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Standards-based assessment and Instruction


Archive for October, 2015

Exemplars in the Classroom: “They Want to Become Experts.”

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Written By: Danielle Descarfino, Fifth Grade Teacher at P.S. 94 in Brooklyn

Getting Started

From the beginning of the school year, I used Exemplars problem-solving tasks regularly to create routines that have helped my fifth grade students grow and succeed. Following the Problem-Solving Procedure is a central part of this.

Although each task is different, the procedure helps kids internalize a framework for approaching a problem. I provided each student with his or her own color copy (in a sheet protector for safe keeping.) Each time we begin an Exemplars task, the students take out their Problem-Solving Procedures and refer to it. I also have a poster-sized version prominently displayed in the classroom, which I hold up and point to while guiding and facilitating tasks.

Building Background Knowledge

My class is made up of English Language Learners and former English Language Learners, so I anticipate that reading and understanding the problem may be especially challenging for them. We read the problem together, I ask questions to activate their background knowledge, and I often provide pictures that help them visualize the problem.

For example, we recently completed “A New Aquarium,” a 5.MD.C.5a task involving volume. We had been working on this math concept for only a few days and this was our first volume Exemplars task. Before reading the problem, I displayed a photo of an aquarium on the Smart Board and discussed the following questions with the class:

  • What is an aquarium?
  • What type of solid is this aquarium?
  • How could you figure out how much space this aquarium takes up? What steps would you take?

Although many students initially were not familiar with the word “aquarium,” after this discussion, they understood that an aquarium is a fish tank and a rectangular prism, which meant that we would be calculating its volume to find out how much space it takes up. Using visual aids and background questions to ensure that students understand the situation in the problem has been very helpful when completing Exemplars with English Language Learners.


We always utilize the differentiated Exemplars tasks. Students are aware of which problem-solving group they are in and know where to sit when it is time for an Exemplars task. One group gets the More Accessible Version; they are guided through the problem as they work with the Special Education teacher at a kidney-shaped table. The other two groups receive the Grade Level and More Challenging versions and sit with their groups in desk clusters, like a team of problem solvers.

For the Grade Level and More Challenging groups, we discuss background information, read the problem out loud, annotate it, and write our “I have to find …” statements. Then the students go on to work with their groups to complete the task while the teacher takes on the role of a facilitator, conferring with groups. Students share ideas, address misconceptions, and explain their mathematical reasoning to one another as they solve.

Motivating Students

I love hanging Exemplars tasks on bulletin boards. I think it’s useful for students to look at the page and see all of the different ways their classmates organize and express their mathematical thinking through equations, representations, and writing.

From day one, I have made it clear that it is expected that their finished work clearly communicate their problem-solving steps to the reader. Not only should the students make an effort to write neatly, but they should also organize their problem-solving steps on the page in a way that makes sense. Sometimes if a student is not showing all of their steps or it is unclear, I’ll say, “I am confused. When I look at your paper, I don’t understand the steps you took to solve the problem.” When the students have the understanding that a goal is to communicate their math thinking to a reader, it helps them create a higher-quality finished product.

Another great way to motivate students is through mathematical connections. I have given a strong emphasis to connections, as I initially noticed that once students solve the problem, they feel like they are done! This is not the case, because noticing mathematical connections, patterns, and alternate strategies really helps students understand mathematics on a deeper level and practice critical thinking skills.

To help them stretch their thinking, I discourage students from writing “boring” connections, like “This number is greater than that number” or “John ate the least amount of pizza.” Instead, I encourage them to use mathematical language, create a second representation, show steps to solving with alternate strategies, convert fractions/decimals/percents, or extend the problem by adding to the story in the original problem. Once they get the hang of it, they start being more creative, going above and beyond to make more complex math connections. During the volume unit, I taught students how to use grid paper to make scaled models of rectangular prisms. When completing these tasks, many students decided to build models to represent the rectangular prisms in the task and attach them to make 3-D Exemplars. They looked great, and the students loved making them!

Peer Assessing

At the beginning of the year, I explained each portion of the Exemplars rubric to the students. The rubrics are very student-friendly and I find that they inspire students to want to become Experts.

Each time I assess Exemplars, I use the rubric along with a sticky note full of feedback. The sticky note always contains one “Glow,” something the student did well, and one “Grow,” something the student could improve upon. At the beginning of the year, I let the students know that when they become more comfortable with Exemplars, they would learn how to peer assess. After a few months, I told the students that they were ready to peer assess one another’s work. They were so excited! This made them feel proud that they had reached a new level of expertise in problem solving and feel empowered that they were now trusted to assess a classmate’s work.

To peer assess, they do exactly as the teacher has done all year: complete the student rubric and use a sticky note to write “Glow and Grow” feedback. An example of this can be seen below. From the start, I was so impressed at how well the students were able to assess one another’s work with Exemplars. I found that regularly providing students with written feedback and referring to the rubric when expressing expectations is a great way to model peer-assessment. Furthermore, the experience of assessing Exemplars helps students get new ideas from their classmates and become more aware of how their own work will be graded.

Task: A New Aquarium

(More Accessible Version)

Joseph has a new rectangular aquarium. The aquarium has a length of four feet, a width of two feet, and a height of two feet. What is the volume of Joseph’s new aquarium? An aquarium holds one inch in length of fish for each twelve square inches of the area of the base of the aquarium. Joseph can buy fish in two different sizes—about three inches in length or about five inches in length. About how many three-inch fish can Joseph put in the new aquarium? About how many five-inch fish can Joseph put in the new aquarium? Show all your mathematical thinking. 

Danielle’s Biography

Danielle Descarfino is a fifth grade teacher at P.S. 94 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. She graduated from Fordham University with a Masters of Science in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Danielle grew up in Tappan, New York, and currently lives in Brooklyn. She was inspired to become a teacher after spending time as a volunteer teaching English at an orphanage and community center in Salvador, Brazil.

Preparing for the New Math TEKS: Using Rubrics to Guide Teachers and Students

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

By: Ross Brewer, Ph.D., Exemplars President

As you begin preparing your staff to focus on the new math TEKS this year, rubrics should play a key role in terms of helping your teachers and students achieve success with the new standards.

 What are rubrics?

A rubric is a guide used for assessing student work. It consists of criteria that describe what is being assessed as well as different levels of performance.

Rubrics do three things:

  1. The criteria in a rubric tell us what is considered important enough to assess.
  2. The levels of performance in a rubric allow us to determine work that meets the standard and that which does not.
  3. The levels of performance in a rubric also allow us to distinguish between different levels of student achievement among the set criteria.

Why should teachers use them?

The assessment shifts in the new math TEKS pose challenges for many students. The use of rubrics allow teachers to more easily identify these areas and address them.

For Consistency. Rubrics help teachers consistently assess students from problem to problem and with other teachers through a common lens. As a result, both teachers and students have a much better sense of where students stand with regard to meeting the standards.

 To Guide Instruction. Because rubrics focus on different dimensions of performance, teachers gain important, more precise information about how they need to adjust their teaching and learning activities to close the gap between a student’s performance and meeting the standard.

To Guide Feedback. Similarly, the criteria of the rubric guides teachers in the kind of feedback they offer students in order to help them improve performance. Here are four guiding questions that teachers can use as part of this process:

  • What do we know the student knows?
  • What are they ready to learn?
  • What do they need to practice?
  • What do they need to be retaught?

How do students benefit?

Rubrics provide students with important information about what is expected and what kind of work meets the standard. Rubrics allow students to self-assess as they work on and complete problems. Meeting the standard becomes a process in which students can understand where they have been, where they are now and where they need to go. A rubric is a guide for this journey rather than a blind walk through an assessment maze.

Important research shows that teaching students to be strong self-assessors and peer-assessors are among the most effective educational interventions that teachers can take. If students know what is expected and how to assess their effort as they complete their work, they will perform at much higher levels than students who do not have this knowledge. Similarly, if students assess one another’s work they learn from each other as they describe and discuss their solutions. Research indicates that lower performing students benefit the most from these strategies.

Rubrics to Support the New Math TEKS.

Exemplars assessment rubric criteria reflect the TEKS Mathematical Process Standards and parallel the NCTM Process Standards. Exemplars rubric consists of four performance levels (Novice, Apprentice, Practitioner (meets standard) and Expert) and five assessment categories (Problem Solving, Reasoning and Proof, Communication, Connections and Representation).

Our rubrics are a free resource. To help teachers see the connection between our assessment rubric and the TEKS Mathematical Process Standards, we have developed the following document: Math Exemplars: A Perfect Complement for the TEKS Mathematical Process Standards aligns each of the Process Standards to the corresponding sections of the Exemplars assessment rubric.

It’s never too young to start.

Students can begin to self-assess in Kindergarten. At Exemplars, we encourage younger students to start by using a simple thumbs up, thumbs sideways, thumbs down assessment as seen in the video at the bottom of the page.

Our most popular student rubric is the Exemplars Jigsaw Rubric. This rubric has visual and  verbal descriptions of each criterion in the Exemplars Standard Rubric along with the four levels of performance. Using this rubric, students are able to:

  • Self-monitor.
  • Self-correct.
  • Use feedback to guide their learning process.

How to introduce rubrics into the classroom.

In order for students to fully understand the rubric that is being used to assess their performance, they need to be introduced to the general concept first. Teachers often begin this process by developing rubrics with students that do not address a specific content area. Instead, they create rubrics around classroom management, playground behavior, homework, lunchroom behavior, following criteria with a substitute teacher, etc. For specific tips and examples, click here.

After building a number of rubrics with students, a teacher can introduce the Exemplars assessment rubric. To do this effectively, we suggest that teachers discuss the various criteria and levels of performance with their class. Once this has been done,  a piece of student work can be put on an overhead. Then, using our assessment rubric, ask students to assess it. Let them discuss any difference in opinion so they may better understand each criterion and the four performance levels. Going through this process helps students develop a solid understanding of what an assessment guide is and allows them to focus on the set criteria and performance levels.

Deidre Greer, professor at Columbus State University, works with students at a Title I elementary school in Georgia. Greer states that in her experience,

The Exemplars tasks have proven to be engaging for our Title I students. Use of the student-scoring rubric helps students understand exactly what is expected of them as they solve problems. This knowledge then carries over to other mathematics tasks.

At Exemplars, we believe that rubrics are an effective tool for teachers and students alike. In order to be successful with the learning expectations set forth by the new math TEKS, it is important for students to understand what is required of them and for teachers to be on the same “assessment” page. Rubrics can help.

To learn more about Exemplars rubrics and to view additional samples, click here.

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