Our instructional program is delivered to students for the most part through a series of classroom activities and assignments. Therefore, it is critical that the classroom assignments and activities we ask students to do are aligned with the content standards we are expected to teach.
Classroom assignments should come under the same scrutiny as classroom assessments. Analyzing teacher assignments can reveal what cognitive level of thinking is being called for and the intellectual rigor expected as well as the degree to which it matches content standard indicators. Student work on classroom assignments is one more opportunity to both diagnose student strengths and needs on content standard indicators and to assess whether the assignment provided a good opportunity for students to demonstrate proficiency on that indicator.
The Consortium on Chicago School Research looked at student work on a large scale to determine the level of intellectual demands placed on elementary-grade students in Chicago Public Schools. Funded by a grant from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the consortium studied 1,400 pieces of student work.
The study found that 70 percent of the work presented either no challenge or minimal challenge to the students. They also found that if students were given more challenging assignments, they did higher quality work.
"Overall, the quality of authentic intellectual work demanded by the schools and completed by the students is low, but teachers who assign the highest quality work get it from students," said Fred M. Newmann, professor emeritus of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who conducted the study with researchers Anthony S. Bryk and Gudelia Lopez.
In fact, their research found that those students who were assigned more demanding intellectual work scored about 50 percentile points higher on authentic measures of student achievement compared with students whose teachers assigned less demanding work, Newman told Education World.
The study found that assignments that don't go beyond reproducing information, such as filling in the blanks, wouldn't prepare students for intellectual challenges posed by the modern workplace and by civic and personal affairs.
Understanding that "students can do no better than the assignments they are given," the Education Trust created a Standards in Practice (SIP) process for teachers to ensure that classroom assignments are rigorous and aligned with high standards. Their SIP model guides teams of teachers through six steps:
- "We all complete the assignment or task.
- We analyze the demands of the assignment or task.
- We identify the standards that apply to this assignment.
- We generate a rough rubric for this assignment from the standards and the assignment.
- We score the student work, using the rubric.
- We ask: Will this work meet the standards? If not, what are we going to do about it? We then plan action at the classroom level to ensure that all students meet the standards."