Jim Smith is data and assessment coordinator at Twin Cities International Elementary School in Minnesota. Previously, he served as a middle school history teacher for 15 years.

Diving Into Common Assessment

Are you ready to take the plunge? Is the water too cold or too warm?  Do you take a tentative step with the big toe or throw caution to the wind and commit to an adventurous leap – uncertain of the outcome? Either works, depending on your style, whether in swimming, living, or building common assessments.

Yes assessment. This single word elicits a deeply emotional component from anyone with history as a student.  Few are unaffected.  For many, the flash point is the anxiety of high-stakes standardized tests.  To the highly successful student, these tests are just another fiend to vanquish, but others see themselves as fodder for consumption.  Key to changing this attitude is a well crafted, engaging and balanced assessment culture integrated into the instructional framework of the classroom.  A framework supported at its core by teacher-created common assessments.

For many, even veteran teachers, changing this paradigm is problematic.  There is often an undercurrent to assessment conversations that teacher-written assessments cannot be trusted because the teacher does not know how to write a good assessment, or will not use it fairly.  The myth persists that expert-written, store-bought assessments are far superior to anything teachers can create.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Teacher-created assessments have all sorts of advantages over the store-bought variety, if done within a few guidelines.

Classroom assessments must:

  • Assess learning targets aligned to standards and clearly communicate to the student the intended learning outcomes of instruction.
  • Intentionally engage student interest and commitment.
  • Feature a design architecture reflecting the scaffolding levels of the intended student learning and be built collaboratively.
  • Pass a review of collaborative calibration utilizing actual student work to check if student responses meet the expected results of the design process. (Dimich, 2015) (Erkens, 2016)

Notice the focus: student learning, visible standards, planned engagement, and design which clearly identifies the successes and challenges of student learning.  All these elements are folded into the cloth of a collaborative approach to planning and implementation.

Both the toe dipper and the diver can find many resources to help enter the deep water of building collaboratively designed common assessments.  Two of the best are Design in 5 by Nicole Dimich, and Common Formative Assessment by Cassandra Erkens.  Study the resources collaboratively as a team as you prepare to move forward.

Now that you have the resources to support your efforts, there is one more thing to be done.  Resources are about “knowing,” but common assessment is all about “doing.”  Engage by acting.  Engage by taking the plunge. Engage collaboratively in order to answer the following questions.

  • For the teacher – Was the intentional learning hoped for achieved?  Were all students successful?  What happens next?
  • For the student – Can I do this? If yes, can I confidently move to my next steps in learning? If no, can I see a clear path to success understanding that failure is not a dead end to learning?

Common assessment practices should always be alive with action, featuring the dynamics of engagement, collaborative design, descriptive feedback, and collaborative calibration responding to student work.  If this is the case, the learners will radiate with the sparkle of confidence and the glow of hope as they experience the joy of learning.

So take the plunge, or at least dip your toe in the water of common assessment.  Sometimes a rational argument or proof is needed to convince the reluctant that this stuff works. Sometimes it takes someone pushing you into the water.  In my next blog we look at what the research has to say, along with an actual case from a school where common assessment has shown great gains in achievement.

But for now, test the waters or take the plunge, the water’s fine – come on in.  Next time, I will give a little push to help you along.


Dimich, Nicole. (2015). Design in five: essential phases to create engaging assessment practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Erkens, Cassandra. (2016). Collaborative common assessments. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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