5 things you can do right now to prepare for Common Core assessments

Helping your students become ready for deeper skills assessment isn’t as hard as you think


Facing the reality of state requirements and standardized tests is causing many educators to reshape the curriculum they’ve spent years developing. We have 3 million teachers who need to prepare 55 million students for the Common Core, so it’s no surprise that alarm bells are ringing.

How can busy teachers adjust old approaches to a new modality? The answer is surprisingly straightforward. Teachers can meet the challenges of new assessments with a simple formative assessment framework, called CERCA.

Learning and employing that framework, online or off, is the best way to prepare your students for not just standardized testing, but for their lives and careers after college.

Ultimately, kids need to be able to make a claim, support it with evidence, explain their reasoning clearly, address counterarguments, and use audience-appropriate language. Applying the CERCA framework as a formative assessment practice across subjects is the best way to know whether or not kids are learning what we’re teaching. The framework also works as a lens for analyzing texts and can be found in nearly every assessment item on new high-stakes tests. These are the most important skills for kids to practice every day.

Despite the new challenges, in many ways, it has never been easier to be a great teacher. Advancements in education technology have made it easy for teachers to adopt a common language, differentiate instruction, track progress of students individually across subject areas, and share information on a school-wide level.

Here are five things you can do right now to prepare your students for deeper-level assessment:

1. Develop common vocabularies in schools.

A critical component of assessment preparation is getting entire schools on the same page. Principals, teachers, and administrators need to be unified in the language they use to describe requirements, goals, and teaching methodologies. It is largely up to principals to define this language, but by following the CERCA framework, they can keep it straightforward. Put simply, making claims in math shouldn’t seem like a separate skill than making claims about a character, and neither should seem separate from the assessments kids are taking. Claim, evidence, reasoning, counterarguments, and audience are words we see throughout high-quality assessment.

2. Put complex texts in front of students.

Achievement on assessments relies heavily on the ability students have to build the muscle of reading complex texts, explain them through writing, and persuade others to agree with their interpretation. The fastest way to help students improve in this area is to put complex and varying texts in front of them regularly. The complexities of archaic word choices, information being presented out of sequence, and sentences that don’t provide cues to the reader to tie things together are a reality kids will face outside of school, so we shouldn’t withhold practice with these complexities in school.

After all, school is the best place for kids to feel supported in challenging reading. The simple framework for tackling the texts gives students a set of questions to make the reading simpler. What is the claim? What evidence does the author use? What is his or her reasoning? How does the author address counterarguments and appeal to an audience?

3. Teach kids to write through practice and feedback.

Decades of research proves that the fastest route to career and college readiness is writing five or more times per month across disciplines. Writing is an expression of thinking, so engaging students in thinking about science, math, social science, and ELA in written form dramatically increases engagement and the acquisition of content knowledge. When students have a chance to write arguments and debate their thoughts in a given subject, they are practicing every skill they will face on any assessment: close reading, critical thinking, and supporting their claims with evidence. It also makes school a heck of a lot more fun for teachers and kids!

4. Work together across classrooms and disciplines.

This is critical. Students benefit most when schools adopt cross-disciplinary approaches to formative assessment (or career!) preparation. When colleagues share the same language and a core set of practices, they reinforce the work of each member of their team. One of the best ways to implement schoolwide methodologies is through education technology platforms that help every teacher in every classroom get there, like ThinkCERCA. Comprehensive tech solutions help streamline approaches for teachers in a centralized way. They also make communications about students available 24/7, helping teachers overcome the challenges of limited time for team meetings.

5. Use debate to maximize the potential of differentiation.

We all know kids don’t come to us at the same level of readiness or with the same learning needs. But instead of handing students watered-down or shortened versions of one text, use differentiated texts to help students learn from each other through healthy debate. Provide students with appropriate levels of access, but use authentic texts so that each student is building his or her text complexity muscles. This empowers each student with the powerful motivation to share his or her unique point of view and deepens everyone’s knowledge of topics. Not only does the multi-text approach match the challenges of new assessments, it helps turn every student into a learning asset for others.

Helping your students become assessment-ready is not as difficult as you think. By employing the straightforward formative assessment framework and using ed tech to your advantage, you’re more than halfway there. Which step will you try today to push your students in the right direction?

Eileen Murphy Buckley is founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, a school-wide, online educational resource designed to prepare students for career and college readiness by helping them build analytical reading and writing skills across subjects.

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