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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Making Common Core work, pt2: The big picture

Teachers and administrators need to understand the big picture of where Common Core is headed. Here's your quick preview.

The long view
At a surface level the Common Core standards specify what students should know or be able to do. We're focused on how to integrate that into our classrooms. That part is straightforward and obvious.

But the big picture is much bigger than this. 

Establishing a common set of target skills is just step one. The Common Core standards are not a goal unto themselves but merely a means to an end. The real goals lay beyond. One of the major ones, not surprisingly, is all about data.

Knowing a student's GPA doesn't convey enough information. Knowing that she got a B- in Sophomore English isn't enough. But knowing that she's struggling with W.9-10.1d is useful.

The standards create a common reference point for learning targets that are otherwise ad hoc, disorganized, or nonexistent. Forget leaving notes to next year's teachers that "Johnny is weak on fractions" or that "Sarah struggles with citations." That world is coming to an end. Too much information is lost that way, too much time is wasted on reassessing students' abilities at the beginning of each year.

Instead teachers will have standardized reporting tools that use the Common Core framework to track a student's entire educational record on a skill-by-skill progression level. 

Common Core isn't just about what to teach, it's about tracking what has been learned.

It's happening now
Creating a skills progression tracking database will obviously take a lot of time and money. And given the nationwide standardization effort around Common Core, this is obviously a task that's screaming out for centralized organization and coordination.

Enter the Federal government.

Seven states have already received Race to the Top funding to begin building super-ambitious technology programs that would include some form of a Common Core-based tracking database. Illinois received a $42.8 million grant and requires that all participating school districts "Implement a standards-based reporting system in Math, ELA [English Language Arts] and Science" (slide 22).

Schools will eventually have to report their students' Common Core progress into the central Board of Ed database each year. Standardized tests will start producing Common Core-aligned results data that will be automatically fed into the tracking database. Entire student histories will preserved, as will school-wide effectiveness (or the lack thereof). You think your administrators are obsessed with data now. Heh, just you wait!

It's a massive, ambitious effort. And it is absolutely the future.

What would such a tracking database look like? 
It's actually already here, in its most basic form. Check out the skills tracker matrix on Khan Academy:

Each row is a student and each column is a target skill. The Khan Academy matrix is tied to their own breakdown of math skills, but the columns could easily be replaced with the corresponding Common Core standards targets.

And this model works for any standards-based skills list for any subject. Instead of the first column being "Multiplying decimals" it could be our old friend W.9-10.1a. We could then look down the column to see which students were still struggling with W.9-10.1a. Cool.

The department head can aggregate the student data and see how each class period is doing, on average, on W.9-10.1a. Administrators can aggregate the entire sophomore class and compare its average against last year's sophomore class, against the sophomores in the other buildings, against sophomores across the state, and even across the nation.

New enrichment or remediation programs can be piloted at locations throughout the state or the nation. The test groups' data can be compared against the whole student population at large. Does Program X show a measurable gain or is Package Y more effective?

This is all made possible by standardization; when the data is standardized it means that all calculations are, in theory, comparing apples to apples, oranges to oranges. W.9-10.1a means the same thing whether you're in Skokie, IL or Santa Monica, CA.

It's the data, stupid
In many ways this sort of data analysis is the real motivation behind the push for Common Core.

The big takeaway is this: however you end up integrating Common Core into your classroom, it's going to have to be compatible with a Common Core-based skills-tracking matrix, otherwise you're doing it wrong as far as The Powers That Be are concerned.

It's nice to list the Common Core standards that a particular lesson or assignment is addressing ("Today we're focusing on SL.8.3, kids!!"), but that doesn't produce any tracking data. That level of Common Core integration - which is already more than most of us are doing - barely even counts as step 0.

But if you directly assess SL.8.3 as an isolated skill and record each student's proficiency at SL.8.3, then you're getting close to how Common Core is really supposed to function. By specifically assessing that particular standard, you can then push that data into the massive standards-based progress-tracking database. Your classroom activities are supposed to create data in this new world. And that data better be directly compatible with Common Core.

That's the master vision.

Now that you know where we're heading, the next parts will offer a number of different options for how to do this Common Core-aligned assessment and tracking data generation without driving yourself completely insane.

Full disclaimer: EssayTagger.com is going to prove to be your best option! Just sayin'...