Richard DuFour

Richard DuFour, EdD, was a public school educator for 34 years. A prolific author and sought-after consultant, he is recognized as one of the leading authorities on helping school practitioners implement the PLC at Work™ process.

Common Formative Assessments

I had a conversation recently with a high school faculty that expressed several concerns regarding the idea that teachers teaching the same course or grade level should have common formative assessments periodically to identify students who were experiencing difficulty, to identify strengths and weaknesses in their program, and to give each teacher feedback on the how well his or her students had learned in comparison to all the students attempting to become proficient. Here is a summary of their concerns and my responses.

  1. Common assessments will require lockstep pacing and uniform instruction.

Advocates of professional learning communities do not support either lock-step pacing or uniform instruction. Teachers remain free on a day-to-day basis to make instructional decisions, and PLCs benefit from diversity in instructional techniques so members can begin to observe which of those techniques are most effective in helping students achieve the intended outcomes of the unit and/or course. PLCs do insist that teachers agree to 1) ensure students have access to the same knowledge, skills, and dispositions regardless of the teacher to whom they are assigned and 2) to specify certain benchmark dates when the team will administer assessments to identify students who may be experiencing difficulty or areas of the curriculum needing attention. When teachers first begin this practice, we recommend they start with a minimum of four common assessments per course/subject, per year. Once they begin to see the benefits, they typically add more frequent assessments. So once again, there is no expectation that all teachers must be teaching the same content on the same day or using identical strategies. The expectation is that we will agree to teach certain concepts within the same window of time (perhaps six weeks) so that all students will be prepared for the common assessment.

  1. The common assessments will limit us to a narrow focus or lower-level skills.

Teams are free to use a variety of assessment strategies, and many use performance-based assessments. The assessments can be as rigorous, varied, and authentic as the team decides and should provide the team with the information it will find most helpful in assessing its effectiveness. As an individual teacher, you can use whatever assessments you like all throughout the year, but at least four times a year we agree to use the same common assessment.

  1. We are already assessing too much. This adds to the burden.

Common assessments need not be additional assessments. They should replace some of the individual assessments that teachers have traditionally given. Doug Reeves contends that American students are over-tested and under-assessed. Teachers in PLCs do not test more often, but they do use assessments that are far more powerful.

  1. If we focus on student achievement on assessments, we diminish our efforts to develop the whole student.

This is a false dichotomy. There is no need to choose between academic achievement and developing the character of students, fostering a love or learning, or generating good citizens for a democracy. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois is cited repeatedly as a model professional learning community. It was also cited as a national model for its attention to teaching character (see The Good and Smart High School by Thomas Lickona) and was the only high school in the nation cited by NASSP for two consecutive years for the exceptional service its students provide to the community.



I would like to comment on the second point in the article above concerning whether common assessments can become "dumbed down". Our PLC's have been creating common assessments and they have some real benefits as described in the commoents on this blog. However, in order to ensure that teacher subjectivity does not create false readings of the results and show greater effectiveness of instruction where it does not exist, multiple choice, fill in the blank, and true false questions are used. We have common rubrics and checklists for open ended responses and essays, but subjectivity will always enter into grading these types of assessment components.

We trust our current supervisors, but we don't want to set ourselves up for teacher evaluations or teacher pay based on common assessments that can be warped by individual teachers or be impossible for special education students to pass. One solution to this problem would be to have double grading of all open ended and essay questions. However, if a teacher already has to grade multiple open ended questions and essays for 125 of their own students, they do not have time to regrade 125 assessments for another teacher.

The solution is to make common assessments, continue to use open ended questions and essay questions, don't dumb down the assessments, and keep the dumb politicians out of our hair. Yes, I am from New Jersey, and no I do not believe Governor Extra Krispy should be in charge of our education system.

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Becky DuFour

Dear noahhurd,

We strongly encourage your school to allow each "singleton" teacher to be involved in the decision regarding a logical team structure for them. Singletons should not be assigned to work with others if they share no common content, goals, and/or students. Our top suggestions for meaningful team structure for singletons are:
1. job-alike with others in the district or region - for example, during the collaborative team time on Wednesday mornings, the choral music teacher at your high school could collaborate electronically and/or face-to-face with one or more h.s. choral music teachers in your district or region;
2. vertical - for example, the band director at your school may choose to collaborate with the middle school band director as they work together to create a powerful band program;
3. electronic - each singleton could seek collaborative partners through their professional organizations and use the technology available to them to facilitate the collaboration;

The following is a link to a previous article we wrote on the topic of meaningful team structures. Your site council and your singleton colleagues may find some helpful ideas in the article and in the comments submitted by educators who have become very creative in successfully solving the singleton issue:

Wishing you all the best,
Becky DuFour

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I am the head of my high school's site council this year, and one of our School Improvement Plan goals is to, in short, begin writing, using and reflecting on common assessments. One of the largest areas of difficulty we've run into is teachers who are teaching isolated/ "singleton" courses. I've read the entries listed above, but I'd still like more pragmatic direction for these teachers. You mentioned the possibility of an "interdisciplinary team" above. What are some other creative ways teachers teaching singleton courses can collaborate and come up with common assessments? Many of these teachers are teaching elective courses, and don't have a single common prep with another teacher in the school. What do we tell, for example, a Music teacher, with no common prep, to do during our weekly, Wednesday morning "PLC Meeting Time" that our school has graciously allotted us?

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Rick DuFour

Dear cvincent,

I want to make sure that I understand the problem you have stated. If your initial focus was writing, I assume that your assessment called upon students to write and then called upon teachers to review the writing according to a common rubric. If that is the case, I encourage you to work through the issues so that there is a general understanding of writing standards at each grade level and consistency in the feedback students receive about their writing. This means that teachers must 1) agree on the criteria by which they will judge the quality of student work and 2) practice applying those criteria until they are very consistent in their scoring (that is, establish inter-rater reliability). The strategy of bringing representative teachers from throughout the district to establish the criteria is a perfectly good one. Teachers would benefit if those representatives could also provide sample anchor papers for the different levels of proficiency for each grade level so a teacher could see what a 4 paper looks like versus a two or a three at his or her grade level. The key to this working of course, is to have teachers in the buildings practice applying the criteria to samples of student writing until they are very consistent (within one level of each other). You will probably need at least one teacher advocate in each building to help lead that process, and you should provide support and assistance to any school or team that is having difficulty in the task. It really comes down to this: if teachers can't agree on what good writing looks like, students will never have a common understanding of the elements of good writing.

What puzzled me about your query is that you referred to questions that were at the 2.0, 3.0, level etc. which seems to suggest that you were attempting to assess writing skills through a multiple choice assessment. If so, I offer two suggestions. It will be more powerful if you work on the use of performance-based assessments (actually having students write to assess their writing). In his research on PLCs Fred Newmann concluded the best evidence of a PLC at work was teachers working together to clarify the criteria they would use to judge the quality of student work and then looking at the work together. Second, if you are going to use multiple choice assessments, Bob's approach of designating certain questions as representing different levels of proficiency is fairly sophisticated. You may want to start with something a little simpler - for example, having an assessment that requires different levels of Bloom's taxonomy and common scoring standards. Once teachers have some initial success with these assessments they can tackle the more complex issue of assigning varying degrees of weight to each question.

Hope this helps.

Rick DuFour

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I am a curriculum director for a rural school district. We have five communities, 12 schools, 5000 students and 1800 sq miles of geography between us. In trying to create common district assessments, we began with writing. We first chose our essential learnings and aligned them by grade. However, we soon found that our essentials had to be "unpacked" or "unwrapped" so that everyone had the same understanding of what they meant. We also tried some early formative assessments and after piling through a variety of rubrics, etc I went to a conference led by Dr. Robert Marzano where I came upon measurement topics and a common design that would work for every subject area. We wrote our essentials, using this design. The assessments were fairly easy to create because we had 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 questions in our rubric design. However, when it came to scoring, everything blew up. I now believe this happened because 1) people did not fully understand what we did when we put our essentials into that format 2) only PLC representatives from each school did the work and created the assessments. Although they were to take them back to schools for input, corrections, etc, there are still many teachers who hate grading with the Marzano rubric and lots of turmoil each quarter as we take the assessments and analyze the data. Should I give up, go ahead and use each grade's idea of a better rubric or should I press on, give more instruction on scoring using Marzano or a third option, start over? I'm discouraged and have to move on to math so I don't want to duplicate my/our mistakes.

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I have a question about common assessments that goes back to the "singleton" comment earlier. In my school, we only have one person per subject in most areas. How can these teachers effectively create true common assessments to use when tracking student progress in study groups?

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Rick DuFour

Those who contend developing common formative assessments will interfere with their ability to differentiate instruction misunderstand the concept of common assessments. Teachers on a collaborative team in a PLC understand they must have absolute common agreement on what students are to learn as a result of their course, their grade level, and every unit of instruction they teach. They also understand that while the best teachers are use a variety of strategies to check for student understanding in every class period, periodically they use a more formal assessment and that some of those assessments must be common. In other words, how students are assessed and the criteria by which they are assessed should be the same several times during the semester. But teachers in a PLC also understand they have complete discretion regarding how they teach on a day-to-day basis as long as they are able to demonstrate their strategies result in high levels of student learning. PLCs want teachers to use diverse strategies so members of a team are able to learn from each other regarding which strategies seem to be most effective for the students they serve.

The importance of common curriculum, common pacing, and common assessments are grounded in research. In fact, when Robert Marzano examined 35 years of research on school practices that have a positive impact on student achievement, he found that providing students with a guaranteed and viable curriculum was the single most powerful factor. In other words, teachers were committed to ensuring students learned the same essential knowledge and skills regardless of the individual teacher to whom they were assigned. Thirty years of research on effective schools conducted by Larry Lezotte and others led to the same conclusion effective schools have clear and focused academic goals that are understood and embraced by the teachers. Doug Reeves refers to power standards in his research on high-performing schools, but they all referencing the same research-based fact students learn at higher levels when their teachers provide them with access to the same essential knowledge and skills regardless of who the teacher might be.

The power of common formative assessments has also been established in the research. Michael Fullan refers to the use of common formative assessments as one of the most powerful, high-leverage strategies we know of for improving student achievement. The research of Dylan Wiliam and Marnie Thompson led them to conclude that the use of common formative assessments developed by teachers in a learning community is the single strategy that offers the largest gains in student achievement. Reeves concluded teachers should have common collaboratively scored assessments at least once per quarter if they want to help more students learn. Paul Black, Rick Stiggins, Mike Schmoker, and Larry Ainsworth are among the other researchers who have concluded that common formative assessments are one of the best strategies available to any school that is committed to improving student achievement.

In the interest of brevity, I have posted a separate blog on why team developed common assessments are superior to assessments created by individual teachers working in isolation (see the case for common assessments). I encourage you to share it with your teachers and ask them to respond with their own rationale. Perhaps when they are called upon to present their own assumptions and evidence to support their assumptions, you will achieve greater clarity on the issue.

Your teachers should be reminded that not every assessment should be a common assessment. They will still be able to assess as they like on an individual basis from time to time. But the brutal fact is, part of their responsibility is to prepare students for common assessments the state test for example, or placement tests at the high school, and one of the best strategies to promote student success on these high stakes test is for the team to administer several common assessments throughout the year to monitor their learning.

If your teachers need to be convinced that common assessments do not rob teachers of creativity in the classroom, send them to Margaret Mead Middle School in Schaumburg District 54 or the Twin Groves or Woodlawn Middle School in District 96 where teachers have used common assessments to help high performing middle schools experience significant gains in student achievement.

So allow me to be candid. I doubt that your teachers are concerned about the impact of common assessments on their ability to differentiate instruction. They can and should be encouraged to use the instructional strategies they believe will help their students learn at the highest level. My suspicion is that their real concern is that they would like to teach what the want, when they want, and assess however they want, and common assessments will not allow them to do so. Ultimately it will come down to this in your school: which do we value more promoting the autonomy of adults to work in isolation and do as they please in their classrooms, or promoting high levels of learning for all students. If your higher value and deeper commitment is to student learning, you and your staff already know what to do. The only question that remains is, will you do it.

Rick DuFour

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Art Fessler

I am the principal at a high performing middle school located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Our school has been implementing the PLC framework for the previous three years. Although we have made significant growth in many of the core components of a professional learning community we continue to struggle with the perception of teacher autonomy as a result of attempting to create common assessments. A number of teachers continue to believe that common assessments restricts their ability to differentiate instruction from their colleagues. To remedy this we have provided inservice opportunities including both internal and external resources. However our staff still remains hesitant to fully engage in meaningful collaboration which would result in creating common assessements and sharing instructional practices. We would welcome any suggestions for next steps.

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Rick, Bob , and Becky

We couldn't agree more! We don't and never will advocate forcing "teams" on people who have no content, students, or learning outcomes in common. We have heard, for example, of principals assigning a variety of different people/positions onto a team because they all have the same planning period or because they are all "singletons" (the only teacher in the school teaching that course), but high performing teams must share more than common planning periods or singleton status. Members of a true team in a PLC must work interdependently to achieve a common goal for which they are mutually accountable! The result of people being forced to create a "common" assessment - given they share no common student learning skills, concepts, dispositions - would be a waste of precious time and energy! Of course, it is possible for an interdisciplinary team to have an overarching academic goal (i.e. improve student non-fiction writing across the curriculum) and in that instance common assessments for gathering evidence of student proficiency would be not only beneficial, but also essential.

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Different concern with these assessments: Trying to push "common" assessments across curiculum/content lines where they don't fit (especially just to fill some squares in the PLC site monitor's file!). NO prob. w/ concept of formative common assessments (after all, they just brush off an older, BETTER way of doing things!), but DON'T try to force commonality on, by definition, UNcommon curriculums/content (CTE, various arts, JROTC, etc., etc.).

PLC IS "THE BOMB!" Finally, after 40 years, emphases on STUDENTS and LEARNING again! :-)

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As far as the concerns voiced by these teachers:

If students in the same grade will eventually have to demonstrate mastery of the same skills, why not administer an assessment preparing them for such a test?

Programs exist that use the results as a prescription for independent study workbooks. These workbooks are customized for each student based on areas of non-mastery. I have worked with such a system and have seen dramatic increases in passing percentages and raw scores after just 20-30 hours of extra-curricular work on these supplemental materials. (This was an extended-day program)

This seldom narrowed the classroom teachers' focus except for the rare occasion when data showed that all students needed a review in one particular area.

The actual assessment was computerized, so it didn't create test fatigue, and assessment time was a mere 90 minutes each for math and English. The program also allowed item creation at the teacher level, therefore every teacher could use their own approach after the initial assessment.

I considered this approach "teaching to the test" in the least disruptive manner.

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Doug DeLong

Regarding the first concern, we had similar apprehensions within our staff of "lockstep" or uniform instruction. I assured our staff that they were not required to adopt similar teaching methods/practices of other teachers. We did and do hold firm that the team agree on benchmarks/concepts that the team wants the students to master. The team must also agree to administer common assessment questions so they can determine whether the students are learning what the team wants them to learn. The teams are free to devise common assessments that suits their needs. For instance, our geometry team towards the end of the year administers an outdoor "hands on" geometry lab as a common assessment. Our freshmen World History teachers and the freshmen Language Arts teachers collaborated on a research paper. Throughout the year, the subject area teams also created traditional common assessments, but the two aforementioned examples demonstrates that teachers can be creative given the time to meet and collaborate.

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