Assessment and the Common Core Standards

Advice from an AP English language teacher

08/21/2012
Classroom Assessment
BY LAUREN HILL

When my state (Kentucky) adopted the ELA Common Core State Standards (CCSS), AP English Language and Composition teachers escaped many of the anxieties — and much of the extra work — that typically accompany the arrival of new standards. Text complexity? Analysis of syntactical structures? Informational and argumentative reading and writing? These were already essential elements of our course. And the CCSS directly support the AP English Language emphasis on non-fiction reading and analysis, as well as the importance of argument.

The College Board created the AP English Language exam in the early 1980s to address college professors’ complaints that high school graduates were unprepared for the rigors of college-level reading and writing. AP English Language — now the most frequently taken AP exam — prepares students to make arguments, synthesize sources into coherent arguments of their own, and dissect the methods and motives in arguments made by scientists, mathematicians, naturalists, sportscasters, and others.

These students of rhetoric begin to see everything in terms of argument, and come to understand themselves as “authors” of their own lives. The course’s emphasis on critical thinking comes down to this: we want our students to make choices that further themselves and our society in a positive way. We want to nurture thoughtful, informed citizens of the world.

The AP English Language course encourages mastery of skills rather than coverage of specific texts, much like the CCSS. AP teachers have had to make the adjustment from teaching “The Great Gatsby” to teaching the skills students need to read works like “The Great Gatsby,” skills that will more directly transfer to other challenges.

And of course, AP teachers have always taught with an end-of-course test looming. The AP English Language exam incorporates three different types of writing (argument, analysis, and synthesis), as well as multiple-choice questions that challenge students to think critically about difficult texts. I have never felt like the exam limits what I can or should do in the classroom.

I find consistent formative assessment of students’ reading, writing, and critical thinking skills particularly useful. It has helped me and my students understand what they know and can do, allowing me, and each student, to make adjustments long before unit tests or the end-of-year exam.

Given the similarities between the ELA CCSS and the AP Language curriculum, it makes sense for secondary school teachers to steal some cues from AP Language colleagues like me. We’ve been grappling with some of the most challenging elements of the ELA CCSS as well as formative assessment of those standards.

Text Complexity

Appendix B of the CCSS guides teachers in the level of text complexity recommended for each grade level, offering specific texts as examples. Teachers have noticed a heightened level of text complexity. How should we best guide students in wrestling with and decoding more difficult texts? Consider these strategies:

  • Pull out key phrases and ask students to clearly define each word—even words they think they already know. What is “justice” in this document? What does “love” mean here?
  • Examine excerpts from long works and essays, saving whole-work study for skills that cannot be taught in any other way, like characterization or theme developed over time or an extended, multi-faceted argument.
  • Enrich the study of complex fictional works with non-fiction essays that inform students about the time and world view of the author and/or the setting of the novel.

Formative assessment: The key to formative assessment is to ask a student to apply a concept or skill taught in class to a new, yet comparable, situation. As students finish a lesson, ask them to take apart a phrase or sentence from a part of the text that you did not discuss in class. What are the significant words or ideas in the new sentence? What do they convey? Make students aware of Bloom’s taxonomy, and then ask students to form high-level questions about the material for other students to answer. Both activities let the teacher in on the types of thinking students are doing, and neither requires long grading sessions or extended classroom time.

Syntax and Grammar in Context

Richard Marius, director of Harvard’s Expository Writing Program, notes that if we take all the time and energy necessary to learn the extensive and detailed rules of baseball before we play a game, no one will ever take the field. He points out that the same applies to grammar and syntax. Though there are a gazillion grammar rules and terms associated with syntax, teach them slowly and in the context of what students can already read and write:

  • Pull out complex sentences from the reading and ask students to rearrange the parts. If they do not have a command of phrases and clauses, tell them to think in terms of commas or just natural breaks. Then discuss the outcomes of the rearrangements. Does the meaning change? Does a subordinated sentence emphasize a different idea than the original? Put these sentences on sentence strips or project them and see how many combinations students can invent.
  • Use the Killgallon method for sentence composing (http://umbc.edu/~killgall/), and apply it to the works your class is reading. Ask students to imitate and combine a wide variety of sentences.
  • Introduce grammatical and rhetorical terms throughout the year. Introduce the terms organically, developing a common language for discussing language.
  • Teach grammatical structures in terms of their effect on meaning.

For example, The Declaration of Independence features many sentences in the passive construction: “ . . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

What is the effect of the passive voice? Were Jefferson and his compatriots eager not to define that Creator? Is there another interpretation? Compare it with the listing of grievances against the king: “He [King George] has refused... he has forbidden... he has dissolved . . .” This active voice places responsibility squarely on the King. What does a comparison of voice in these two sections reveal? What is the effect on the reader?

Formative assessment: Offer a single sentence written in three ways. Do the different constructions change the meaning? Which is most effective for a particular purpose and audience? If focusing on revision, offer a poorly written sentence and ask students to suggest an alternative – always justifying their choice in terms of purpose and audience.

Emphasis on Argument

One of my favorite textbooks is “Everything’s an Argument” (Andrea A. Lunsford, John J. Ruszkiewicz). I start a class by showing students a picture of a rock — a boulder, really. What argument does this photo make? They often conclude that the answer depends on the context. Where is the boulder? Does the boulder represent someone’s solid resolve? Does it suggest that nature is stronger than man? That man can manipulate nature? In the end, students start to see that, indeed, everything is an argument — from the clothes they choose to the language they use — or refrain from using — to the way their mother sets the dinner table to the gossip on Twitter.

When we start to see “authorial choice” in our familiar world, we can more easily see it in the less familiar purview of literature. Fiction, non-fiction, and visual texts suggest a particular way to interpret the world, and it is our job to figure out what that is. Awareness of argument makes us stronger readers, writers, thinkers, and citizens.

  • Understanding argument comes down to the relationship between speaker, audience, and strategy – all wrapped up in the context. Make argument accessible by focusing on these relationships first and adding the more esoteric elements like rhetorical devices later.
  • Spark discussions deconstructing the simple arguments students make every day in how they dress, where they sit in the classroom, how much homework they do (or do not do), how they approach reading and writing. What arguments do they make, intentionally or unintentionally, about their belief systems by behaving as they do? Are these choices or reactions? Is there a difference?
  • Ask students to examine others’ arguments in terms of the three main appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos. How do these elements combine? What makes an argument effective?
  • Use the study of diction and syntax to deepen an understanding of argument. For example, there is quite a difference between Thoreau’s suggestion that, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and the alternative: “The mass of men lead quiet, desperate lives.” Close reading reveals two very different views on the human condition.

Formative assessment: Offer a picture, sentence, road sign, or other accessible image or language and ask students to identify the argument. Ask students to identify logos, ethos, and pathos in short bits of text. Also, ask students to quickly come up with an argument — even a silly one — and use a graphic organizer to delineate support from each appeal.

Synthesizing Sources

In 2007, the College Board added a new element to the AP Language exam: an open essay question asking students to make an argument about a subject while synthesizing a variety of textual and visual supporting evidence. Since then, the exam has asked students to take a stand on whether the United States ought to keep the penny in circulation; whether we should maintain daylight savings time; and to what extent we should continue to invest in space-related science.

Kids don’t get worked up about these topics, but the task forces them to consider what others have to say (via the included sources), and then to draw their own conclusions. As I look back on my college experience, I can think of no skill more necessary for success, nor one I was less prepared to conquer, than the ability to write these kinds of essays. Here are some ways to help students learn the art of synthesis:

  • Assign a task that demands students examine and then synthesize sources of their own choosing, such as their Facebook page, journal entries, favorite movies, TV shows and other media. Ask them to draw conclusions about the arguments these sources make.
  • Identify a particular topic that interests students – the death penalty, ungraded classrooms, technology, or whatever they care about. Then lead them in reading a range of sources on that topic. Help them see that there are many perspectives on most any issue, and that rarely can we draw simple conclusions.
  • Ask students to supply sources that support a particularly strong belief they already hold. Assign a variety of audiences and analyze how students make different choices about the appropriateness of sources as that audience changes.

Formative assessment: Assign readings about a particular topic for homework. When students arrive in class, ask them to write a clear thesis synthesizing their own argument. Use peers as audiences. Give students two minutes to make a pitch for their arguments, using the sources, to another student. Ask the listener to evaluate the effectiveness of the argument.

How will we measure students’ annual progress toward the CCSS? The future of assessment is still unfolding, but in the sample assessments made available by PARCC and ACT, we can see many components of the AP English Language exam. Whatever assessment system is ultimately adopted, students will need to be able to make and analyze arguments.

In the three decades since the inception of the AP English Language and Composition exam, millions of students have taken the course—including over 400,000 this year. Those students all had AP Language teachers, many of whom have worked diligently to implement the very type of instruction called for by the CCSS.

It seems logical, then, to draw upon the massive amount of instructional materials and expertise already generated by those working with the AP English Language exam — as well as the Pre-AP strategies generated by organizations like Laying the Foundation. Teachers can use approaches previously considered as “AP methods” to help all students demonstrate mastery of the CCSS.

Lauren Hill teaches AP Language and Composition at Western Hills High School in Frankfort, Ky. A National Board-certified teacher, Lauren works with the Implementing Common Core Standards team at the Center for Teaching Quality.
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