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.

Teaching Better, One Assessment at a Time

Have you ever made soup and had it end up being too salty? Or you realize it needs more flavor? Or, somehow, even though you followed the recipe to a tee, it just didn’t quite turn out like you had hoped?

When making soup, it’s one thing to follow a recipe step by step and hope it turns out. It’s another to be clear about the taste expected and then make adjustments as needed throughout the cooking process. In both cases you work hard and have a plan. But in the latter scenario, you make effective adjustments along the way to ensure the desired outcome—without having to extend the time of the cooking experience. The same might be said for assessment.

Suppose you and your colleagues create a common assessment which you plan to give students at the end of the next unit. Once the questions are determined, do you call it finished and go back to teaching? While your instructional plans may match the assessment items developed, is that enough to create effective lessons or is this reminiscent of a chef working hard with a plan, but ultimately hoping the soup turns out without having to extend the cooking time? (Read this related blog post on the difference between summative and formative assessment.)

It might be possible that although a common assessment asks students to summarize a passage, you and your colleagues have not fully discussed what must be included in a summary and therefore have different interpretations of proficiency with the standard. In that case, lessons will be taught differently classroom to classroom, even though everyone is working toward students learning how to summarize. If the team then calibrates scoring after giving the common assessment, some teachers may need to use additional instructional minutes reteaching summary skills because students are not proficient with the concept yet.

Instead, what if you and your colleagues planned to maximize the instructional minutes during a unit to minimize the number of students who might need an intervention after the unit assessment?

When creating the common assessment, consider discussing the common scoring guide or rubric everyone will use to measure proficiency. What is the corresponding student work that you and your colleagues all agree students must demonstrate? How must students answer each question to meet the intent of the standard? Now you and your team are like the chef having clear expectations for the outcomes of the soup and using the cooking time to monitor and make adjustments as needed for a planned outcome. Each lesson is stronger because you know the expectations for proficiency required.

While working with teams, I have found that creating a common assessment can improve lesson design when teams:

  • Design the common assessment to standards before a unit begins.
  • Discuss how students will be evaluated or scored. Using a rubric? Using points? Using a proficiency scale?
  • Clarify levels of proficiency on the assessment. What must a student earn to have a minimal, partial, or proficient understanding of the standard? What types of strategies or specific content must students include in their responses?
  • Calibrate the scoring of assessments as a team to make sure feedback is consistent across classrooms.

How will your team taste the soup and make adjustments before it is time to serve the soup? How will your common assessment with scoring agreements inform the feedback given to students during the lessons? It turns out simply making the assessment before the unit begins with common scoring agreements impacts the instructional practices that follow.

Soup’s on! What is your plan?


  1. EverettTal

    While educational assessments and tests have been around since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, they have increasingly assumed a central role in efforts to improve the effectiveness of public schools and teaching. Standardized-test scores, for example, are arguably the dominant measure of educational achievement in the United States, and they are also the most commonly reported indicator of school, teacher, and school-system performance.


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