The Key Cognitive Strategies, C-PAS, and the Common Core State Standards

by Kathy Moran, Research Associate, MCNC


“I really like the Common Core because the focus, in English especially, is more on analyzing and supporting an argument than on rote learning… The idea of problem solving and supporting arguments fits in perfectly with C-PAS.  To me, it feels like the same thing… I’ve found that when I culminate each unit with a C-PAS –like task, students remember more.  (In referring to a project)…they internalized not only the facts and the theme of justice, but also how to research and learn independently.  It’s so like C-PAS and the Common Core and it works!”

Elizabeth Billard, Brooklyn College Academy


CCSS, PARCC, SMARTER, KCS, EPIC, C-PAS* – are all these acronyms giving you a headache?  Today, the educational focus is on college and career readiness and all of the preceding acronyms, each in their own way, aim to prepare graduating high school students for their next steps.  And as we struggle to keep up, we may well wonder if there is any commonality and continuity in all of these.  And we also may wonder where the work of MCNC (another acronym) fits in all of this. Here’s a look at a little history of what MCNC has been doing.

The founding member schools of the Middle College National Consortium (MCNC) were primarily interested in helping underserved youth gain their high school diplomas.  In the 1970’s and the 1980’s when many of the MCNC schools were founded, the high school diploma was seen as the key to a successful social and economic future.  However, our world has changed considerably and we now see the high school diploma as necessary but not sufficient.  Our students need to be ‘college-ready’ and to succeed in college.  Hence, MCNC’s Design Principles were retooled and the Early College Initiative was launched.  Among other things, MCNC students are expected to publicly demonstrate  intellectual inquiry through research in a variety of media.  Assignments and assessments are to be of multiple types, scaffolded, and developed in progressive stages toward college readiness.  The key works are ‘multiple’, ‘scaffolded’ and ‘progressive’.

Dr. David Conley and his colleagues at the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) have spent over a decade analyzing the content of thousands of entry-level college courses and the expectations of those who teach these courses.  They found that college instructors expected students to be proficient in a number of cognitive strategies that have become known as the Key Cognitive Strategies, (KCS):  Problem Formulation, Research, Interpretation, Communication, and Precision and Accuracy.  To assess ‘college readiness’ in these areas, EPIC developed the College-ready Performance Assessment System (C-PAS) with tasks designed for English Language Arts, mathematics, science, and social studies.  The tasks themselves require students to think deeply, consider multiple approaches to problem solving, think in terms of public communication of findings.  The tasks provide progressive assessments, building on prior learnings, that lead to college readiness. 

When the Middle College National Consortium began its association with Dr. Conley’s EPIC in the spring of 2010, the aim was to pilot EPIC’s C-PAS in mathematics at selected MCNC schools.  The math pilot continued into the fall of 2010, and the spring and fall of 2011.  During this period, some schools have joined the pilot and some have withdrawn.  Current participant schools include South Carolina: Brashier Middle College Charter High School, Greenville Technical Charter High School, Greer Middle College Charter High School , New York: Brooklyn College Academy at Brooklyn College, MCHS at Buffalo, New York, Michigan: Genesee Early College High School, Mott MCHS at Mott Community College, and California: , MCHS at Contra Costa College, MCHS at Los Angles Southwest College. .

During the math pilot period (2010 and 2011), teachers and representatives from EPIC met at MCNC Winter and Summer Conferences to receive training in the C-PAS online system, using the task bank, and scoring.  Teachers provided feedback on the tasks themselves and the process and EPIC made adjustments based on their feedback.  In addition, teachers and EPIC representatives ‘met’ online in MCNC’s online community of practice, Polilogue, to discuss teaching strategies to implement the Key Cognitive Strategies and to introduce and administer the C-PAS tasks.

In the spring of 2011, it was decided to extend the pilot to other areas assessed by C-PAS – English Language Arts and science.   During the fall of 2011, teachers new to the pilot used that time as an induction period to acquaint themselves with C-PAS and to prepare themselves and their students.  In the spring of 2012, tasks are expected to be administered in English, math and science.  Brooklyn College Academy will test the social studies tasks in the spring and other schools will be invited to extend to social studies preparation.  By the fall of 2012, all C-PAS subject areas will be piloted.

At the same time, the Key Cognitive Strategies were introduced to all attending MCNC Winter and Summer Conferences.  Many schools are introducing the KCS school-wide, whether or not their school is participating in the C-PAS pilot.  During the same period while MCNC schools were piloting C-PAS, the national conversation was around the Common Core State Standards and the development of assessments for the CCSS.

To date, some 46 states have signed onto the Common Core but implementation by individual states seems to be lagging due to budget restraints.  Nonetheless, everything seems to point to eventual implementation.  What can we expect?  Dr. Conley has studied the CCSS in detail and notes, The standards identify the cognitive processes and learning strategies that students need in order to acquire and retain curriculum content”.(Building on the Common Core).  While the language in the CCSS might differ slightly from that used for the Key Cognitive Strategies, the cognitive abilities expected from students are the same.  Therefore, we can conclude that the Teaching and Learning sections of MCNC’s Design Principles, the Key Cognitive Strategies, and the expectations in the Common Core State Standards are complementary.

MCNC is well positioned to meet the challenges of upcoming Common Core State Standards and their proposed assessments.   More information can be found at:

Educational Policy Improvement Center and C-PAS –

Common Core State Standards –

Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) –

SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium –