One thing I’ve learned as I work with schools across the country is that there are a lot of different definitions collaborative teams are using for common formative assessments, and what these teams think common formative assessments are influences how they write and use these assessments with their students. In our book, Collaborating for Success in the Common Core, we offer the following definition to help teams make sure they’re able to use their results to improve student learning:
“Common formative assessments are team-designed, intentional measures used for the purpose of monitoring student attainment of essential learning targets throughout the instructional process. In addition to providing information about which students need additional support or extension, common formative assessments allow teams to examine the effects of their practice, and gain insight as to which instructional strategies yield high levels of learning. Furthermore, the data can be used to provide frequent feedback to students that they can use to adjust their own learning strategies.”
In our definition, we look at three important concepts that we know help students achieve at high levels through the use of these assessments: they are formative (and thus occur during the learning process), they are team-designed, and they assess essential learning targets.
The first idea we included in our definition is the importance of the word formative. In working with teams, we’ve found that some teams focus on common assessments rather than common formative assessments. When teams write and use common summative assessments (think, for example, end of the unit tests), they are able to use essential standards and common pacing in their work. While this is a valuable step, we now know that it is formative assessment that truly impacts student learning. In 1998, Black and Wiliam published their revolutionary research concluding that formative assessment has a .9 standard deviation impact on student learning. This caused educators at all levels to focus on how to use formative assessment in their work. If student learning is the ultimate goal, then, high performing teams must use formative assessment throughout the learning process. High-performing teams understand that the purpose of formative assessments is different than summative assessments.
Sometimes teams will ask whether they can use their benchmark assessments as common formative assessments as long as they use them in a formative way. Here’s why we recommend that they not do this. Formative questions are intentionally written in a different manner than summative assessment items.
The first thing is that formative items are written around learning targets rather than standards. Learning targets are the smaller skills and concepts students have to learn to become proficient on the standard. When questions are written around these smaller skills and concepts, the information they provide is much more diagnostic than when written around a standard.
Additionally, most benchmark assessments are not tightly linked to concepts that students are currently learning. Sometimes items assess content that was taught in earlier units of instruction and sometimes items assess content that hasn’t yet been taught. We included the phrase “throughout the learning process” in our definition to emphasize how important we believe it is for formative assessment to occur shortly after students are taught new essential content.
When teams design their own common formative assessments, they write items to specifically match the learning targets they want to measure while they are still teaching that content. That means that before teachers move on to new content in the unit, they are able to correct misconceptions students might have that could impede them learning related concepts. This also means that teams are able to move from reporting the percentage correct each student earned to being able to report—for each student—which targets have been mastered and which still need response.
Getting their data back at this level of specificity also allows teams to examine which instructional practices are most effective either for all students or even for certain types of students. In a PLC, we start with the premise that teachers will use the instructional strategies that they believe will be most effective for their students, and that there is no expectation that all teachers will use the same strategies. High-performing teams, however, examine their results to see if a particular strategy is more effective. They also realize that, for students who need additional response, using the same instructional strategy they used the first time won’t be very effective. When teams analyze the results of a common formative assessment, they can discuss these issues and learn from each other and from the results.
The second idea we included in our definition is that these assessments are team-designed to assure that the items are aligned with the learning targets teams are teaching as well as the expected rigor teams have for results. We’ve seen some examples where teams use an assessment designed by curriculum writers or from a test bank of questions and though these items might be aligned with the content taught, they aren’t always aligned to the rigor that it was taught at. This results in information that isn’t helpful to teams in planning the response. Teams can effectively use items they’ve found in curriculum materials or online, but it’s vital that they make sure the item matches the learning target they taught in both content and rigor.
Essential learning targets
The third important concept we included in our definition is that these assessments are used to monitor essential learning targets. Some teams write their CFAs around all of the content they’ve taught. When they do this, they lose the idea of a guaranteed and viable curriculum. We know that it’s impossible to guarantee that all students learn everything we teach. When a team identifies its essential standards, they are agreeing that all students will learn these standards. We expect that they will learn more than these standards, but at least these standards. Agreeing about what is the most essential content assures that students are commonly prepared as they move from grade level to grade level and course to course. This common preparation means that less time is spent on review for previous grade level standards and more time to assure student learning of the essentials. If we know with specificity what students have or have not yet learned, responding is much more precise and, therefore, effective.
In this case, vocabulary matters because your definition of common formative assessment impacts your practice. Consider whether your own work around CFAs aligns with this definition.
Bailey, K., Jakicic, C., & Spiller, J. (2013). Collaborating for Success With the Common Core: A Toolkit for Professional Learning Communities at Work™. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Black, Paul & Dylan Wiliam. (1998) Assessment and Classroom Learning.
Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice Vol. 5 , Iss. 1, 1998.