Last December, I wrote a post criticizing the assessment consortia for their failure to release more information about the development of the forthcoming Common Core assessments. At the time, I argued that providing information about how the standards would be assessed is critical for teachers working to align their planning, curriculum, and instruction to the new expectations.

Providing information assessments is critical for teachers working to align their planning, curriculum, and instruction to the new expectations.

Today—seven months later and just two years from implementation of the new tests—we aren’t much closer to giving teachers a clear sense of how they and their students will be held accountable to the new standards. And while state and district leaders have begun to put pressure on curriculum developers to provide CCSS-aligned materials, there is very little public pressure being put on the consortia to release more information that would help teachers (and curriculum writers) in their quest to align planning, curriculum, assessment, and instruction to the Common Core.

Fortunately, a few states have started to provide more of the guidance that teachers so desperately need. To that end, the New York department of education has released a set of sample assessment questions for grades 3-8 for both ELA and math. (New York is a governing member of the PARCC consortium, but this work is separate from—though I assume informed by—the work being done by the consortium. PARCC is expected to release sample items sometime this summer as well.) The sample test questions were developed to show to teachers—finally—some concrete examples of how quality and rigor of content aligned to the Common Core needs to change to align to the new expectations. The Department cautions, though:

These sample questions are a change from what NYSED has traditionally provided to schools to illustrate changes to assessments. They were developed primarily for the purposes of communications and training. They are not test samplers, and are not meant to mirror full-length assessments. Additional information about the composition of the full-length assessments will be provided by NYSED during the summer.

The move by the New York State Department of Education is welcome for many reasons, not least of which because, without the aid of sample assessments that show how expectations are apt to change with the new standards, there is a lot of room for interpretation and misinformation about what adoption of the Common Core means for the classroom.

But are the new samples any different than the assessments they replaced? I took a deeper look at the ELA samples (I hope to dive into math shortly) and was pleased to find that the short answer is yes, they are different, in several important ways:

1. The passages selected are authentic, sufficiently rigorous, and for the most part, actually interesting.

At least in the samples, there is evidence that NY has learned a lesson from the pineapple debacle.

2. Particularly in the sixth-grade sample, several of the questions are rigorous and demand that students not only deeply understand the text, but also that they actually draw on evidence from the text to inform their answers.

I was particularly impressed by question five on the sixth-grade test, which showed how you might craft a multiple-choice question that actually demands that students go back to the passage and provide evidence to support a conclusion.

3. Many of the questions illustrate the kinds of text-dependent questions teachers should be asking to drive comprehension and analysis in class.

One of the changes the Common Core architects hope the new standards will bring is that teachers will force students to linger on the texts and to grapple with the author’s words and ideas. Too often in the classroom, students read an important text and are immediately asked for their opinion, or to make a connection between what they’ve just read and something they’ve read previously, or a personal experience.

Of course, this impulse is natural—great readers are always making those kinds of connections and it can be seductive to move beyond the text quickly to get into “deeper” or “more interesting” discussions. We must remember, though, that students at all levels are emerging readers—and if we’re asking them to read complex texts, they will likely need to be encouraged—perhaps even forced—to go back and re-read for understanding. And the best way to do that is for a teacher to develop a series of thoughtfully sequenced, text-dependent questions.

Of course, these sample assessments are a work in progress and there are some ways to raise the bar.

First, New York includes on its fourth-, sixth-, and eighth-grade assessments a “paired passage.” For this, students have typically had to read two passages that are related in some way, then to answer a series of short-answer and one extended-response question. The released samples still include paired passages, but I think the Department could have used them to better effect. For starters, in both the fourth- and eighth-grade tests, the extended response question that was based on the paired passage is a fairly low-level “compare and contrast” question. The Common Core standards seek to push students to do higher-level analytical writing. New York could provide better examples of the kinds of writing that the new standards ask of students. (In fairness, the sixth-grade extended-response question is much better.)

More than that, though, the Common Core standards focus on two things: text complexity and the thoughtful sequencing of texts. The sample assessments could have capitalized on the “paired passages” by showing how texts can be thoughtfully sequenced to maximize comprehension without spoon-feeding the information students need.

Second, there remain some relics of old assessments that don’t ask students to go back to the texts to search for answers. (For instance, the vocabulary-in-context questions seem to be little more than vocabulary questions—students who’ve never read the passage but know the word will get them right, and students who’ve read the passage but don’t know the word likely won’t!)

Third, several of the question stems pay only lip-service to the Common Core. For example, six of the fourteen eighth-grade questions direct students to “closely reread” a small portion of the passage, but none of these questions actually provides a solid model of the kind of “close reading” the Common Core demands.

On balance, though, New York is to be commended for going further than either assessment consortium has gone in giving teachers the guidance they need to align instruction to the Common Core. And other states would be wise to look to these samples to help guide discussions about how ELA instruction should change to align to the Common Core.

(Updated: 5:15PM EDT on 6/29/12)

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