Helping Students Understand the Rigors of Assessment Text

Whether your state uses Common Core or its own standards, your students must be able to tackle rigorous text on their assessments—especially given the fact that both ACT and SAT use advanced rigor in text and questioning.

You can help your students understand rigorous questions by dividing them into four cognitive levels. Have students evaluate the level of difficulty of the questions by teaching them to identify the cognitive level of a particular question. Then, they can more easily determine what the question is asking. The four levels of rigor outlined here take the student from basic understanding to complex analysis and synthesis.

Level I Questions: Assess basic understanding. These questions ask students to evaluate what the text says explicitly and implicitly. What evidence is provided?

Level II Questions: Determine the author’s purpose. All communication is about two entities: writer or reader, speaker or listener, medium or viewer. The purpose of writing is, in effect, to manipulate the reader, to entertain, to inform, to influence. Students are asked to determine the intent of the author. What
does the writer want the reader to think?

Level III Questions: Identify the author’s tools. These questions call on students to determine how the author manipulates the reader. For example, were the words the author used to describe a character chosen to elicit a positive or negative feeling, such as : fat versus stout, skinny versus slender?

Level IV Questions: Synthesize. Students must consider multiple texts, comparing and contrasting the authors’ purposes and the strengths and weaknesses of different pieces of writing, then synthesize the two texts. What is the advantage of one text over another? What can you learn from one text that you cannot from another?

Student Self-Evaluation. One of the most valuable tools we can give students is a means to evaluate their own work. Following are rubrics related to each level of assessment. Students evaluate how well they understood rigorous text by choosing the statements that best describe themselves.

Level I Questions

Text Structure (cause and effect, narrative, persuasive, descriptive):

  1. Does not know how author structured text.
  2. Can identify some points in text but does not make connections.
  3. Can identify points in text and what structure was used.
  4. Can identify how author used text structure to deliver his/her purpose.

Implicit (not stated but implied):

  1. Does not infer.
  2. Identifies unrelated connections (personal experience skews understanding).
  3. Can identify evidence not explicitly stated.
  4. Can identify added and/or omitted information to influence reader.

Explicit (evidence, such as facts, quotes, examples, details):

  1. Can identify fewer than three pieces of evidence.
  2. Can identify three pieces of evidence.
  3. Can identify four or five pieces of evidence.
  4. Can correctly identify more than five pieces of evidence.

Word Choice:

  1. Does not notice word choice.
  2. Can identify some words that have negative connotation (e.g., skinny versus slender).
  3. Can identify positive and negative word choices and words that elicit emotional response from reader.
  4. Can identify other words author could have used to sway reader even more.

Response to Question:

  1. Did not respond.
  2. Response did not address question.
  3. Response addressed question but did not completely answer question.
  4. Response correctly addressed all parts of question.

Level II Questions

Author’s Purpose (inform, entertain, persuade/influence):

  1. Did not know author had a purpose.
  2. Can identify author’s primary purpose.
  3. Can identify author’s primary purpose and underlying structure used to convey that purpose.
  4. Can identify limits of author’s purpose and probable impact on reader.

Bias (omissions, word choice):

  1. Believes everything he/she reads.
  2. Can identify one or two pieces of information that were omitted.
  3. Identifies some words used to sway reader and the impact of missing information.
  4. Can articulate author’s bias (political, ideological, economic, cultural, etc.) and show how author created bias.

Character Development (dialogue, other characters’ comments, situations, use of conflict, absence):

  1. Does not know characters.
  2. Can clearly articulate who characters are, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they will probably act in given situations.
  3. Can discuss characters in depth and can identify some of tools author used to create characters.
  4. Can articulate how author’s choices in character development impact reader—both positively and negatively.

Dialogue Tools (plot, convey feelings, information about self or others, conflicts):

  1. Does not know what dialogue tools are.
  2. Can identify where dialogue was used to develop the plot or to develop characters.
  3. Can identify ways in which dialogue was used to develop characters and specifically what reader learned about characters.
  4. Can analyze and critique author’s use of dialogue and how it manipulated reader.

Manipulation of Structure (what author allows reader to know):

  1. Thinks writer told reader everything writer knows.
  2. Realizes that information is limited but cannot identify exactly what is missing.
  3. Realizes that the structure the author used affects the information source and can identify some of missing information.
  4. Can articulate what information is missing, how author structured that manipulation, and how it was advantageous to the author.

Teller (first, second, third person; past or present tense; credibility or experience or sphere of influence of teller):

  1. Does not recognize any of these issues with teller; not sure who teller is.
  2. Knows who teller is and whether it is past or present; has no idea of credibility or experience of teller.
  3. Can identify these aspects of teller but cannot articulate impact on reader.
  4. Analyzes impact on reader of teller and ways in which author uses that to manipulate reader.

Response to Question:

  1. Did not respond.
  2. Response did not address question.
  3. Response addressed question but did not completely answer question.
  4. Response correctly addressed all parts of question.

Level III Questions

Identify Tools (fallacious arguments, Graham’s level of arguments, parody, tone, voice, metaphor, etc.):

  1. Has little idea that there are tools in text.
  2. Can identify some of tools but not all.
  3. Can identify tools and the impact of each tool on the reader.
  4. Can argue for and against the tool the author used and why a different tool may have been better.

Reference Sources (media, Bible, mythology, archetypes, history, etc.):

  1. Does not recognize many of references made.
  2. Knows sources of some of references but does not understand them.
  3. Knows and understands sources but does not understand impact on reader.
  4. Knows impact on reader and articulates why author selected that source.

Clarity of Argument, Ease of Text, Use of Visuals (cartoons, pictures, graphs, etc.):

  1. Focuses on visuals or ease of text but may not understand their meaning.
  2. Can identify when argument makes sense and how visuals help reader.
  3. Can articulate how author used pictures, text, graphs, and arguments to manipulate reader.
  4. Can identify effective and ineffective use of pictures, text, graphs, and arguments by author.

Response to Question:

  1. Did not respond.
  2. Response did not address question.
  3. Response addressed question but did not completely answer question.
  4. Response correctly addressed all parts of question.

Level IV Questions

Information from Multiple Texts:

  1. Chooses information from only one source.
  2. Can get information from more than one source but confuses information.
  3. Can put together timeline of information and correctly identify source.
  4. Can synthesize information into coherent analysis of integrated information.

Primary and Secondary Sources; Accuracy and Credibility of Sources:

  1. Does not distinguish what is primary, secondary, accurate, or credible.
  2. Knows whether source is primary or secondary but does not rate accuracy or credibility.
  3. Identifies information differences between primary and secondary; generally has idea as to which source has greater credibility.
  4. Clearly identifies all these indicators; makes clear analysis of value of each.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Sources (biography, autobiography, journal entries, recordings, writings, research):

  1. Has no idea; does not know how journal entry has value, that biography does and does not, for example.
  2. Can identify sources and their advantages for information.
  3. Can identify advantages and disadvantages of each source.
  4. Can argue for and against sources used and synthesis of those sources.

Response to Question:

  1. Did not respond
  2. Response did not address question
  3. Response addressed question but did not completely answer question
  4. Response correctly addressed all parts of question

Helping students prepare for assessments by analyzing text moves students to expertise, allowing them to tackle the rigor of text with relatively little anxiety or confusion. Will it test your patience as a teacher? Absolutely. But with this kind of instruction, there is no better way to teach thinking skills.

Ruby K. Payne is an educator, author, and founder of aha! Process, Inc. She is the author of Achievement for All: Keys to Educating Middle Grades Students in Poverty, available online at

Bring Ruby K. Payne to your school. Contact AMLE Director of Middle Level Services Dru Tomlin at for more information.

Published in AMLE Magainze, January 2015.