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 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:

  1. Do they help our team to identify students who are experiencing difficulty in their learning?
  2. Do we have a plan in place to provide those students with additional time and support for learning?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.

Good luck.


Kim Bailey, PLC at Work™ Associate

@aahouston Working through issues related to common formative assessments and pacing guides is a great example of how teams learn by doing. Ideally, teams should attempt to plan the administration of CFAs for a single date based on a reasonable estimation of instructional days needed for students to learn specific skills and concepts. However, there needs to be consideration for the fact that “things happen.” Any number of factors could prevent a classroom from giving a common assessment on the exact same day (e.g. earthquake drill, assembly). The next best thing is for the team to decide on a small window of time rather than a specific day during which a common formative assessment will be given across all classes. While there may be some minimal concern about potential “sharing” of information among students in different classes, students eventually figure out that these formative assessments are not about grading; rather, they’re about getting feedback on their learning of specific targets. This shift from grades to feedback comes from involving them in the process and establishing a culture of assessment for learning.

It should also be noted that a benefit of implementing CFAs and subsequent reteaching sessions over time is the ability for teams to inform the pacing of instruction. The information revealed in the analysis can be used to adjust the amount of time devoted in the pacing guide to establish specific essential skills and concepts.

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You state above that, "Common formative assessments DO NOT and should not require teachers to use lockstep pacing or instruction." However, what happens when one teacher's class moves more slowly than another? My class is 3 days behind the other, so now the other teacher has 3 days to kill before the test. She has 13 students and I have 24, so my class is not going at the same pace. Does the common assessment HAVE to be given on the same day? If so, why is this imperative?

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Becky DuFour

The best parallel block schedules allow teachers and students to have the best of both worlds:
1.) protected teaching & learning blocks for daily new direct instruction in all classrooms;
2.) protected individual and collaborative planning time for all teachers/teams (classroom, resource, specialists...);
3.) related arts/special classes such as art, music, library, gym for students every day;
4.) and very importantly, extra time for student learning (i.e. Intervention/Enrichment Blocks).

There are lots of variables that must be considered when building any schedule, such as how many classrooms/sections are at each grade level vs. how many specials classes are available to students. Without knowing the variables in your school, this response is, of course, very general.

If every teacher in your building under the traditional schedule, however, had one planning block per day each week it should be possible to build a parallel block schedule that also provides one planning/specials block each day for each classroom. Unless your school will have more classes/sections per grade level next year than this year or unless your school will lose some of your related arts services, your schedule should allow for daily specials for students, more common planning for teams of teachers and most importantly, protected learning time for all. We hope your staff will search for ways to make the new schedule a win-win for everyone. Keep us informed!

Becky DuFour

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Our elementary building is looking to implement a form of block scheduling for specials (art, music, gym, library) to help teaching teams find common planning time. For many reasons we are concerned about his at the early elementary level. One big concern is that students would have all of their "specials" (art, music, gym, library) on two days, leaving the other three days of the week without. Those of you lower elementary teachers who are using block scheduling for specials... what do you think? Do the benefits of common planning and/or PLC time outweigh the negative aspects? Looking for insights and/or suggestions.

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I have found that staying on the same pace with the other member of our U.S. HST team is the preferred way to use assessment and to deliver lessons. For us, we each take responsibility for one of the two classes (Gov/Econ, US. HST) we teach together and make copies for each other after the unit has been adjusted and completed in our PLC work. I would say that staying relatively close to each other as far as pace is nice but not required. I would like to know how other PLC's have built their time into their schedule??

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I actually have a question that relates to many items in the recent blogs. Is anyone aware of a district that has woven issues related to PLC - such as use of common assessments, data sharing and review, etc. - into their collective bargaining agreement?? Please feel free to send responses to me at

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Randy Squier

Our elementary teams have begun to be more purposeful in their assessment of student writing. They have agreed to a common rubric, scored papers together to make sure they each interpret the rubric the same, and the principal has collected the data and shared it back to them; higlighting students into three groups-exceeds, meets and not meets. The techers now will set a performance goal to increase the number of students who meet and exceed and give the "writing assessment again in a few weeks. This took courage and trust for them to look at everyone's student scores and keep the focus on students, not which teacher was better. They are good at sharing ideas and strategies and this has continued. Exciting stuff.

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Doug DeLong

We have been teaming/collaborating for the past five years. Our teachers seized quickly upon the idea of incorperating their own questions into a common assessment due to their pace and a topic he/she may have covered. The teams still zero in on their common assessment questions when they meet to determine if the students are learning what they (the team) want them to learn. We have a curriculum for every subject taught and pacing guides. To ensure that the teachers have access to this important material, I placed copies in their team binders so they may refer to the guides every time they meet. Once you have your curriculum/guides in place, make sure the teachers have them at their fingertips.

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3 R's

Before a team can create a common assessment, they have to be clear on "assess what?" What are the most essential skills, concepts, and dispositions each student should acquire as a result of this course, this unit and/or this series of lessons.

If common core curriculum and pacing guides do not exist, then each course-specific team should work together to create them. If these documents already exist, but the teachers currently teaching the course did not create them, then those teachers should "build shared knowledge" by studying and discussing the document to ensure common understanding and consistent implementation from classroom to classroom within the same course. As you know, until the common curriculum, pacing, and assessments are in place for each course, each individual teacher is forced to make these learning decisions on his/her own, and therefore what students are learning, when they are learning, and how they are being assessed is likely to vary greatly from classroom to classroom. It is not only more effective to tackle these tasks collaboratively, it is more equitable for students.

Those leading and supporting this process - central office/school administrators, department chairs, and team leaders - should provide each team with all of the necessary resources, such as:

Time - can you devote some staff development days and/or funds to each team - soon- so they will have time to do the work.

Examples of Essential Student Learning Outcomes for each course: (i.e. state/provincial standards, national standards where available, district/department/course curriculum guides from other high performing districts/schools around yours; a "wish-list" of prerequisite skills from the teachers in the next course in the sequence; assessment frameworks & data from high stakes assessments, textbooks, etc.)

Templates - provide a framework and examples of the kinds of products you're asking each team to generate

Support & Training - ensure each team will have access to "experts" who can assist them with any/all parts of this process if and when they need assistance. These experts could be teachers and/or curriculum coordinators who have engaged in and lead this process in the past or you could seek help from consultants/trainers from outside of your school district.

If teams have the above mentioned resources they should be able to generate the "learn what & when" products in a relatively short amount of time - six to eight hours of focused work.

The questions of learning flow up and down from common, formative assessments; we consider these to be the lynchpins that hold each team's focus on learning. Once any team administers a common formative assessment, the members will then be faced with the collective responsibility of answering "how will we respond/intervene for the students who did not initially learn" and "how will we enrich and extend the learning for the students who demonstrated proficiency on the essentials."

Please keep us informed of your school's progress - we wish your staff and students great success!

Becky & Rick

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We are just beginning this journey and discussing common assessments soon. The high school complaint is that curriculum and pacing guides are non-existent (except in the one area we did this summer.) So, can common assessments be created or must we first begin with aligning curriculum to objectives, scope & sequence, pacing guides etc first?

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