Kim Bailey is former director of professional development and instructional support for the Capistrano Unified School District in California. She also served as an adjunct faculty member at Chapman University in California. Follow @bailey4learning on Twitter.

Improving Professional Practice Through Assessments

It’s widely supported that using common formative assessments is one of the best ways to systematically improve student learning (DuFour et al. (2016); Reeves, 2004; Ainsworth, 2007). The impact of these assessments is best realized when teams collaboratively unwrap the essential standards into smaller learning targets, use formative measures to monitor student learning of those targets, and use the results to engage students with meaningful feedback and support to propel learning forward (Bailey and Jakicic, 2019).

For the most part, team conversations around the results of these assessments are focused primarily on student learning. They examine which students demonstrated proficient learning, which students struggled, and which exceeded proficiency on the targeted learning. But what we don’t always realize is that by adding another layer to these conversations, teams can engage in professional learning and ultimately impact their practices. Let’s look at the different insights into teams can gain about their practices through the use of their assessment results.

Curricular Insights

Through the analysis of results, teams gain insights regarding the alignment and pacing of the curriculum. Questions they can ask through the process include:

Alignment: Is our taught and assessed curriculum aligned with the standards? Did we accurately focus on supporting student learning of the skills and concepts that students need to be successful?

Pacing: Did we spend enough time teaching this skill or concept, or do we need to adjust the amount of time in our pacing plan to get better outcomes in our students’ learning?

Assessment design/item clarification: Did the items really measure what we wanted students to learn? Do any questions require revision so that they more accurately reflect student learning? Are we building student exposure to formats and tasks they will encounter on high stakes assessments?

Instructional Insights

A significant benefit of collaborative teams using common assessments is the systematic improvement that can be achieved in student learning. When team members identify and share best instructional practices through the examination of assessment results, they can determine which strategies seem to yield better outcomes. Additionally, they may reach the conclusion that the resources (i.e., texts) initially used need to be supplemented to more effectively facilitate high levels of learning. Some questions that guide teams toward instructional insights include:

Strategies: Which of our instructional strategies resulted in higher levels of learning? Are there any strategies we know did not give us the results we were seeking? Which strategies might we continue to use the next time we teach this?

Resources: Were our resources (e.g., texts, videos, manipulatives) adequate for teaching these skills, or do we need to seek additional resources in order to get better results?

Student Support Insights

By examining assessment results with a focus on improvement, teams begin to become more proactive in how they design their instruction so that students who typically struggle have a greater likelihood of learning. In some cases, for example, a team may recognize the need to add additional scaffolding to their current practices in anticipation of students who struggle or do not possess the prerequisite skills related to those skills and concepts. Likewise, teams might also identify better strategies for differentiating in order to meet the needs of students requiring extended learning opportunities. Some questions that teams can consider include:

Proactive Scaffolding: How might we provide additional scaffolds for our struggling students that support their learning without sacrificing rigor? How might we proactively support students we know don’t possess the prerequisites?

Proactive Extensions: How might we build extended learning opportunities into this unit of study?

Here’s the bottom line: When it comes to making the most of common assessments, let’s not only focus on the students’ learning but also our own. When teams use a protocol that guides members to check in on their learning as they analyze results, common assessments can serve as a vehicle to improve professional practice. When teams identify learnings or insights related to the quality and alignment of the curriculum, their instructional practices, and supports that can be provided to students, they can be intentional about adjusting. It’s a pay-it-forward formula: Team learning leads to improved practices, leading to improved student learning.


Ainsworth, L., & Viegut, D. (2007). Common formative assessments how to connect standards-based instruction and assessment. Corwin Press.

Bailey, K., & Jakicic, C. (2019). Make it happen: Coaching with the 4 critical questions of PLCs at work®. Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R. B., Eaker, R. E., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work. Solution Tree Press.

Reeves, D. B. (2004). Accountability in action: A blueprint for learning organizations. Advanced Learning Press.  

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