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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.