Common Core State Standards


Using Common Core state standards to guide student assessments

By Rachel Wilser

Assessments. Just saying the word brings up lots of different feelings in teachers: dread, panic, anxiety, pride, excitement, frustration.

No matter how you feel about it, assessing is an essential part of teaching. There are many different kinds of assessments — standardized, teacher-created, unit, benchmark, project-based — but for the purposes of this article, we’re going to discuss teacher-created assessments. More specifically, we’re going to talk about how you can use the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to design assessments to gauge your students’ learning, so grab your coffee/Diet Coke/sparkling water, and let’s get down to business.

Leaving out any state-mandated testing or school-wide assessments (math fact fluency, reading level tests, and so on), let’s focus on how teachers can create assessments to gauge student learning. It may not be a popular view, but data is at the heart of teaching, and if we’re not collecting data on our students, then we’re doing them a disservice. While we’re weeding out state- and school-level testing, I’m going to count both formal and informal teacher-created assessments as part of our discussion — basically, anything that helps you collect data on a student. Here are some samples of assessments you’re most likely using daily: classroom work product, test, quiz, extended response, diagram. Almost anything a student completes independently helps you collect data on that student.

When we think about assessing students, there are two important things to keep in mind. First, how can we make sure that the assessments we create are an accurate measure of student learning? Second, when should we assess — both how often and at what points — during instruction? Naturally, the answers to these questions vary based on what you teach; the expectations for assessment in a high school English course are much different from elementary reading, and likewise even in an elementary classroom, reading and math assessments look quite different. Let’s tackle these two questions separately.

When to assess students

In practice, students are often given a pretest and posttest, as well as some mid-unit checkups. When I was in the classroom, I aimed to assess once every 5-7 school days in math and once every 10-14 days in reading. Those intervals worked for me and my students; in both subjects it ensured that we never went over so much material that a quiz or checkup couldn’t cover it, but it also gave enough time for students to practice and become familiar so that assessments truly reflected student learning.

I also gave a pretest for every math unit; this assessment never counted as a formal grade (although I did track students’ scores) but mostly gave me information around my planning, as well as anticipated “bumps” in our unit.

Comparing word problems (“Teddy has 8 grapes. Max has 15 grapes. How many more grapes does Max have than Teddy?”) are often the trickiest type for young learners to master, so I would give them several days and loop back with them at least twice, if not three times, during our addition and subtraction unit, but looking at how students performed on comparing problems on the pretest helped me anticipate their struggles, as well as decide how much instructional time to allocate to it. You might find that longer intervals are more manageable for you, especially if you teach older students who are taking on more complicated ideas and concepts.

Accurate assessments

How can we make sure that the assessments we create are an accurate measure of student learning? This is certainly the more thorny of the two questions because it encompasses so many smaller questions. How long should an assessment be? What is the right format?

How do we evaluate the assessment? We’ll answer these questions one at a time, but before we do, keep in mind that many of the answers are subjective and often based on our students. For instance, if we think about how long an assessment should be, we want to keep in mind the age of our students, as well as their stamina.

As a first-grade teacher, I would often shoot for about 10 questions on a math test. I liked 10 because it usually meant that I could target a standard with more than one question, and because it gave nice round numbers that are easy to interpret (i.e., 7/10 is much clearer to me than 5/7). Targeting one standard with multiple questions was helpful because it gave me a better idea of whether students made an error or truly didn’t understand the information I was assessing. I also liked 10 questions because it was within students’ stamina; it wasn’t too hard, time-wise. If I had been teaching upper elementary (fourth grade or higher), 15-20 questions would probably have been within students’ comfort levels.

The right format for an assessment is important. If you assess in a drastically different way than you teach, your assessments will never be an accurate gauge of what your students know. If you give lots of multiple choice work, it doesn’t make sense to have your students take a short response assessment. Those data points won’t match; it will look like your students have no idea what they’re doing, even if they truly do.

Evaluating your assessment

How do we evaluate whether an assessment works? Again, it depends. Older students probably understand numeric/letter grades just fine, but younger students don’t always. The key is to consistently use the same feedback symbols. Therefore, if you like letter grades, that’s what you should use. I would create a rubric with my students that we used for class work, and I was able to roughly equate their numeric grades to a rubric symbol. Each year when I created a rubric for math evaluation with my students, we would agree upon what symbols to use and what constituted the highest level of work, and so on. We had four levels of work, and about four or five descripts for each level. Usually our symbols were star, smiley face, squiggly face, and straight face. You could accomplish the same with 4, 3, 2, 1, or any other symbols that you and your students choose.

The bonuses of rubrics are that your students know your expectations ahead of time and they know what the feedback means. Not that a student doesn’t know what B means, but I think seeing the rubric makes expectations clearer to parents, as well.

Creating the assessment

After you have your units planned and assessments scheduled, you need to actually create an assessment. The first thing to consider is the goal of your instruction. This is likely the learning outcome of your unit (if it’s a test) or the week (if it’s a quiz). I find that it’s helpful to leave space for a box at the top of assessments to give a quick and clear picture of students’ performance.

In an assessment I gave at the end of a unit on addition and subtraction, I left a box at the top to split out the problems on the test based on whether the problem was straight computation or a word problem, as these are two different standards and skills. Not only was I measuring two standards on this test, but creating the box at the top let me see at a glance which standard students were struggling with (if any) and helped me quickly and efficiently group students and plan for small group instruction.

When you’re creating an assessment, always start with the end in mind: What do you want students to be able to do? The goals for this unit were that students would 1) understand that subtraction is the opposite of addition, and 2) be able to (use this knowledge to) solve word problems involving subtraction. This assessment is focused on two first-grade standards — 1.OA.1 (use addition and subtraction within 20 to solve word problems) and 1.OA.6 (add and subtract within 20, demonstrating fluency within 10) — but the overall unit focuses on subtraction, so this assessment in turn focuses mainly on subtraction. 1.OA.1 also describes a variety of different types of word problems students should be able to solve, so when I created this assessment, I made sure to include a variety of types of word problems. Furthermore, I made sure that the formatting of the test matched what they were used to seeing from class practice: an open space for work (drawing a picture, writing an equation) and lines for writing what they did to solve the problem.

Assessments are an essential part of teaching. With thoughtful planning you can create high-quality assessments for your own classroom, both to assess students’ learning as well as diagnose gaps in that learning.

Photo credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.


Informal assessments

Sometimes you need the pulse of your class: “Are they picking up what I’m putting down?” The Common Core Lesson Book, K-5 by Gretchen Owocki Heinemann, is a great resource for this. She has scripted lessons and graphic organizers that touch on all literacy standards. She also splits K-1 and 2-5, so you’re not going over your littles’ heads, nor are you talking down to fourth graders. I have the spiral-bound version, which you can buy on Amazon.


Where can I find high-quality assessments?

You can use resources other teachers have created by visiting websites such as teacherspayteachers.com. I suggest doing a bit of research on the teacher who created the assessments before purchasing. Also, make sure to read the description carefully; sometimes resources marked as assessments are merely a collection of graphic organizers.


Rachel Wilser has spent the better part of a decade in classrooms around the country — private, public, charter, elementary, and middle school. Now she chases twins and drinks coffee while planning her return to the classroom.

Photo credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.

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