“I gave it a strong 2.”

“So did I.”

“I gave it a 3. The student clearly drew from both passages and the video in supporting her analysis.”

And so began another spirited discussion of a student’s response to one of the extended, open-ended tasks on the recent spring test. More than 330 tasks were scored over five days by 78 teachers from five states and education systems, all of whom were gathered in Austin, Texas, to review New Meridian test content to be used in their state summative test designs.

I had the privilege of sitting in and observing several scoring rooms across grade levels in both math and English language arts. What I saw reminded me of why high-quality assessment is so critical to deepening students’ engagement with high-quality, challenging academic tasks.

In one of the seventh-grade math scoring rooms, teachers evaluated the accuracy and complexity of students’ reasoning in solving a problem that required them to model a real-world situation. Not only do students have to solve the problem, they have to explain their solution strategy, often using multiple versions of how the situation could be represented. The teachers discussed each student response, evaluating the depth of understanding and clarity of the explanation.

In a ninth-grade English language arts scoring room, teachers discussed their own personal experience teaching tone in their classrooms—and how difficult it is for students to grasp this nuanced concept. The teachers’ personal experience trying to teach the concept informed how they interpreted the scoring rubric and thus how they scored the student responses.

I was struck by the deep intellectual engagement, the regular reference to their own classroom experience, the familiarity with the standards, and the deep understanding of students’ development at each grade level that informed their scoring. What I witnessed was a quintessential professional event: teachers as professionals drawing on their experience and expertise to turn an otherwise lifeless test into a living, human, thoughtful evaluation of students’ readiness to meet the challenge of the tasks before them.

Reflecting on this work, I thought of Richard Elmore’s model of the instructional core, in which student learning happens where skilled teachers foster deep student engagement with challenging academic tasks. The quality of academic tasks, the knowledge and skill of teachers, and the level of student engagement define a school’s instructional core.

Students learn when they and their teachers engage together in thoughtful exploration around the challenges of meaningful academic tasks.

The instructional core was at the heart of the scoring sessions I observed: While the students were not personally present in the scoring rooms, their work was, and these teachers were engaged deeply in evaluating both the academic task in light of their own classroom experience and the level of student engagement with the task as reflected in their responses.

Participating in that day reminded me that it is the teachers across this country who every day seek to foster deeper student engagement with meaningful tasks that will advance student learning. And that is why teachers are such a critical part of our test design and development process. They help us ensure we are challenging students appropriately in ways that reflect what is being taught in the classroom and to a level that will prepare this generation to meet the challenges of this century.