Common Formative Assessments and the Question of Pacing
We received a blog query from someone who expressed concern that the way common formative assessments were being implemented in his district required teachers to have identical pacing -- same page same day -- and uniform instructional practice. Common formative assessments DO NOT and should not require teachers to use lockstep pacing or instruction. Instead, a team of teachers should plan a unit, agree on the skills and concepts to be taught, and the date they will administer the common assessment.Pacing on a day-to-day basis should be left to the discretion of each teacher. Furthermore, we believe schools should encourage varied instructional strategies as part of action research to determine which seems to be more effective in promoting learning. So while teachers in a PLC have agreed on what students should learn and how and when that learning will be assessed, they have great autonomy in determining instruction on a day-to-day basis.
Another question raised by this teacher was "Does common mean exact?" We think the assessments should be as similar as possible to reduce the variables that could be used to explain results. If, however, individual teachers wanted to include additional items or assess in additional ways, they should be encouraged to do. For example, one teacher on a US History team may want to add some questions on a topic he covered that was in addition to the guaranteed curriculum or another might want to add an essay question that was not part of the common assessment.
The writer asked if common assessments must replace unit tests. First, once again we have seen teams enjoy great discretion as to how frequently they use common assessments. In District 96 many teams are using common assessments every two weeks. Teams in other districts are using common assessments as infrequently as once a quarter. Furthermore, not every assessment needs to be a common assessment. Good teachers are checking for student understanding constantly. They never let a day go by without using some strategy to assess student understanding. Individual teachers may want to continue giving some of their own tests and should be allowed to do so. There are many advantages to using common assessments, but no single assessment strategy can provide teachers with all the information they need.
Finally, and very importantly, the more important questions about common formative assessments are these:
- Do they help our team to identify students who are experiencing difficulty in their learning?
- Do we have a plan in place to provide those students with additional time and support for learning?
- Do we provide students with another opportunity to demonstrate their learning once they have been required to devote additional time to learning the skill or concept?
- Do the results provide me with useful information as a teacher, helping me to identify areas where my students are not doing well compared with similar students pursuing the same curriculum?
- Does student success on our common assessments translate into success on other high-stakes assessments such as state and national exams?
I strongly encourage this school to clarify the logistical questions this teacher has raised, and begin to examine the far more important questions I have presented above.