Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 28 Days ago
  • 205

Deep Learning & Cornerstone Assessments: Part 4b


In part 4a of this deep learning series, I focused on the varied types of assessments that promote deep learning. In this commentary, part 4b, my colleague Ken O’Connor and I focus on one special type of school assessment – cornerstone assessments – that are a powerful way to change the nature of learning in a school and promote deep learning.

Today’s profound economic, social, technological and knowledge changes suggest the need for rethinking educational experiences in most schools. The amount of readily accessible information has exploded - literally millions of pieces of information are available instantly on the Internet. The overwhelming availability of social media posts and blogs, as well as the large number of books, magazines, and journals published each week, provide a steady stream of new information, ideas, and perspectives. Yet with all this new knowledge, searches can instantly find factual information on almost any topic. Networks like Facebook enable people who live all over the globe to instantly communicate with each other. Technological changes and globalization have transformed values, work and daily living. Jobs with higher pay scales generally require brainpower, not brawn power.

These changes suggest a new set of educational priorities, many of which are incorporated into recent educational initiatives, such as the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, STEM, and project based learning. These new priorities indicate the need for a deep learning perspective that emphasizes learning how to organize, research, evaluate, analyze and use information instead of remembering a steady stream of facts. Deep learning enhances citizenship in a 21st century world: citizens in a democratic society need to be able to carefully examine, analyze and understand highly complex issues and be able to draw conclusions from evidence. In a world of science and technology, everyone needs to understand complex scientific concepts and theories, how the scientific method works, and the nature of scientific and technological endeavors. Learning how to communicate clearly and work together to solve problems, listen to others, argue a point of view, empathize with others, and lead become ever more important. We all need to learn how to adapt to continual change, to develop and reflect on our interests, talents and abilities, and to plan for the future.

Current educational assessments that drive school experiences often ignore these profound changes and thus hinder the development of a deep learning approach to schooling. At the high school level, traditional multiple choice and short answer tests are still the key type of assessment tool, used primarily to measure factual learning, the ability to use mathematical algorithms and plug in formulas, and the learning of highly discrete academic skills. It’s still all too rare for classroom teachers and schools to develop and implement the multiple types of assessments described in part 4a that measure the deep learning knowledge, understandings, processes and skills that are so important for success in the modern world[1].

If schools are to develop deep learning programs, We believe that it is important to dramatically change the nature of school assessments that drive learning and achievement. While some schools have moved in this direction[2], we believe that one very powerful method for rethinking the school experience and promoting deep learning is to develop a set of cornerstone assessments – a collection of valued, core measures of learning – that, taken together, provide assurances that deep learning goals and strategies are central to the school program, and ultimately that students are prepared for living in a 21st century world.

                                                        Powerful High School Cornerstone Assessments

 While we believe that schools at all levels should develop cornerstone assessments, the focus of this article is on the high school. High school cornerstone assessments, required for graduation, should include multiple types of assessments that determine whether students have learned and can apply key ideas, processes and skills necessary for successful living in a 21st century world. Some examples are the following:

Traditional Exams: One type of high school cornerstone assessment should still include the most common course evaluations, mid-term and final exams, but in our view they need to be radically modified. Currently, the typical high school test is focused around multiple-choice questions that assess arbitrary, sometimes arcane knowledge, and short essays that are often unclear in their focus and poorly measure writing skills. While some multiple choice questions are useful to assess knowledge of key facts, these exams should be changed in order to give students greater opportunity to explain key ideas, develop interpretations of events and narratives, write persuasive arguments for or against different positions, and apply their learning to new and novel situations. Districts and teachers should also consider providing students with “take-home open book” exams, with complex thought-provoking questions that they can explore, analyze and prepare for at some length in advance of writing their answers at a pre-determined time. Final exams might also be redesigned as authentic performances that demonstrate a student’s ability to transfer knowledge, demonstrate understanding, and indicate their ability to apply newly developed skills and processes through real-life tasks conducted outside the school setting.

Information Processing and Research: To insure that every student can collect, organize and process information effectively, students should be asked to develop multiple research projects during their high school years. In addition, juniors or seniors should complete a major capstone graduation project that serves as a cornerstone project and indicates their ability to process information and conduct research. They should first select a topic of interest and then develop a research question and thesis statement. They should be required to find a number of reliable resources on their topic, and to also contact experts in their field for further insights and information. Students might demonstrate that they have an understanding of key ideas by creating a visual organizer of information related to their topic. Students should also be required to write a coherent research paper that demonstrates their ability to organize, analyze, interpret, argue for a point of view, and draw conclusions. They might also share their results and create a multi-media presentation that will be presented to a panel of teachers or community representatives.

Reading for Meaning and Understanding/Interpretive Writing: A powerful 21st century curriculum encourages students to read a wide variety of literature and texts, to demonstrate an understanding of their core ideas and develop their own interpretations, and to apply their learning to new and novel situations. These goals can be accomplished through the development of summaries of and reflections on a core set of readings that include some required reading and some readings chosen by the student. A cornerstone performance task that all students should be required to complete is an interpretive essay for at least one of their readings to illustrate their understanding and their ability to write a coherent analysis.

Scientific Inquiry: By their very nature, standardized and traditional classroom science tests cannot assess student understanding of the scientific process, a student’s ability to conduct scientific experiments, and the ability to apply science learning to a current scientific issue. Two possible assessments that provide much better indicators of successful achievement of these science goals are the following:

•Students read a scientific experiment (or series of experiments) from which they have to draw conclusions as to its (their) accuracy and biases, replicability, and significance.

•Students develop an original scientific experiment and present it to a panel of experts in science.


Citizenship/Persuasive Writing: Social studies/history tests rarely provide data on how well students understand the “big ideas” of social studies and history and whether they can place factual information (names, dates) in some perspective. They also rarely demonstrate an understanding of how to connect historical and scientific information with current events and issues. The following citizenship assessment is designed to measure the above skills and also the ability to write a coherent persuasive essay:

Students research a current issue or problem and its historical context, then write a position paper that argues for a way to improve the situation or deal with the problem. Examples include civil rights issues, economic inequality, equal opportunity, climate change, bio-medical research, food deprivation, and health care.

Students might also be asked to find organizations and agencies that deal with the problem today, to interview experts in the field, and to provide volunteer services to one or more of the organizations associated with the chosen problem.

Aesthetics: Rarely are students asked to demonstrate understanding of and familiarity with the arts as one part of graduation requirements. We believe that it is important for students to show their knowledge and understanding of one or more of these areas through the following choice of tasks:

  • Participate in a musical, dance, or theater performance;
  • Write a piece of original music or a play;
  • Create an original artwork;
  • Describe a piece of artwork (or music), place it in an historical context, and interpret its meaning.

Mathematics (and other subjects): Mathematics is often an area where students see little direct application or connection to other subjects. One way to help students understand the applicability of mathematics to the real world and to see connections of math to other subjects is to ask them to design a building, a city, a playground, or another structure. A sample interdisciplinary cornerstone task that involves a major application of mathematics is the following:[3]

Students research and design a dream home, including a description of the interior of the houses and the materials to be used to build the house. Students also create a model or scale diagram of their home and a cost analysis for the interior of at least one room in the house.

Students also are required to make a presentation summarizing the results of their work.

Health and Physical Well-Being: Current health and physical education classes rarely focus on the following questions: How do I maintain health and physical well-being? What is a nutritionally appropriate diet? How do I maintain a vigorous lifestyle for physical fitness? A cornerstone assessment that helps students answer these questions is for them to develop a plan for healthful living:

Design a plan for healthful living and physical fitness. Create a plan for a living style that will provide you with health and physical well-being. Include a model healthful menu tailored to your needs and tastes for a week and discuss why it is healthful. Develop a realistic weekly exercise plan that you think you can follow. Include other aspects of healthful living, such as disease prevention.

Service to Others: Service learning requirements help students learn to care for and empathize with others, build persistence and problem solving skills, and reflect on who they are and their life’s goals. A sample cornerstone assessment task built around service learning is the following:

Find an organization or agency that provides a service to others and is of interest to you. Volunteer your time and keep a log of hours spent and a journal reflecting on your experiences. Where possible, provide leadership in some capacity to the organization.

Self-Knowledge: Multiple classroom assessments should provide students with opportunities for self-reflection and self-growth.Student logs and journals that incorporate on-going reflective tasks, such as free writes about today’s lesson and summarizer activities asking “What questions do you still have about what you learned today?” give students a chance to reflect on what they have learned and their learning strengths and challenges. Cornerstone self-reflections might include year-end written reflections and a capstone senior reflection that might ask the following:

Write an autobiography that summarizes your strengths and talents and your extra-curricular/outside school interests developed over your high school years. Consider your strengths, talents and interests to help you develop some tentative education/career plans for the future and how to go about fulfilling those plans.

                                                Planning and Preparing Students for Cornerstone Assessments

 The cornerstone assessments suggested above provide examples of potential high school tasks designed determine whether students graduate with deep learning understandings and skills. They also promote the development of a deep learning curriculum and instructional program. Based on the consensus educational goals of a school or district, a similar array of assessments at all levels, both required and optional, might be developed. The actual assessments may come from internal discussions and professional development opportunities, other schools and districts, statewide examples, and even National assessment models. They should become part of a student portfolio of transition and graduation requirements that indicate what students know and understand, how they think and reason, how they conduct research, and other agreed upon goals. Cornerstone assessment requirements also help students to develop and reflect on their individual strengths, talents, and plans for the future. A student’s high school cornerstone assessment portfolio might also be shared and discussed with a panel of teachers and community members as a final exit evaluation before graduation.

Clarification of cornerstone assessments, aligned with key 21st century goals, should help to revise the entire K-12 curriculum and create a powerful formative assessment model. Once a set of cornerstone assessments are developed, “backwards planning” can be used to help figure out where in the school curriculum they will be embedded, what instructional changes are necessary, how they will be implemented, and how students will be prepared in their courses and programs to complete them successfully over time. Preparation for cornerstone assessments should be integrated throughout the curriculum. For example, if students are expected to develop an original scientific experiment as a cornerstone assessment, science project activities in the elementary and middle schools should help students build key scientific concepts, understand the nature of scientific experiments, and learn how to design creative and original scientific experiments.


In this commentary, we have tried to examine a key essential question: What assessment data are best suited to measure whether students are learning the critical knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate for a 21st century world? What assessments will promote a deep learning school perspective and deep learning results? We believe that educators, working together in their schools and districts, urgently need to explore and reach a consensus on a collection of cornerstone assessments that together measure whether our students have achieved major 21st century learning goals, and that also suggest pathways to a powerful deep learning curriculum, new instructional approaches, and multiple, diverse, on-going classroom assessments. The cornerstone assessments suggested above are not meant to be a final list, but rather an initial set of suggestions for consideration.

Our hope is that carefully constructed cornerstone assessments will become woven into the fabric of school cultures, curriculum development, and instructional improvement. Their ultimate measure of their success will be determined by whether students who successfully complete cornerstone tasks are well prepared to successfully move on to college, career, and active citizenship, and ultimately to a full and rich life of deep learning and achievement.


[1] As described in part 4a, deep learning implies the use of a number of different types of assessments that include “basic”, traditional tests, diagnostic, formative, performances of understanding, self-assessments, informal assessments and portfolios.

[2] For further information about schools that have moved in this direction, see the New York State Performance Standards Consortium webpage: http://performanceassessment.org.

[3] This cornerstone project example is adapted from a classroom project outlined more fully in ENC Focus, Volume 9, November 2, 2002. Washington, D.C.: Eisenhower National Clearinghouse, pp. 16-18.


Elliott Seif is a long time educator, teacher, college professor, curriculum director, ASCD author and Understanding by Design cadre member and trainer. He currently continues to write about and address educational issues and volunteers his time in the Philadelphia School District. His other many commentaries can be found on ASCD Edge, and his website can be found at: www.era3learning.org.

Post a Comment

1000 Characters Remaining

Back To Top