By Dennis Pierce
In my last blog post, I wrote about three lessons that school leaders can learn from early Common Core testing. That post was based on an interview with Ellen McWilliams, Assistant Superintendent, of curriculum and instruction for the Akron Public Schools. In this post, I’ll examine how McWilliams’ district has prepared students for the rigor of the Common Core standards.
With the help of federal Race to the Top money, Akron partnered with the Institute for Learning (IFL) at the University of Pittsburgh to implement what McWilliams called “intensive instructional training” over the past three years.
Working with IFL scholar practitioners, Akron teachers would unpack a portion of the Common Core standards by examining what the new standards required and discussing how this might change their approach to instruction; design new units of study that were aligned with the Common Core goals in math and ELA; try out these units in their classrooms; report back to the group and discuss their findings; then repeat this process with another portion of the standards.
“We also realigned our assessment strategies to make sure that we were introducing more rigorous test questions,” McWilliams said. “We’ve provided assessment literacy training for our staff to be able to design the types of test questions that are aligned with the Common Core, so that the level of rigor is there.”
Having teachers give both formative and summative assessments aligned with the Common Core has been a critical piece of the district’s preparation. Formative assessments have helped students get used to the rigor the Common Core requires, while also providing valuable insight for teachers.
Every Akron teacher meets weekly with a group of colleagues in a professional learning community, McWilliams said. In the elementary schools, teachers meet in grade-level teams, while at the upper levels, these PLCs are organized primarily by content area.
One of the things teachers do in their PLCs is design common assessments to be given at the beginning and at the end of each instructional unit. After they have administered a pre-unit test, they analyze the results in their PLC and they use these results to group students for differentiated instruction.
“The kids are placed in flexible groups based on what they already know about the upcoming unit of study,” McWilliams explained.
The results of the post-unit tests are used to determine if any students need additional support. And making this whole cycle possible is a software solution from SunGard K-12 called PerformancePLUS, which helps teachers easily create assessments—and instantly analyze the results.
“PerformancePLUS enables us to give both formative and summative assessments and then have the analysis tools to use in our professional learning communities to determine if students are on track or not,” McWilliams said.
She concluded: “When teachers across an entire grade level are sitting down and putting together a common assessment, and then they’re able to look at the results of that assessment together, including the item analysis—it’s terrific. It really has helped tremendously to streamline our whole improvement process.”