Using Anchor Papers to Help Teachers and Students Understand the Common Core

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

Assessing what our students know and are able to do, where they stand with regard to meeting the standards, and how teaching and learning activities might be improved are among the most common uses for evaluating student work. Key to this is creating sets of anchor papers. With the new standards and learning expectations outlined in the Common Core, anchor papers can be a useful tool for helping your teachers and students see and understand what meeting the new standards will “look” like in their classrooms.

student work sample

What are anchor papers?

Anchor papers are examples of student work at different levels of performance that, along with rubrics, guide formative and summative assessments. Schools and districts can either build their own collections of anchor papers over time or reference examples like those provided by Exemplars.

How can they help?

In addition to identifying where students are in terms of meeting a particular standard, anchor papers can be examined as a way to understand the learning opportunities we are, and are not, giving our students. These can also be used to train school and district assessment teams as well as evaluate how accurately and consistently teachers are assessing students. One way to do this is to ask teachers to assess previously assessed work and compare their scores to the “approved” scores. There are guides and protocols for these types of activities, which are, no doubt, the most important uses of student work. For specific examples and to learn more, visit the Looking at Student Work Web site.

Becca Lindahl, formerly the School Improvement Coordinator for the Diocese of Des Moines Catholic Schools, describes her diocesan’s professional development “scoring” days in the following manner:

Our diocesan’s grades four and eight scoring days are some of the best professional learning we do. Teachers, with their scorers’ hats on, learn about students’ math thinking. At the end of the day, we turn back into teachers and discuss what the data is telling us and how we can perhaps make instructional decisions from the data.

What does meeting the standard look like at my grade level?

Written standards and rubrics define these expectations, but student work samples help make them concrete. Having teachers analyze student work from several grade levels can answer the question “Where did my students come from and where are they going?” This technique can be used with teachers, schools and districts.

Solving problems and studying previously solved problems.

A report published by the U.S. Department of Education titled Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning states that students learn more by alternating between studying problems that have already been solved and solving their own problems, as opposed to just solving problems. (NCER 2007-2004, U.S. Department of Education, available online from the Institute of Education Sciences)

A large number of laboratory experiments and a smaller number of classroom examples have demonstrated that students learn more by alternating between studying examples of worked-out problem solutions and solving similar problems on their own than they do when just given problems to solve on their own. (9)

According to the report, using anchor papers with students addresses two classroom challenges. It saves time, as fewer problems need to be worked out, and eases the burden of assessing additional work. It also tackles the shortage of good problem-solving material that is available.

Teaching students to self- and peer-assess: using anchor papers as a tool.

In an earlier blog, we discussed research that showed the power of student self- and peer-assessment. Anchor papers may be used to help students learn to be successful self- and peer-assessors. After your teachers have introduced the assessment rubric to students, try putting a piece of anonymous student work on the overhead. Ask students to solve the original task (making sure they understand the solution). Then, using the assessment rubric ask students to assess the piece and share their analysis once everyone has finished. As they discuss various perspectives, students learn what work meets the standard and what work doesn’t. A great deal is also learned about problem solving.

To further extend this exercise, you could ask students how they might improve upon weaker samples so that they meet the standard. Teachers can also take work that meets the standard and ask students how they would turn it into work that exceeds the standard. By doing this, students will learn what meeting and exceeding the standard looks like.

Providing guidelines for students.

Anchor papers can provide students with examples of the kind of work their teachers expect. Ask your teachers make copies of student work samples for a set of problems. Include anchor papers that don’t quite meet the standard as well as work that meets and exceeds the standard. Have them discuss these pieces and link each of the solutions to the parts of the rubric that are applicable. Doing so will enable students to have a much clearer understanding of the work that is expected.

Making use of errors.

By highlighting errors in anchor papers, teachers can create learning opportunities for their students. In Japanese classrooms teachers use errors in student work as a teaching opportunity, whereas in American classrooms this is rarely done. In the U.S., teachers tend to continue polling students in search of the correct solution, generally ignoring errors.

Discussing errors helps to clarify misunderstandings, encourage argument and justification, and involve students in the exciting quest of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the various alternative solutions that have been proposed. The Learning Gap (Summit Books, 1992) p. 191

Anchor papers to support the Common Core.

The essence of the anchor paper is to provide an accurate picture of what student work looks like at various performance levels with regard to a specific standard. Working with real student samples can help both teachers and students visualize the new learning expectations set forth by the Common Core.

Over time, your teachers can work together to build collections of student work. Exemplars also offers a large library of problem-solving tasks that are aligned to the Common Core. Each of our performance tasks include annotated anchor papers that correspond to the four levels of our assessment rubric. These are a great resource that schools and districts can use to get started.