to ensure that all WCCUSD students are college and career ready as seniors.

As we have been learning during our Awareness Phase, the ELA Common Core requires shifts in how we do business.

Big Shifts of ELA Common Core:

  1. Building knowledge through content-rich nonfiction
  2. Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from text, both literary and informational
  3. Regular practice with complex text and its academic language

In addition to the big shifts overall, teachers who are not English teachers learned that the new framework now includes reading and writing standards, Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. This emphasis on a shared responsibility for literacy is again a natural fit for for Linked Learning interdisciplinary teams but requires teachers to build their instructional muscles in new ways to meet the heavy lift of the ELA Common Core. But where to start?

David Conley wrote in his book, College Knowledge,  “If we could institute only one change to make students more college ready, it should be to increase the amount and quality of writing students are expected to produce.”  Heeding Conley’s advice combined with the standards’ special emphasis on student’s ability to write sound arguments, Linked Learning professional development supported teachers to critically engage with the key features of and instructional shifts of the ELA Common Core while going deep with Writing Standard 1: write arguments to support claims. Our “adopt a standard” approach became a consistent strand for our professional development throughout the school year building on the work from the summer.

Initially teacher teams revised Integrated Projects to align more closely with Common Core by rewriting or creating new performance tasks using a Common Core aligned template.

As the school year progressed teachers re-thought warm ups to include more argumentative writing and generally required writing more frequently with more analysis required. Later in the year, teachers analyzed student work with colleagues to identify patterns for instruction and aligned instructional strategies to address what they saw.

The culminating event that showcased the fruits of our labor was the WCCUSD Linked Learning May Exhibition and Residency where leaders from other Linked Learning Districts came to see what we have been up to. We saw a Law academy leveraging summary writing as a prerequisite for argumentation, a Health Academy student articulately describing the argumentative essays he had written in preparation for college, Information Technology students read tech articles and expressed their opinions about the latest trends. The results were impressive.

WCCUSD’s commitment to Linked Learning will take us a long way on our long road to full Common Core implementation at the high school level. Linked Learning’s authentic, industry aligned practices are what our students need to be college and career ready in the 21st century. With a strong commitment to a shared responsibility for literacy and ongoing professional development, we are in a good place to continue to learn, grow, and help students succeed.

What it means to be a coach…

I have been an instructional coach for many years. Some of the most rewarding work I have done is be present with teachers as they are making tough choices about their practice to responsibly accelerate the achievement of their students. It has been a gift since stepping out of the classroom after 10 years. Earning a teacher’s trust and confidence, even from their peers, can be challenging. Often when we coach, we enter cultures that are not “safe” where teachers shut their doors for fear of being “observed” – code name for being judged.  The process is a delicate one – enrolling the teacher, asking permission to coach and knowing just when to push and when to pull back. A finely tuned dance of sorts, that when is coordinated and smooth, is a beautiful thing. Sometimes your coach is the reason you stay another year in teaching. Sometimes your coach just makes the copies, and makes your day doing simple things to support the daily grind. The heart of coaching is important. Essential really. There is also a debate about what kind of coaching is most effective. Is the best coaching all about the affective – being in relationship with students and understanding how culture plays out in the classroom? Well, yes. Knowing your audience is always a good idea and tuning in to the real issues of equity and the realities of societal life need to be invited into the classroom purposefully. This is good teaching. But does coaching void of disciplinary content and student data at the center affect student achievement? I don’t know. But I do know that when students, their data, and content expertise come together in coaching conversations, you can almost hear the “aha” moments audibly. When tending to the affective is in service of rigorous delivery of content, then in my eyes, we are doing our jobs.

Getting Out of Students’ Way!

Instead of thinking that I am “The Teacher” – the knowledge giver who stands in front in total control-instead of that traditional pedagogy, we need a 21st century vision of teaching, where there is less teacher talk, where what I’m doing is thinking about how I am going to pull the most out of these kids; how I’m going to enable these students to be empowered; how I can make sure that I create a classroom that’s free from threat and stress, where they will be willing to take risks.

– Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, The Connected Educator

So how do we get out of our students’ way so they can become independent learners? It is hard to stop being the sage on the stage. Often it is about giving up control and tolerating the noisy, messy sounds of learning. As an educator my ongoing reflections on my own instruction always lead me to “stop talking so much, you lost them.” So being more of a coach and a cheerleader and less of a pontficator is the work of teaching these days. Tending to the delicate balance of crystal clear directions, engagement structures and  routines with the chaos is the work.

If we can help develop in our students:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration and Leadership
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Ability to Access and Analyze Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

Then, we have done our jobs. When they don’t need us, then we can claim success!

May 2013 be the year of the teacher as coach and student as independent learner!

Happy New Year

Lab Classrooms: Going Beyond Drive-By Professional Development

Just like scientists, educators need to rely on hypotheses, experiments and data results to make informed instructional decisions. All too often this work is conducted far from the every day teacher’s classroom.

Sustainable professional development must go beyond the fantastic workshops that excite teachers yet when they return to their classrooms, the learning seems to invariably end up staying on the shelf. Sustainable professional development needs to focus on building leadership capacity at the site level and provide a structure that enables teachers to reflect on and share their new knowledge. To be most effective, professional development must be job-embedded—specific to teacher needs—and presented in supportive, nonthreatening ways. Teachers need learning structures that are empowering and allow them to collaborate with colleagues.

A lab classroom model where teachers can see how things work in an authentic setting will support teachers to put new learning into action.  So how does a lab classroom work? A host teacher works with a facilitator to implement an agreed upon instructional model or new framework, for instance, the new Common Core State Standards. Formative assessment and classroom practices are closely monitored and documented. Data is shared with school site teams and guest teachers are invited to observe the class to see practice in action over time.

In a lab classroom model, an experienced facilitator supports teachers and students through collaborative teaching, lesson modeling, assessment administration, and intervention services. Principals also get support to be instructional leaders, observing teachers, conducting walk-throughs, conferencing with students, and working with groups of teachers during collaborative planning sessions.

The practices developed and honed in the lab classroom are then adapted in other classrooms on site developing the sites capacity to implement new learning sustainably. Schools can team up with other lab classrooms in the district to compare data and problem-solve response to intervention practices.

It’s time for research to live in the classroom and not in books and workshops. When teachers see first hand how a strategy works in their class, with their kids, they are much more likely to internalize instructional changes. Teachers pine for authentic learning just like their students do. Lab classrooms can go a long way to ensuring more authentic learning for teachers and their students.