Recently, I had the opportunity to work with collaborative teams in a school whose principal had asked them to add common formative assessments to their arsenal of assessment practices. Many of these teachers had worked hard to develop classroom formative assessments that were used to diagnose student learning issues. This school also had a sophisticated response system that used benchmarking and progress monitoring assessments to identify and monitor students who were not yet at grade level in reading and math. Each of the teams I met with included teachers who were worried about the amount of time it would take them to write common formative assessments, give them to their students, and work collaboratively to plan how to respond to the results of these assessments. Early in our workshop, I asked teachers to talk together and brainstorm a list of their best hopes and worst fears about this work. Not surprisingly, several teachers articulated their concerns about adding more assessments in addition to those they were already using. My next step, then, had to be to explore the “why” behind this work.
What, then, do common formative assessments bring to teachers that the other assessments do not? In other words, what do collaborative practices do for assessments that teachers working alone cannot do?
When teams use CFAs, the first step they must complete is identifying their essential standards—those that they are guaranteeing all students will learn. As teams go through this process, they are agreeing to make sure that all students will have learned what they consider are the most important standards in their course or grade level. When teachers don’t work collaboratively, they will still have to decide what they are going to emphasize in their pacing and on their assessments, however, they often choose different emphases than the other teachers who teach that grade level or subject. When teams do this work collaboratively, students move from one grade to the next, or one course to the next, commonly prepared no matter who their teacher was. The teacher for the next grade/course can assume that students have all mastered the same prerequisite content and, thus, don’t have to spend time re-teaching and reviewing. As collaborative teams use these essential standards over time, they see the value of having more time to focus on what is most important.
The second difference is that when using common formative assessments, collaborative teams have to agree about their expectation of what proficiency will look like for each of the learning targets they are assessing. This means that different teachers who teach the same course or grade level won’t have a different set of expectations than their colleagues do. Why does that matter? Equity is an important concept in education because we know that when teachers work in isolation they often interpret standards and expectations very differently. When students move through these schools, they are often exposed to the same concepts more than once or have gaps when they aren’t taught some of the important prerequisite concepts. Every teacher might not expect the same rigor as the others who teach that grade or course. However, when developing common formative assessments, high performing teams study the standards documents and sample released test items to learn about proficiency and work collaboratively to match the rigor of the expectations to their own assessments.
When collaborative teams work together to plan the response to CFAs, they are much more likely to be able to identify and choose strategies for re-teaching that are different from the ones they used in initial teaching and that use uncovered misconceptions to be as diagnostic as possible. My experience from sitting with teams planning their next steps is that the variety of possible response strategies increases with more team members who participate. As teams regularly do this work, they become more prolific; they are more comfortable sharing ideas, and exploring ways to help students.
A final reason to create common formative assessments is that they help schools work together systematically to create a culture of feedback for students. When students are themselves engaged in the assessment process, they know what the expected outcomes of the learning will be, they know where they are in mastering those outcomes, and they are expected to be involved in planning and participating in their next steps in learning the outcomes. John Hattie’s research (2012) supports this as the most effective strategy to improving student achievement. On the other hand, when students are NOT involved in the assessment process, they have little investment in the outcome other than in knowing what grade they received. In their book Creating a Culture of Feedback, Ferriter and Cancellieri (2017), lay out techniques and strategies schools can use with students to make sure students are part of the assessment process. While an individual teacher can, and should, include these strategies in his/her classroom, the power of doing this system-wide can’t be ignored. When this becomes “the way we do things in this school,” both students and teachers gain greater confidence in how to provide and use feedback. Students see that the grade they receive isn’t as important as the learning they accomplish.
Thus, high performing teams rely on the results of their common formative assessments to increase student achievement in ways that they cannot achieve with classroom formative and benchmark assessments. This DOES NOT mean that teams should stop using these other assessments in their work, but, instead, they get clear about the purpose of the different types of assessment and use them accordingly for the benefit of student learning. I know that during this workshop I wasn’t able—yet—to convince everyone of the value of these assessments. However, I also know that once teams get started with the process and experience the benefits first hand, they’ll become confident that this important work is worth their time.
To design effective formative assessment, join Chris Jakicic and more of our assessment experts in this year’s assessment workshops and institutes!
Ferriter, W., & Cancellieri, P. (2017). Creating a Culture of Feedback. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.