Many researchers have identified formative assessment as one of the more powerful practices to raise student achievement (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Hattie, 2009). When speaking of its power, we often compare formative assessment to summative assessment using metaphorical expressions. For example, formative assessment is like “tasting the soup before serving one’s guests,” or the “practice before the big game.” Others have described formative assessment as the rehearsal before the performance, or the “check-up before the autopsy.”
However, when I think about the most clarifying description of the power of formative assessment, it is the one shared by Dr. Richard DuFour: “A summative assessment is how students prove they have learned. A formative assessment gives a student a chance to improve upon their learning.” This explanation captures the intent and power of formative assessment.
Expanding further, a common formative assessment is when a team collectively gathers evidence of learning at crucial points in the instructional journey, so their students have a chance to improve upon their learning. Members of collaborative teams use the power of common formative assessments (CFAs) to ensure that each and every student attains the learning that is considered essential for their course or grade level.
While many collaborative teams are giving common assessments, we need to ensure the process doesn’t simply end there. Merely administering the assessment isn’t enough to improve student learning. Teams that harness the real power of formative assessment are those who use it well and embrace the key principles and practices. Let’s look at the following key practices and principles that bring out the real power of CFAs.
They establish a culture of collaboration and transparency.
To make the most of CFAs, members of collaborative teams must be willing to acknowledge the need to learn together and work interdependently for the benefit of their students. They establish a transparent and trusting culture in which information from assessments is viewed as an opportunity to impact all of their students collectively. They recognize that there will be differences among their results, but commit to working without passing judgment on their overall practice.
They plan backward and forward with intention.
Before designing or selecting a CFA, teams get clear on their learning targets in a backward fashion, starting with the end in mind. Once clear, they create an assessment plan and design or select items aligned to those targets and based on a shared picture of proficiency. The assessment plan specifies which items are aligned to specific learning targets, so their analysis of results will give them useful and precise evidence about the proficiency of their students’ targeted skills and concepts.
Following the analysis of assessment results, teams use the information they learned to adjust their pacing and instructional plan. For example, they might determine that certain instructional strategies were more effective than others. As a follow-up, the team documents instructional moves that were most effective so they can be reminded the next time they teach the unit. They might adjust the assessment after finding areas of misalignment or items that were poorly-worded. Completing this follow-up step memorializes the team’s learning and sets the stage for improved results when the unit of study is taught again.
They use a protocol to examine the results.
Rather than looking merely looking at percentages or averages and moving on, collaborative teams look at their common formative assessment data using a protocol. A protocol, such as the one contained in Common Formative Assessment: A Toolkit for Professional Learning Communities at Work™ (Bailey & Jakicic, 2011) provides a structure to the conversation and ensures that specific questions are answered in an efficient fashion. An effective analysis of results includes identifying specific learning targets that students learned, didn’t learn, or excelled in. Teams also determine the instructional strategies that led to high levels of learning, including any significant differences in results across the team. Most importantly, members identify the students who need additional time and support, and co-plan the interventions they will provide to improve their learning.
They take action to impact their learners.
Effective collaborative teams weave the use of common formative assessments into an ongoing cycle of improvement that employs the Plan, Do, Study, Act sequence. Following this cycle, the team can monitor and support each students’ attainment of the learning targets while the teaching is still happening rather than waiting until the end of unit assessment. The results are used in a timely fashion to co-plan interventions for those students who need more time and support. If the results indicate that the entire team’s overall results showed that particular skills or concepts were weak across the entire team, they make a game plan for reteaching using more effective strategies. Teams also design and implement activities to extend learning for students who exceeded proficiency.
In other words, teams don’t simply sit on the information they compile from their assessments, they use it to create and implement a plan of action focused on increasing their students’ learning.
They willingly adjust their instructional strategies.
Inherent in the common formative assessment process is the notion that members of the team are trying to improve their collective practice so their students learn more. There’s a willingness to hold up the proverbial mirror and recognize that some methods are more effective than others. Their teaching styles may differ, but they use evidence of learning and non-learning to make better instructional decisions.
They partner with students.
A major focus of formative assessment is to provide frequent, bite-sized, and useable feedback to students, insight regarding their current learning performance relative to a learning goal, and strategies for moving forward. However, students don’t always welcome feedback on their learning with open arms. As part of their action plan, teams can co-plan how they will share results with students, and engage them in activities that foster the use of feedback (e.g., peer feedback, rubric creation). This action ensures that the impact of formative assessment is maximized by engaging students in the process of using the information.
Finally, through it all, they experience collective efficacy.
John Hattie (2016) defines collective efficacy as the belief that, through collective actions, educators can influence student outcomes and improve student learning as the number one factor affecting student achievement. According to Hattie, when teacher teams see the impact of their efforts on student learning, they recognize their ability to improve student learning, even in the face of significant challenges. This phenomenon has ranked as having the highest impact on student learning (1.57 effect size).
How does this translate to common formative assessment? When teams see that their students’ learning has improved because of their efforts, including the interventions that came about because of their information, they experience this efficacy.
Team-developed common formative assessment, when used well, can be a powerful tool to impact student learning. When teams commit to the principles and effective practices needed to make the most of its power, they can experience collective efficacy—the knowledge that their efforts are making a difference.
Bailey, K., & Jakicic, C. (2011). Common Formative Assessment: A toolkit for professional learning communities at work™. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139-144, 146-148.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.