Sarah Schuhl, a consultant specializing in mathematics, has been a secondary mathematics teacher, high school instructional coach, and K–12 mathematics specialist for nearly 20 years.

Painting an Assessment Plan

About seven years ago, I decided the kitchen needed to be painted. Never having painted before, I quickly learned painting is messy and tedious and far from one of my favorite activities. Filled with indecision, I decided on a lavender paint color to replace the eggshell yellow that had been on the walls. After my husband and I started the work, I realized the color was not what I had hoped. However, I said nothing because I did not want to waste the paint and I certainly did not want to start over. I learned later that my husband did not really like the color either, but completed the job because he thought it was something I really wanted. When it was done, we simply checked the kitchen off the list and moved to the next home improvement project.

My kitchen painting experience is a metaphor for how not to create and use common assessments. A much clearer plan is needed when creating each assessment than my painting plan and the assessment items used must provide information about the learning of every student. Each teacher must agree that the assessment tool is valid and informative and be willing to modify and revise along the way, if needed—even if it means starting over. Finally, once the assessment is given and the data analyzed, teachers must collectively respond to the learning of students . . . not just continue to move students to the next unit without re-engaging them as my husband and I did when finishing the painting job in the kitchen.

I was reminded of this recently when working with a school new to analyzing common assessments to look at student learning. Each team had a beautiful spreadsheet created for them by the school’s instructional coach, detailing how many students had missed each question on a well-known ELA publisher unit assessment. The teachers identified the most-often missed question and then quickly discounted its relevance due to ambiguity in the multiple choice options and the difficulty of the corresponding reading passage. When asked which standard the question was supposed to measure, teachers did not know until they looked at an alignment chart given by the publisher. Upon further review, this was the only question on the test measuring that standard. In fact, upon even further analysis, the team realized this was not even a standard they were currently working on having students learn to proficiency. As we looked at how to proceed, I learned students had taken this test nearly two weeks prior and the team had only recently scored them, having moved on to the next unit as dictated by the pacing guide. While the intent to give a common assessment was worthy, the planning and execution did not result in an improvement of student learning.

We decided to stop the analysis and instead use the experience to evaluate the next common assessment to make sure its design would give the team needed information and the time spent creating it, administering it, and analyzing it would be valuable time spent by the team. We worked together to answer the following questions.


Assessment Questions to Consider Team Response
Which standards do you expect students to learn and therefore need to assess? Which standards should students be proficient with by the end of the unit? The team chose one priority standard in the unit and wrote two friendly “I can…” statements related to the standard to have students learn and which they would assess.
Which questions on the publisher assessment (or previously created team assessment) need to be used and which need to be replaced when aligning it to the standards so the time spent taking the test is beneficial and gives the teachers and students the information needed? Together, the teachers realized each assessment item on the publisher test covered a unique standard. Since they did not want to assess parts of several standards, they kept a few questions and the passages, but revised some questions and replaced two questions to align it to the priority standard and resulting two targets.
How many questions do you need for each standard/target to feel confident the assessment informs both teachers and students as to the level of student learning? The team turned a 20 question common formative assessment into a 10 question assessment with 5 questions per learning target. These included two constructed response items and 8 multiple choice items.
What will students do with the results of the assessment? How will they use the results to identify what they have learned and what they have not learned yet? How will they set a learning goal with a plan to learn any standards not yet mastered? The team wrote the two learning targets on the assessment above each corresponding group of questions. They created a reflection sheet students would complete to determine which of the targets they had learned or not learned yet when getting their assessment results back.
How will teachers use the results to re-engage students in learning, if needed? How will they use the results to reflect on instructional practices and extend or enrich student learning as needed? What is the plan to analyze the data? The team committed to analyzing the data by target within two days of giving the assessment. They would determine the percentage of students proficient with each target, then make a plan for individual students, if needed. They would also discuss instructional practices and determine what needed to be addressed during core instruction.


We test a lot. In fact, some might argue we test too much. How are we using those precious minutes instructionally to grow student learning? It starts with a plan—with clarity on the standards students should be proficient with in each unit and corresponding student targets. From there, quality assessment items must be agreed upon by the team and then both the teachers and the students must learn from the experience and respond.

Confession time: my kitchen is still lavender. It is finally be time to repaint it—something that would have been easier to do midway through the original project than it will be now. My “team” is going to help, and together we will choose the color and devise the painting plan. Anyone for sandlewood?

Participate in hands-on assessment training from education experts. August 1-3 in Denver, Colorado.

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