Preparing for the Testing Tsunami

By Joan Flora and Pattie Sloan

If you’re a Common Core hater, you may want to skip this post and check in again in a couple of weeks when we’ve moved beyond close, critical reading strategies to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and human trafficking.  You know, lighter fare.

If you happen to be a Common Core agnostic, stay with us; we’ll give you a few reasons to believe that CCSS isn’t as much about compliance as it is about aspirations for all students.  We haven’t met Common Core Kool-Aid drinkers yet, but if you happen to be one, Christmas has come early.  Keep reading.

This week, we’re dwelling in two of the four claims for English Language Arts:


  • Claim #1 – Students can read closely and analytically to comprehend a range of increasingly complex literary and informational texts.
  • Claim #2 – Students can produce effective and well-grounded writing for a range of purposes and audiences.

But first, a little background.  Oregon will be testing students, starting next school year through the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.  In case you haven’t noticed, it’s a testing tsunami, and some of the testing, despite real or imagined aspirations, involves the archaic multiple-guess format, now called selected response.  We’re not endorsing that.  And if you’ve read Reading for Profit, you already know that profit-driven testtesting-darth-vader-300x240 companies are about to have another very good decade.  We’re not endorsing that either.  However, there is one aspect of the assessment that we have learned from and now offer our students: performance tasks.

We don’t believe that harder tests make students smarter just as we don’t believe reading at a frustration level builds strong readers, but we applaud performance tasks in our classrooms; it’s what educator Harvey Daniels calls the rigor without the mortis.

With this post, we offer three speeds of mini-performance tasks that answer the two ELA claims above: a beginning level that involves discussion, self-reflection, and a short informative essay; an intermediate level that includes discussion and a short argument essay; and a comparative essay performance level that includes comparing Linda Pastan’s poem, “To a Daughter Leaving Home” to The Other Side of the Sky.  The last option follows the SBAC’s performance task format more closely, but we added a discussion component because our students are still internalizing all these thinking moves, and constructive discussion leads to powerful learning.

Ideally, the performance task–no matter which one you choose–will take about two class sessions.  They all involve students who are used to working in small groups (see Comprehension and Collaboration for brilliant moves in creating functional, productive group work).  Don’t worry about it being too late in the school year to begin group work–it’s a vital move to do now.

West Salem High School and Canby High School have very difference policies on group work.  Because of policy, Pattie must allow her students to choose their own discussion partners.  On the other hand, Joan assigns groups at the beginning of each term and adjusts groups as needed to keep them functional and productive.  We know teachers who recommend NLP personality traits to group students into teams of four: lion, owl, horse, and monkey.  While we haven’t tried this technique, it looks promising.

1039And that testing tsunami?  Frankly, we don’t know how to stop it, but we do think embedding the best aspects of it via performance tasks is a good move toward the most noble aspirations–real or imagined–of CCSS.


About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
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