Common Core, Accountability
Naturalistic Assessment 
  November 2014

In This Issue
Common Core & 21st Century Learning
CEI Reflects on Educational Forces
Naturalistics Assessments
Assessment in Early Childhood Education
The Common Core Debate Continues. offers an article that summarizes a research study:
Teachers' Views on the Common Core State Standards One Year Later
The pdf of the full report is at the bottom of the summary (including charts & graphs)

NAESP Releases New Competencies for Leading Pre-K-3


This standards document defines new competencies for principals, and outlines a practical approach to high-quality early childhood education that is critical to laying a strong foundation for learning for young children from age three to grade three.


Those opposing Common Core created a documentary.
and consider sponsoring a viewing and a discussion about what is valid and what is overlooked or dismissed.


Did you miss the link from the previous issue about the
documentary on 11-year- olds around
 the world?

Check the website and trailer for the award-winning documentary
"I Am Eleven."


New project-based learning ideas should be part of every class.
Need inspiration?
Click here for goals to seek and ways to take students in new directions. 

Do your teachers and administrators need ideas for adapting  Common Core materials?
CEI has a web page devoted to many aids and links.
Click here!




Stu Tables

CEI offers a wide array of workshops with distinguished faculty who deliver timely, up-to-date workshops for schools and districts.
Check out the possibilities!

Hot Topics:
STEM, Reteaching, Neuroscience, Compassion
& many more.

 Newsletter editor:

Carolyn Lieberg 

Dear Educators,

If you could wave a magic wand and redo the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and assessment process, what would be your wish? For those of you who have been tracking its implementation in various states, you'll likely agree that the handwriting is on the wall. In 2020, will the US have a common curriculum? Will we see the advancement of a common understanding of what students need to know and by when? Or will states have retreated to their own state level curricula and assessments?

In this issue of Wow! we provide an update on some of the most fascinating, and perhaps even promising, developments related to the Common Core and assessment.  I have often said that the CCSS are taking us beyond No Child Left Behind, which is a very good thing. But I could never quite see the end point. I have believed that the CCSS were most likely an intermediary step. I don't view this as failure, but rather as a natural step in the evolutionary process of defining 21st Century education.

To arrive at the best instructional paradigm in the days and weeks to come, CEI is advocating for examining the Common Core through a 21st Century lens. We also believe that there is much to be said about naturalistic assessments -- assessments that are embedded in curriculum and instruction. In this issue of Wow! we are not providing answers, but rather we are trying to piece together a vision of the strengths of each, beginning with some considerations of educational accountability, and ending with an article on naturalistic assessment in early childhood.


The Common Core and 21st Century Learning 

By Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

"Support for Common Core Plummets"

"Parents, teachers give Common Core

low marks"

"Those pesky Common Core

Math Standards"

"Common Core under Attack"

"Exit Strategy: State Lawmakers
Consider Dropping Common Core"
Educational headlines the past few months seemingly 
are announcing the death of the Common Core State Standards. States are either dropping out of Common Core alliances or renaming the CCSS standards to reflect state ownership, districts are reducing and revising test schedules, and teachers' unions are balking at the amount of time that is consumed in the implementation of the Common Core. And most recently 17 premier educational organizations have released a "New Social Accountability Compact." The new social compact targets three crucial areas: meaningful student learning, adequate resources, and educators' professional capacity. 



Real Accountability

As Lily Eskelsen Garcia (above), NEA President, stated: "We need to put

the focus back on ensuring equity and supporting student learning, and end the 'test, blame and punish' system that has dominated public education in the last decade. Our schools have been reduced to mere test-prep factories, and we are too-often ignoring student learning and opportunity in America." According to Garcia, "Educators know that real accountability in public schools requires all stakeholders to place student needs at the center of all efforts. Real accountability in public schools requires that everyone--lawmakers, teachers, principals, parents and students--partner in accepting responsibility for improving student learning and opportunity in America" (AFT and other groups release accountability framework, 2014).


As these headlines continue to play out, back at the test-prep headquarters, both PARCC and Smarter Balanced are inching forward with sample test items and suggestions for technology to use in implementing the latest standardized assessments. They are developing teams to review test items and recommend  implementation strategies. Websites such as Engage NY continue to produce modules and lessons that assist teachers in initiating Common Core Standards.


What are the right next steps?  If your organization has been "waiting to see what's next," you are not alone. As the Center for Educational Improvement ponders a response, we note that others are also considering what might be better than the status quo and the continuing roll out of the Common Core.  A statement from the new accountability website summarizes the goal of the 17 organizations who signed onto to this recent initiative: the all-important link between accountability and meaningful learning.  


Background. The groups who are supporting a new 21st Century accountability acknowledge that during this century our nation is being largely shaped by both a knowledge economy and also growing inequality. However, to participate successfully as citizens and in the economic growth, "American students need the knowledge, skills and dispositions that will prepare them for college and productive careers" (New Social Conmpact for American Education, 2014).  


Predictably, the accountability coalition focuses on critical and creative thinking along with problem solving and the ability to apply knowledge.  

  • Students need to learn how to work collaboratively and on their own.
  • They need to understand how to reflect on and apply feedback.
  • Along the way, they will be more successful, if they learn how to build relationships and to face obstacles.  

"To support the meaningful learning required for the development of these abilities, curriculum should be robust and culturally relevant, and instruction

should employ project-based learning and student inquiry" (New Social, 2014). What sort of assessments will capture the positive outcomes of teaching and learning? The groups agree that they will need to provide authentic evaluation. The goals will be that they "inform teaching and expand, rather than limit, educational opportunities for students" (New Social, 2014).


The New Accountability website suggests that educators should focus on standards and assessments that measure, through authentic assessments, the strategies used to support teaching and expand opportunities for students to:

  • Apply 21st Century knowledge and learning
  • Think critically and creatively
  • Use feedback
  • Communicate effectively
  • Build relationships
  • Persevere in the face of obstacles


The New Accountability website also references accountability legislation, including:

  • The Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act would allow states to reduce testing to pre-NCLB levels or once every grade span (3-5, 6-9, 10-12).
  • A provision in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act bill that passed out of the Senate ESEA committee allows performance assessments to be used in state accountability systems in lieu of current standardized tests.
  • The DIPLOMA Act gives states grants to support local consortia that coordinate, integrate, and facilitate services to strengthen student achievement through services, from tutoring and extended learning to healthcare and social supports.
  • The Supporting Community Schools Act would allow districts to use school improvement funds to transform schools instead of the closure/charter models currently being used.
  • The Core Opportunity Resources for Equity and Excellence (CORE) Act measures and documents how well states and school districts are doing in providing fair and equitable access to the core resources for learning, and requires states in conjunction with districts to develop plans to address these issues.

Support Deep Learning and Share Information  

So what should school principals and other educators do to prepare for the future? An obvious answer is to continue to focus on rigor and deep conceptual understanding, to continue to unroll the features of the Common Core that advance student learning.  We also recommend staying apprised of developments and communicating with interested parties, including parents. Transparency is highly valued by all stakeholders, so regular sharing of information--even when it's in draft form--will earn you the respect of all concerned and will contribute to their accepting implemented changes, when the time comes.

AFT and other groups release accountability framework (2014, October 28) AFT. Retrieved Nov. 9, 2014, from

New social compact for American education (2014). Retrieved Nov. 9, 2014 from http://  


CEI Reflects on How to Advance During a Time of Uncertainty 
by Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director
Here at the Center for Educational Improvement (CEI), we are trekking through fascinating territory as we journey forward. Sometimes it is mind- boggling, to say the least. One moment we are sitting with the Dalai Lama at the Mind and Life Institute in Boston, traveling inward and reflecting on bringing peace and compassion to the globe. And the next moment, we are planning to deliver workshops on STEM and arts infusion. We are soaring with big ideas and essential questions regarding how to advance education and then drilling down to the nuts and bolts of implementing the Common Core (or other high academic standards).


During the past several months, as many organizations were reporting on the demise of the Common Core standards, we watched, taking the temperature and reflecting on the Common Core from its early days of promise to the middle ground of wondering at the wisdom and expense and finally to the crossroads of today.   


Indicators of  Things to Come
As has happened in past decades, when fundamental changes have been implemented, we once again see the pendulum swing: from no accountability to hyper-rigidity and now back to some mid-course correction. Here are a few more indicators of the changes ahead from The Accountability consortium (2014):


St. Paul, Minn. - Through contract negotiations, the district and the local union committed to review the standardized assessments currently being used in the district and, by the start of the 2015-16 school year, to achieve a goal of reducing by 25 percent the teaching and learning time lost to the preparation for and administration of standardized tests.


Minneapolis - Through a memorandum of understanding, the district and local union formed a task force to audit standardized testing in the district, including:

  • How many assessments are given and their purpose;
  • How much student instructional time is lost;
  • The quality of each assessment;
  • Whether the tests are gathering redundant information, and if they are aligned to the curriculum;
  • Whether the assessments are necessary to improve teaching and learning;
  • The investment of time and resources associated with testing; and
  • Whether the assessments are fairly constructed and without bias.

Washington, D.C. - The District of Columbia Public Schools established a task force to review testing, and to look for ways to minimize student time and the stress related to testing, and to maximize how DCPS uses tests to improve student learning. The task force will review current assessments to ensure that the assessments used serve students, teachers, principals and parents.  


So what is next? How will your district and your school be impacted? What is the best next step? Principals will no doubt be in discussion with administrators, teachers, and parents. Schools and districts may initiate regular meetings. Obviously, principals will want to be involved in re-evaluating the uses and the time devoted to testing.


To Move Forward 

CEI will be providing reflective leadership on the above issues during the weeks and months ahead. At this stage, we are certain of the following:

  • Students and schools that continue to focus on 21st Century leadership and learning will have many advantages over others.
  • Many innovations developed and refined by the Common Core practices during the past several years have brought about rigor and balance and should continue.
  • Student engagement and students taking responsibility for their own learning must be a continual goal.
  • Deep understanding and problem-solving capabilities are critical indicators of the success of schools.
  • Those at the forefront delivering services, in addition to teachers, must have a voice in the solutions and in the future.
  • We must listen to and learn from our planet, considering a holistic view of the needs for surviving and thriving today and into the future.
  • Education should be less about intrusive norm-referenced measures and more about data that guides individual learning and growth.
  • The most needed educational environment will help to restore a balance between health and well-being and cognitive, academic skills.

To travel forward, CEI recommends the process we use -- covering the expanse between caring and deep ideas and the preparation that includes learning about and implementing new technologies, enterprise and entrepreneurial education, engineering, and innovations. Leaders who are stimulated by these frontiers will find education to be a wonderful force for now and for tomorrow.



New Accountability website:!/action



Naturalistic, Curriculum Embedded Assessments


by Christine Mason, Executive Director, CEI

The use of "artificial" standardized tests is a very 20th Century approach to teaching and learning. And as the past decade has demonstrated, when taken to the nth degree, this standardized testing paradigm is one that has worn out its welcome. Teachers, parents, students, and others throughout the United States are calling for an end to the endless stream of testing.  


An important alternative to the test-teach-test-teach cycle is "curriculum embedded" or "naturalistic" assessments. In this current era of mounting frustration with the time involved in testing for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), educational leaders who are at the forefront of assessment are highlighting the virtues of "naturalistic" assessments where teaching and testing are in fact inseparable, where a classroom observer might not be able to tell whether teaching or testing is taking place. Linda Darling-Hammond (2010) describes such assessment in a white paper for the Chief State School Officers: "curriculum-embedded components would link to the skills evaluated in the on-demand test and would allow for more ambitious performances that take more time than can be allocated in a two- to three-hour test on a single day. They would evaluate skills in ways that require student-initiated planning, management of information and ideas, interactions with other materials and people, and production of extended responses that reveal additional abilities of students (e.g. oral exhibitions, and product development--as well as written responses.)"(p.9)


Key to curriculum embedded or naturalistic assessment is the process of designing assessments that do not disrupt the teaching-learning process. For older students this may take the form of project-based or problem-based learning with documentation of the contribution of each member of the learning team. Crisp (2014) in a discussion of The Next Generation Science Standards describes how mobile devices with built-in cameras and global positioning systems can allow students to demonstrate their "findings" during science outings.


Another approach to naturalistic assessment is the use of educational games whereby teachers capture student performance through the digital recording of student responses. Educational games provide a highly engaging, high-tech approach that can provide valuable feedback on student learning. Galactic Mappers, for example, can provide an assessment of geography skills, design, listening, and planning.

Other approaches that also are naturalistic include simulations. Thanks to digital technologies, digital simulations provide a vehicle not only for assisting students with learning in context, but also for assessing student thought processing and understanding.


Schools at the Forefront

Chappaqua Central School District in New York has designed more than 90 assessments to gauge student creativity and critical thinking skills, with a focus on assessments that mirror learning. Eric Byrne, the district's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction states," We are trying to change the culture around assessments. We want assessments that produce learning" (Terrell, 2014). For instance, students' English language arts assessments are in the form of argumentative essays. Another authentic assessment type is used in science, where students perform what is essentially lab work by conducting an experiment and then writing a lab report to support conclusions.



In addition to removing the strict timing of standardized tests, these assessments take place over several days. Another practice that differs dramatically from the typical tests is that teachers provide feedback to students who are then encouraged to revise their work. The overall outcome is clearly aimed at learning, instead of a snapshot score on a particular day.  


At Danville Independent Schools in Kentucky, mastery of a subject is assessed -- for grades 5 - 12 -- much as in college thesis defenses with roundtable discussions and presentations. Younger students are assessed on core subjects by teacher teams guiding them through a series of tasks. Rubrics are used, and teachers grade on indicators, such as problem-solving and reasoning.  


The performance-based assessments were rolled out in 2010. While it's too early to see how these methods of assessment will affect the district's state and college readiness scores (students still take the ACT, because of its impact on college applications), scores on the ACT and a few other tests, such as the Armed Services Vocational Battery, more than doubled, from 2012 to 2013.  


Teachers also report heightened student engagement. Both teachers and students are working harder but also feel more invested in school, according to teacher Hannah Chaney (Terrell, 2014).


In Idaho's Meridian School District, students offer reflection on their learning and accomplishments as an exit ticket from each topic or topic section they work on. Using personal whiteboards, students write about what they've learned, and teachers then grade their progress on a given topic. The embedded exercise is done daily, which relieves students from cramming for tests and gives teachers lots of information about student learning.


Meridian adopted Keeping Learning on Track, a two-year professional development product by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). Teacher cohorts meet regularly to study research and strategies as well as how to evaluate effectively.



Crisp, G. T. (2014). Generation learning spaces. In  The Future of Learning and Teaching in Next Generation Learning Spaces. Ed: K. Fraser. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing Limited.    


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010).Performance counts: Assessment systems that support high- quality learning. Washington, DC: Chief State School Officers.


Terrell, J. (2014 October ) How schools are measuring learning without the anxiety of high-stakes exams. District Administration.  Retrieved Nov. 9, 2014 from


Naturalistic Assessment in Early Childhood Education


Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

Carolyn Lieberg, CEI Editor

Elijah Mercer, CEI Intern

Envision walking into a preschool classroom where the teacher has set up a situation to elicit student responses and assess children's learning and instructional needs. Perhaps building blocks are in one corner, a library is in another, and there is a table that includes some resources for water play and measurement. Could children's behavior during play with and without adult prompts and guidance, be used to assess learning? Could such a scenario be used to measure children's knowledge and skills? One fundamental strength of naturalistic assessments is that they are designed to measure performance on tasks that are common to the everyday worlds in which we live. At the preschool level, naturalistic assessments can guide instruction to assist students in reaching developmental milestones across cognitive, fine-motor, gross-motor, and social domains.



Such naturalistic assessments are common components for two widely used preschool observation assessment instructions. The Early Childhood Environment Rating (ECER) scale consists of 43 items in seven categories, such as Personal Care Routines, Language-Reasoning, and Activities. Parents and Staff are an important category, too. The tool is for formative assessment--observing and monitoring children in some of the activities and locations described above. The goals are to help all parties improve the opportunities and learning experiences for each child.


Another method for assessing early childhood experiences in Pre-K is the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). It is an observational instrument that assesses achievement and development. The system links teacher behaviors to student gains and claims to be the only system that links those two directly. The method involves 15-minute cycles of observation rated with a manual of behaviors.  


Evaluation systems provide both data and common terms for stakeholders to employ as they manage classrooms and make plans. These approaches are easy to adapt to measure student learning and skills in targeted areas.


What are Naturalistic Assessments?

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) published a policy brief that defines "authentic" or "naturalistic" assessments as "informal methods...that engage or evaluate children on personally meaningful [activities], take place in real life contexts, and are grounded in naturally occurring instructional activities" (Epstein, et al., 2004).


According to NIEER, "naturalistic assessments" have some major components:

1)      The assessment should be relevant and meaningful to the context of each child's life.

2)     The assessment should be based on classroom experiences and activities.

3)     The overall assessment should include a family component.

4)     The assessment itself is tailored to the child's interest and attention span (i.e. for preschoolers NIEER suggests no longer than 35 minutes for any one assessment)


Informal, Indirect, and Naturalistic Evaluations

One way to approach naturalistic measurement of skills is through what Linder (1993) has termed Transdisciplinary Play-based Assessment. With this approach, a team observes as a child plays with a familiar person. Linder recommends constructing the play so that the team can communicate with the "play facilitator" concerning unobserved skills. For instance, if the adult suggests stacking a specific number of blocks, it's useful for the team to know if that number was three or four.


Assessments are more valid when a child is in a relaxed setting and dealing with a familiar adult. However, researchers have found that a combination of informal play-based assessment with more directed and structured activities provides a greater opportunity for a high level of performance (Bagnato & Neisworth, 1994).

Observation in Naturalistic Settings
In real-life, naturalistic settings, teachers and parents can observe how children function within different environments or settings (e.g. classroom, home, community). Sometimes the most critical information is obtained over time as a teacher regularly observes children as they engage in classroom routines and activities (Hills, 1993). If a child, for example, plays with some toys and never independently approaches other toys or play stations, the teacher may be able to track shifts in behavior/interests over time or conditions. For example, a child may engage in some activities when other children are present, or pursue activities with some children but not with others.
Systematic observation over time provides teachers and parents with important information about developmental progress, personality traits, and social interaction patterns. The key to meaningful assessment is that the observations occur over time rather than as a snapshot, or single-day event. Then the conclusions or interpretations are more reliable and provide a more complete view of "the whole child" (Bagnato, 2007). An example would be three children counting and sorting large beads. Are they describing shapes and colors? Are they counting? Are they discussing how to sort? Such activities involve small motor skills and cognitive, language, and social skills.


Using an instrument aids teachers in putting aside preconceptions or biases. A tool helps the observer filter out all but the behaviors that need to be identified and recorded. Being both systematic and objective will lead to accurate and helpful records. Obviously a teacher's training can give him or her insights about ways that a child may be struggling with learning.  


 An observation tool that is widely used is the Early Learning Observation Scale, which has three forms: whole class, teacher and individual student, and parent and individual student. The tool is designed to accommodate patterns of data collection.

  • Occur multiple times over a period of time (e.g., every day for a week)
  • Collect information from multiple sources (e.g., teachers, parents), and
  • Collect information from multiple contexts (e.g., classroom, playground, home) (Appl, 2000).

This breadth and depth of observation can benefit the development of a child. It is not uncommon for children to be picky eaters at home but experimental eaters in class. Similarly, they may be shy in class but comfortable conversationalists at home. Some of these different behaviors evolve naturally, but the teachers and parents may be more effective in their management of a child by having a solid understanding of the differing behaviors.


Teachers, armed with an array of observed data, can make better decisions about enhancing class environments and using teaching strategies. Scheduling, the use of music, lap time, outdoor breaks, and sufficient quiet time are just a few of the factors that can be modified to alter the routines and instructional practices in a Pre-K classroom. Furthermore, recognizing a child's interests can be another spark for curriculum shifts or skill-building.


Formal assessment by professionals will always be required for assessing delays or behaviors that indicate disabilities, but observations in natural settings provide valuable information that any teacher or parent will find useful.  


The Advantages

Naturalistic preschool assessments provide data that could be critical to guiding individual student learning. In early childhood settings, teachers can learn a lot about the developmental milestones that a particular child has reached, and also about those milestones that might make effective instructional targets. Such information informs the teacher as she/he designs the environment and,  particularly, the learning centers that support the play activities that can advance language, cognition, and gross and fine motor skills for specific children. Another advantage is that play and instruction are combined with assessment in an almost seamless flow of activities, so that instruction does not need to be interrupted to measure learning and record progress.

Challenges for Implementation 

While natural assessments have the ability to advance student learning and thinking, there are some projected implementing challenges.  


As Mueller (2005) notes, natural assessments are more time-consuming, require more work, and could require more funding if ever implemented on a national scale. At the preschool/early childhood level, these assessments will be most effective if they are aligned with developmental milestones. So teachers will need a good understanding of those milestones. Another challenge relates to the "recording" of observations. Teachers will need forms for making notes and organizing notes in a systematic way so that the picture of a child's learning can be readily interpreted. For these reasons, teachers may wish to use standard instruments to record growth in naturalistic settings.


Some teachers may wish to use their own instruments to record progress that is observed in a naturalistic assessment. If that is done, it will be important that there is a rationale for which tasks are chosen so that a balanced picture can be obtained.


If you or your preschool/early childhood teachers haven't used naturalistic assessments, CEI encourages you to delve into some of the resources and tools mentioned in this article. They should provide more information so that the naturalistic assessments you design and use are as practical and as valid as possible.



Click here for a pdf of a PP presentation, Early Childhood Authentic Assessment from the Peace Green Consortium.        



Bagnato, S.J. (2007). Authentic Assessment for Early Childhood Intervention: Best Practices. New York, NY: Guilford Press, Inc.


Bagnato, S.J., & Neisworth, J.T. (1994). A national study of the social and

treatment invalidity of intelligence testing for early intervention. School

Psychology Quarterly, 9, 81-102.


Epstein, A., Schweinhart, L., DeBruin-Parecki, A., and Robin, K. (2004). Preschool Policy Matters - Preschool Assessment: A guide to developing a balanced approach. National Institute for Early Education Research. Retrieved from:  


Hills, T.W. (1993). Assessment in context: Teachers and children at work. Young Children, 48(5), 20-28.


Linder, T. (1993). Transdisciplinary play-based assessment: A functional

approach to working with young children (Rev. ed.) Baltimore: Paul H. Brooks.


Mueller, J. (2005). The Authentic Assessment Toolbox. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from:


Education, Naturally


Have you ever wondered what might happen if educators, school boards, legislators, and others simply stopped trying to dictate the next round of goals and objectives for schools and students? What would happen if students were given more options about how and what to learn? And if we were to implement perhaps a six-month hiatus, a pause during which time students were asked to help shape their own destinies? Now of course, this is a hypothetical. There are all sorts of reasons why this might not be a good thing to do.  




What would be the natural outcome of asking students to  develop goals for their learning? What would happen if students not only selected their goals but then also decided how they wanted to be evaluated (tests, papers, presentations, projects)? Would schools be in a better or worse position than today? And how would teachers, students, parents, and administrators feel about this opportunity? Would we hear applause or criticism? Would the hiatus ultimately be a destructive or constructive force in the evolution of our educational system? What might we learn from our pause? What might be the logical, natural consequences? 


Christine Mason
Executive Director, Center for Educational Improvement
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