Three Early Lessons from the First Common Core Exams

Posted by Matt Berringer on March 30, 2015

3 Lessons-Common Core ExamsBy Dennis Pierce

Last month, Ohio became the first state to administer new high-stakes tests aligned with the Common Core standards. As other states follow throughout the spring, what can school leaders learn from Ohio’s experience?

Ohio is among the 11 states taking part in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of two state consortia that have developed high-stakes exams around the Common Core standards. The other is the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which included 18 states as of press time.

Performance-based PARCC exams began Feb. 16 in Ohio, though other states aren’t beginning their own testing until at least this month. According to Ellen McWilliams, Assistant Superintendent, of curriculum and instruction for the Akron Public Schools, the students in her district found the math assessment to be “very, very tough”—even for the highest performing students—while the English language arts exam seemed “reasonable.”

The new math exam “felt like a big difference from other state tests kids have taken,” she said. “It seemed much harder than in past years.”

Why the disparity? Consistent with the emphasis from the Common Core, which focuses more on problem solving and critical thinking than other standards had in the past, the new exam contained “fewer problems, but multiple steps and operations within the same problem,” McWilliams said.

“We’ve been shifting our instructional practices to more of that format,” she added, “but I think in a formal testing environment like that, it’s difficult for students to focus on one problem with multiple, multiple steps. I think that’s still a big shift for them.”

Based on this initial round of testing, McWilliams said her district will make a few key adjustments to help students tackle the new math assessments.

Emphasize resiliency. The first is to emphasize resiliency, helping them learn to “stick with problems and not get overwhelmed by the three, four, or five steps needed to complete a more in-depth problem,” she said.

Teach students how to break down complex problems. Akron teachers also will be highlighting “some of the organizational strategies when tackling a problem,” McWilliams said. “How do you read through it first and figure out how many different parts there are? We’ve been making sure that students understand all the parts to a problem before they start working on it right away—that they take a big-picture view before they dive into the actual problem.”

Practice, practice, practice. The final lesson McWilliams said her district has taken from the initial exams is the need for repeated exposure to those deeper math problems.

The key to students’ success is going to be more “exposure to those rich problems,” she said. “And that’s something we’ve been working on—but again, with this group of kids, who haven’t grown up in the Common Core, that’s going to be a tough mindset to shift.”

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Topics: Common Core Standards