6 Keys to #CommonCore / #CCSS Standardized Test Success

In my last post, I shared the surprisingly good test results achieved with our group of underprivileged, at-risk 6th grade students.

Since the things below are what actually drive me to make the choices I do in education, and to teach the way I do (and, while there were some differences in the pedagogy between the three 6th grade teachers on our team, many of these things were shared in common), I figured I would share them in the hopes that others can find the same successes we have:

1. Cognitive Science

After attending a “Learning and the Brain” cognitive science conference in San Francisco a little over a year ago, I was reaffirmed that many of my teaching strategies and beliefs are sound, and are backed by years of science research. I also came away with new understandings, and ideas for how to incorporate the scientific research into sound pedagogy that works to build long-term memory (long-term memory is what it’s all about; if you merely focus on short-term or “working” memory, you cannot recall that information in the future when you may need it… and it’s also a big reason why students fail on tests at the end of the year, after some time has passed since they were taught a skill or concept.)

I took copious notes and collected a variety of presentations and research articles from this conference, which I then synthesized into a simple presentation, but I will sum up a few of the 14 big takeaways here:

  • Repetition is crucial. Repetition is a key factor in transferring information from short-term/working memory into long-term storage. However, it can’t just be a sudden “drill and kill” span of repeating the same type of problem/information over and over in a short time span. It needs to be (a) varied, and (b) spaced out over time. The ideas of “spiral review” or “mixed review” apply here. (This is also why homework, at least in some areas, is so beneficial.)
  • Exercise and sleep are super important. There may not be a whole lot a teacher can control in this department… but there are ways you can get a little exercise and get the blood flowing. (As for sleep — it literally saves and repairs brain cells, and flushes toxic metabolites from your brain. It’s like an oil-change for the gears in your head.)
  • Brain breaks are useful. Similar to the above, and even more applicable to the classroom, it can be useful to take breaks from “focused” thinking and switch over to a more “diffuse” thinking state. Whereas focused cognition allows following and strengthening existing pathways of thought, diffuse thinking and brain breaks allow the brain to form new, more tenuous connections.
  • “Testing” can be even more effective than “teaching”! A lot of people are so “anti-testing” that they will find this concept onerous or even contemptible… but the science is convincing. The idea is not merely “high-stakes” or even “summative” testing, but rather that, when you are being “quizzed” in some way, your brain goes into a more focused mode that does a better job of organizing and storing information. Therefore, even if it’s just quick checks or formative “testing” built into a lesson, the learning gets vastly improved over a “lecture” model of direct instruction.
  • Music and noise are bad. A note to all you teachers who think it’s cool to let the students listen to pop music while they work: it’s not. Study after study have shown that listening to music while reading, studying, testing, or learning hinders comprehension, cognition,  and the formation of both short-term and long-term memories.  Likewise, talking/chatter are bad for learning. Now, let’s be clear, the cognitive science says that on-task talking can actually be a great thing: both peer discussions (such as Think-Pair-Share) and peer teaching. But, when it comes to off-task talking… that’s never a good thing.
    In short: unless there is a reason for productive discussion, silence has been shown to be the best condition for learning.
  • Time limits are good. “If you give yourself a month to get something done, it will take a month. If you give yourself a week, it will take a week.” (Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D.)  Unfortunately, there is a big push to give kids “as much time as they need” and not hold them accountable for time limits, especially when it comes to testing. The thinking behind this is that it induces anxiety; the reality is that, in the real world, everything has a time limit, so it’s something students need to get used to.

2. Homework

As I outlined in a previous blog post, homework is valuable. How valuable? Well, homework could end up earning a student an extra $1 million over the course his/her lifetime. Bottom line: without (some) homework, our students simply wouldn’t have had the success that they did. I wish I had access to the individual CAASPP scores… once I am able to access those, I will be able to crunch the numbers and accurately show you that there is nearly a 100% correlation between test scores and the amount of effort / work (such as homework) each student did.

I do believe — as the research shows — that there is such a thing as too much homework. However, the fact of the matter is that, at some point, this has to happen: independent practice of skills that are in the process of being learned. It’s one of the prerequisites for moving information from short-term memory into long-term memory (ie. true learning; see the cognitive science studies above.)

Every year that I have been teaching 6th grade, I have been slowly whittling away and whittling away at the homework — cutting it back more and more so that we can get by with just the bare minimum of the practice that is required. But, make no mistake, some practice is required, and our regular 7-hour school day simply doesn’t give enough time for that practice to occur in class, in addition to the instruction and lessons that are already happening. Hence, the necessity for homework.

Last year, we narrowed it down to just nightly math homework (30-40 min) and attempts to get students to read books (20-30 minutes per night); of these two, the math homework was a lot easier to manage and ensure, so it may prove to be the more valuable of the two.  Social studies and science work was reserved for classroom time, and the only reason it would ever become “homework” was if students were not working on it or managing their time well enough to complete the work in class.

Having said all of this, we have to keep in mind that not all homework is created equal. There is a real difference between the following: assessment of knowledge (probably best saved for in class); busywork (useless); and true homework (ie. independent practice.)  We must also recognize that homework is not what it used to be.  So, when I say homework, if “worksheet” is what immediately comes to mind… then you are living in the past, and don’t yet understand what homework can — and should — look like. (this is not to say that worksheets are always necessarily a bad thing… but they can be. See Technology section below for more details…)

3. Data-Driven Teaching

What is “Data-Driven Teaching”? Any reference to “data-driven decision-making” basically means that you take the time to collect and analyze data in order to help guide the choices you make. Teaching is no different, and most teachers have been doing some form of “data-driven teaching” for a long time now… every time you do a “quick check” for understanding — whether it’s a thumbs-up, a show of hands, a whiteboard, or walking around the room checking answers on a paper — that’s data-driven decision-making (as long as you actually use the feedback/data to guide your next course of action!)

And using such formative data to guide teaching decisions is absolutely critical. As the cognitive science studies have shown (see above), you can’t just “Teach, Test, and Move On.” This has been a standard model for many years, both because we feel a time crunch to fit in all of the standards and topics, but also because it is easy to simply “pass the buck” when learning doesn’t happen, and say “Well, I did my part, I taught the lesson.”

If learning didn’t occur, it’s true that this may be the fault of the learner — perhaps they didn’t pay attention, or put in zero effort. Or perhaps they simply need more practice. Or they need things explained a different way. This is where data comes in — it can tell us exactly how effective our teaching has been, and it can do so immediately, while we still have time to modify or reteach the material…

The flexibility and ability to adjust instruction “on the fly” can be greatly improved through the use of modern technology tools…

4. Sensible, Purposeful Technology Integration

So, here comes the crux of my list. So… why did I save it until 4th place? Because technology is not a solution, in and of itself. Technology is a tool. In the same way that you cannot just hand somebody a hammer and say “now you’re a carpenter!”, you cannot hand a teacher (or students) a computer device and say “now learning will happen!”

Having said that, modern technology tools can facilitate and improve the efficiency of just about every single thing I have listed above. It’s just that the technology tools have to be used (a) sensibly, and (b) purposefully. What do I mean by this?

  • Sensible: you don’t use technology just because it is there. Or just because it is new / novelty. And you don’t use it for everything because, like most tools, it’s not the best tool for every job. (See my previous post: 100% paperless != 100% digital) Examples: even though I am mostly paperless, and even though our math curriculum is 100% digital, I have students write down their homework on plain lined notebook paper. Why? Because (a) students do not have active digitizer stylus tablets at home, and (b) 6th grade math mostly requires “working out” problems to solve them — bye bye mental math, hello work. It would be irresponsible for me to allow them to “guess and check” on the digital homework, or to try to find solutions without writing down work for things like: order of operations; solving one-step equations; factor trees; surface area; etc.Similarly, there are tasks that are simply better if you can do them hands-on. Science experiments, for one (virtual labs are great; real labs are better); we have students mummify chickens. No virtual lab or textbook is going to be as cool or meaningful as that!
  • Purposeful: There has to be planning and a purpose behind how and why you are integrating technology. It can’t just be haphazard. It can’t be lazy. It can’t be something you force the technology to do just because you have it. And it can’t be the digital equivalent of busywork.

So, in which purposeful ways do we use technology? Basically, to address all of the above cognitive and pedagogical needs!  Here are some of the many ways that we have implemented technology tools, not as a gimmick or on a whim, but very purposefully to meet goals that were more difficult without the tech:

  1. Homework / Independent Practice and Repetition:
    1. Using technology tools allows students to get immediate checking/feedback/grading, useful for…
      1. Metacognition / reflection about what they are doing (and why it may not be resulting in success.)
      2. Immediate correction of those behaviors, instead of repetition of incorrect work that will only reinforce erroneous methods.
    2. Built-in supports to give instruction, reminders, or hints: whereas “old-school” homework without assistance just leads to frustration or giving up, technology supports can sometimes work as well as (or possibly even better than) having a human helper (parent or tutor) to provide assistance. Examples:
      1. Videos students can watch in Khan Academy to learn (or remind, or reteach) a skill.
      2. Audio narration for e-books/e-texts to help struggling readers.
    3. Mixed Review / Spiral Review — Students need repetition of skills over time; “teach, test, and move on” doesn’t work well.  Fortunately, we have Mixed Review components built into our Digits math curriculum, but even without a curriculum like this, you can use tools like Khan Academy to assign practice and review of subjects you have covered previously in the year.
  2. Data Collection and Analysis. Because the computer can instantly check/correct/grade many types of work, this can have a powerful effect:
    1. Less class time spent on checking/reviewing homework = more time learning. With our pencil-and-paper math curriculum, we would spent up to 20 minutes per day checking and reviewing the homework. Those 20 minutes per day can now be spent on teaching new skills, reteaching areas of confusion, extra practice, or fun and exciting enrichment activities
    2. Instant item analysis allows for immediate reteaching opportunities! For example, whenever we finish a topic in our Pearson Digits math curriculum, I assign the test as a practice test first (the technology makes this easily feasible — I can give the same test multiple times, because the numbers and details of the problems are randomly generated, and thus vary each time, and from student to student.)  By doing this, it (a) gives the students a chance to see what they know without it being a high-stakes scenario; (b) lowers test anxiety when we do the “real test”; and (c) provides formative feedback for the teacher so I can see, at the click of a button, which skills I need to reteach and have them practice before the real test!
    3. No more “taking home papers”, or worrying about losing them, or where to store them, or how to keep a record while making sure students and parents also get the paper back! Using digital work tools like Google Classroom, the cumbersome days of paper are gone. You can access the work from anywhere, on any device (as long as you have an internet connection); you can provide feedback right on the work, and return that work to the student — while still having a copy for yourself for future reference, and never have to worry about using a copying machine or filing cabinet!
  3. Behavior Management, Brain Breaks, and Exercise: These 3 things have been clumped together, because they are somewhat related; when students don’t get enough chances to give their brains a rest and/or to move their bodies, it affects both cognitive ability and behaviors.  Likewise, teachers have long used tools to track behaviors, report them to parents, have reward systems, etc. Technology tools make both of the above more efficient:
    1. GoNoodle provides an assortment of free “whole group” brain break and exercise (often dance routine) videos to get the students relaxing, or get them moving.
    2. ClassDojo is a free behavior management app that allows you to log positive behaviors and “needs work” behaviors as soon as they happen, as simple as touching a button on your phone (or computer.) Parents can get reports about student behaviors, and can also use the app to communicate with the teacher via messages. (There are also other behavior management tech tools, such as ClassCraft, which attempts to gamify the behavior-management experience)
  4. Increased Interaction and Engagement:  Lessons can be made simply more interesting — and knowledge more accessible — through multimedia tools like:
    1. Educational videos, animations, and songs (Discovery Education, YouTube, BrainPop, Flocabulary, etc.)
    2. Educational Games — too many to list! But some favorites for math in my class are SumDog and Prodigy; they also enjoy practicing vocab words using Quizlet
    3. Virtual science labs and field trips (not as good as the real thing… but the next best thing!)
    4. “Just right” practice that levels, individualizes, and sometimes gives student choice in the equation, such as reading practice using kid-friendly news articles at Newsela
  5. Authentic 21st Century STEM & PBL Tasks: students are entering a globally-competitive world in which problem-solving and product creation are more valuable tools than ever. Technology makes even the following cutting-edge skills accessible to even the youngest of learners!
    1. Computer-Aided Design (3d modeling) and 3D printing
    2. Coding, programming, robotics, and electronics
    3. The “Maker Movement” of creating homegrown inventions and solutions when you have a problem!
    4. For more resources and information about the above, you can visit my Maker Tools for Schools website.

5. Test Preparation

I would be remiss if I did not admit that one activity which almost certainly guarantees higher test success is test preparation. What do I mean by this? Although we teach to the standards throughout the year, and this should be enough for success on the CCSS test, it is important that students get exposed to the actual format and layout, interaction, and expectations of the CAASPP test (or whichever test you are using.)

It would be a real shame if students actually knew how to answer the questions or solve the tasks being demanded by the test, yet failed due to a lack of understanding of what was being asked, or how they should enter the information.  We discovered this was actually happening, when we observed students while they were taking the CAASPP the first year it was administered.


  • Knowing that there are often MULTIPLE checkboxes for correct answers (not a single multiple-choice answer, as students may expect), and that the test sometimes explicitly tells you how many to mark.
  • What level of depth/detail do “short response” written answers require?
  • What is expected during a “performance task”? What does a sufficient response look like? (especially for writing tasks)

So, periodically throughout the year — and especially right before the official testing window — I have students practice the above skills using tools like the CAASPP Interim assessments (these are formative assessments that can be used without “counting” for an actual score) and the CAASPP Practice Test.  Last year we were unable to actually see scoring for Interim assessments, so it was hard to use data from those; meanwhile, the Practice test does not record or grade student responses at all. However, we did these activities as “guided practice”, wherein students would answer each question (projected on the front screen in the classroom), and then I would tell them the correct answers and they would grade their own work (using a “digital/virtual whiteboard” approach; I simply made one cell per question on the test, and each student would fill their cell with green if they got it correct, yellow if partially correct, and red if incorrect. They enjoyed this task a lot more than I expected!)

Does this mean we are “teaching to the test”? Yes and no… we are teaching what the test is, what it looks like, what is expected, user interface and input, and other ways to be prepared for it, but it is not the be-all, end-all of all of our lessons and activities. It is a little extra thing we do in addition to (not instead of) our regular classroom lessons and activities…

6. Reasonable Class Sizes

It has to be said: CLASS SIZE MATTERS. In this past year that we attained the highest CAASPP (CCSS/SBAC) scores to date for our district, there were 20 students per class.

Teachers don’t really have much of a say over their class sizes, so I don’t want this final item to make readers feel like the other ones above are invalidated, or that they can’t reach success if they don’t have reasonable class sizes. After all, studies have shown teacher quality/effectiveness to be the number one determinant of student success — it can (somewhat) overcome demographic challenges and “at-risk” factors, and it can (somewhat) overcome large class sizes. However, all else being equal, smaller classes have been shown to be beneficial. (So, for those who do have the ability to control this — administrators, districts, and states — it is important to consider, and to devote the resources to give those highly-effective teachers the best conditions in which to excel…)

I have taught classes from Kindergarten to high school, with sizes ranging anywhere from 15 students to 35 students. In some ways, the impact of size depends on a variety of factors, such as the age/grade of the students, their demographic or home life, etc. I would argue that the following groups of students really benefit from smaller classes:

  • primary grades (especially K-1);
  • middle school grades (6-8; for some reason, nobody seems to think these grade levels need class size caps like the primary grades do, and then everybody seems to shrug their shoulders and wonder why problems such as behavior issues — and, thus, distractions that impact learning — arise);
  • English language learners (they simply need a lot more one-on-one guidance, reteaching, verbal support, and more in-depth feedback for tasks like writing.)

In other ways, there are universal benefits to all students from smaller classes… perhaps some of these benefits contributed to the relative success seen in the test scores above?

  1. More time for personal interactions and assistance during class. It’s very simple: some percentage of students will need extra help and assistance grasping concepts or understanding a lesson. Even if that percentage stays consistent (let’s say 25% are gifted and need no assistance most of the time; 50% are average and need help here and there; and 25% need extra support), the actual number of students in each of those three categories increases. Meanwhile, the minutes allotted in an instructional period or day do not. The result? Students either have to have their personal assistance time cut short, or some students end up not getting helped at all (or, in a worst-case scenario, both things occur.)
  2. Better, more valuable feedback on assignments. This is a no-brainer: I have limited time to be able to grade and provide feedback on assignments. As it is, my school district gives us one hour of prep time during the week, during which I can grade assignments (or plan lessons, or both.) As any teacher knows, this is insufficient; even if I were to grade a single writing assignment, this means for a class of 20 students, I would only have 3 minutes to read, mark, and respond to each student’s written work.  Impossible when we’re talking about 6th-grade level writing (multi-paragraph essays.)
    So, like most teachers, I work extra hours outside of my contracted time. Having said this, there is still a limit on what can be done. If I take 10 minutes per paper to read, make corrections, and provide constructive feedback for each student, then this means a single assignment takes 200 minutes for a class of 20 kids. When that class size is raised to 26, grading that assignment requires an extra hour of time.  Something’s gotta give…
  3. Fewer distractions / behavioral issues in class.  Cognitive science (see above) shows us that feeling safe, feeling comfortable, and working in a low-noise environment all promote learning. However, these basic needs are impeded when even the best of behavior managers find it more challenging to run a classroom when proven management techniques are made more difficult:
    1. proximity (an simple but effective management technique) becomes more difficult when a larger class means farther to walk to reach students, and more students who are left unattended when you do;
    2. even small sounds and noises get amplified much more quickly when there are more people in the room;
    3. sometimes students need to be separated from each other, or moved to a different seating location to be successful. The more students there are in the room, the less likely you will be able to find a successful, trouble-free location for all of them.

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