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.

How PLCs Use Assessments

We received a series of questions from a school grappling with developing common assessments. I summarized the questions and attempted to provide a brief response for each.

1. In establishing the essential learnings, should we begin with the intended learnings for the entire year or just create the essential learnings unit by unit as we proceed through the year?

It is best to “begin with the end in mind.” A team should agree on what they want students to know and be able to do as a result of taking the course. Once they are clear on that, they can begin thinking in terms of units. You won’t have a guaranteed and viable curriculum for your students until the team can answer the question, “What is it we want them to learn in this course?” Then they break it down into, “What is it we want them to learn in this unit?”

2. When common assessments are created, does it matter if the point totals are the same? As an example, this past summer we talked about how teachers can always enrich material beyond the essential learning of the course so long as they are teaching the essential learning and administering the common assessments created by the team. There are other teams that want to give 100 percent identical tests, but because of other differences in what they do, members weigh their tests differently (i.e., It might be worth 20 points in one class for a teacher who gives fewer total points, but 40 points in another class for a teacher who gives more total points). Am I correct to think such differences are permissible so long as we are being true to the spirit and process of PLCs?

A common assessment might include questions that are unique to a teacher, so total points may not be the same. The issue the team must consider is “How did each student do on each of the skills or concepts we taught?” So, the team should be more interested in how each student did on the eight questions dealing with this skill than on how many points a student earned on this test.

I’m not sure why teachers are using different points for the same tests, and you may want to have some conversations about what a grade represents on this team. It sounds as if students who demonstrate the same proficiency in the same course could be receiving different grades at the end of the course based on the teacher to whom they are assigned, and that is troubling.

3. When attempting to create common assessments, there also seems to be debate on the prioritization of formative versus summative assessments. People who are brand new to the process in my building (including myself) seem more comfortable in first establishing common summative assessments as a means of “getting their feet wet” in the process.

In our school, we asked teams to develop the common summative assessment they would use as the final exam immediately after they determined their essential outcomes. This again helped them begin the course with the end in mind—they knew what all students must learn and how they were going to demonstrate their learning. But teams then immediately created common formative assessments for each unit. So, I don’t think this is a case of summative or formative—both need to be created.

4. While on the topic of formative assessments, there has also been discussion about what constitutes a formative assessment. It is being indicated to us that formative assessments are basically quizzes.

Formative assessments are part of any assessment process used to (1) help the teacher (and the individual student) identify which students are struggling to achieve the intended outcome, (2) provide those students with prompt intervention and support for the specific problem they are having, and (3) give the student an additional opportunity to demonstrate that he or she has learned. So formative assessments can take many forms. A teacher who says “Work on this problem while I come around the room to check on you” is engaged in formative assessment. A teacher who assigns a paper to students and provides feedback on how to improve the draft as part of the writing process is engaged in formative assessment. Informal observations and exit slips can certainly be formative. Preassessments can be formative if they are intended to “inform” (hence formative) the teacher about the existing knowledge and skills of students. If students demonstrate they already know a skill, the teacher adjusts instruction and doesn’t devote time to teaching something that students already know. And a team that gives an exam at the end of the unit could use it as a common assessment if the school has a plan to provide systematic intervention and gives the student another chance to take the exam after they have demonstrated they have learned in the intervention setting.

In other words, it is a big mistake to say that quizzes are formative and tests are summative. It is not the assessment itself, but how you use the assessment that determines if it is formative. The same test could be summative for one team and formative for another. It is what happens after the assessment that determines if it is summative or formative. Formative assessments can take many forms, but team-developed common formative assessments must be part of the assessment process in a PLC.

5. There has also been discussion about minimum benchmarks for how many common assessments should exist in a course or in a given grading period.

Monitoring of student learning is most effective when it is frequent. It would be a mistake for teams to teach for long stretches without checking for student learning as a team through common assessments. Again, good teachers are checking for student understanding all the time, minute by minute as they are teaching. But teams should also be checking for understanding on a regular basis. I would question any team that goes more than three or four weeks without checking for student learning through a common assessment. Typically, once teams see the benefit of team-developed common assessments, they increase the frequency of the assessments.

6. Lastly, I took away from the conference in Washington, DC, that data analysis should not be done by looking at total raw scores (i.e., average score 32/40 on a test) but rather, individual items (i.e., 40 percent of students missed question #4 and thus a discussion of why that might be).

When looking at results, the team should first look student by student, skill by skill, rather than looking at individual items. The initial question should be, “What percentage of our students were able to demonstrate proficiency on this essential skill?” The result should allow a school to know, by name and by need, the students who require additional support and the precise skill or concept where they struggle. The team then can turn its attention to individual members who seek help in teaching a particular skill. Finally, the team can identify a problem area where no one seems to be getting good results and develop a strategy for improving as a team.

Remember that in a PLC, collaborative teams use evidence of student learning in three ways:

  1. To identify students who need intervention
  2. To identify an area where I as an individual teacher can use some support to improve a problem area in my teaching
  3. To identify an area where we as a team need to improve

Then the team could look at individual items. I have seen teams focus exclusively on items and their meetings turn into critiques of the assessment rather than discussions of student needs and how to improve their instruction. Don’t let that happen in your school.



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Brian O,
As you have probably discovered, there is some real power behind having teachers develop pacing guides and common formative assessments. These two components are essential to helping teachers identify those students who need timely interventions and support. Yet, it seems that your school has by de facto developed a pacing guide for those students in the mainstream classes and one for the “inclusion’ students. This dual system naturally creates ability groupings that are not supported by best practice or research. Rick and Becky DuFour make a compelling argument against this sort of practice in one of their blog postings titled Student Grouping in a PLC. The two authors cite several shortcomings with this practice ranging from research to misaligned efforts to close the achievement gap issues.
I would encourage your team to resist the temptation of slowing down the curriculum for your inclusion students and instead refocus their energy toward developing more ways of establishing timely and systematic interventions. While most of us can recall a time when the only intervention that appeared to exist for struggling students was to lower their level of exposure to the regular curriculum, we now know how important it is to maintain the level of rigor and spend a great deal of time developing more interventions as well as supporting the staff on finding new ways to reach struggling students. PLCs should not be built on the concept that we would like to have some or even most of the students learn the essential knowledge and skills but rather all students. I would encourage you to visit and analyze the way that other schools have been able to establish highly effective pyramids of interventions that support struggling students.

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Brian O

As we continue to develop our common formative assessments at our elementary school we have had the conversation of pacing. One of the challenges that we have discovered is that in some of our classes, our pacing is off. As we started to look at root cause, we found that it was our “inclusion” classrooms that were off in math by as much as one unit. In our district we typically identify one class per grade level as the “inclusion” classroom. This classroom then has a general education teacher as well as a special education classroom teacher co-teaching the daily instruction. Obviously, there are pros and cons to this type of inclusion. Do you have any ideas for this type of pacing issue?

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Judy Rasmussen

Our third grade team has found that we are more likely to have a guaranteed and viable curriculum when we look at where we want our students to be at the end of the year. One way that we stay motivated is to meet often with the grade level above and below our own. That way, we see the results of our efforts, and we keep in touch with the needs of each student as he or she moves through the grades.

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Brian Butler, PLC at Work Associate

You are to be commended regarding establishing Power Standards and Common Assessments. Your statement about not wanting to create a civil war is understandable, however, I would argue that by not wanting to create a civil war, you could be inadvertently creating an educational lottery for your students. The education and/or experience a student receives will solely be dependent on which teacher he/she is lucky or unlucky enough to get. Would you want your child to be the one who gets the teacher who is constantly behind, blames the students and/or is the sacred cow?

In their presentations, Rick and Becky often refer to what is called “Simultaneous Loose and Tight Leadership”. Basically, it is establishing clear priorities and parameters for teachers, while at the same time allowing them some flexibility to be creative within those parameters. If you are going to create the conditions in your school in which every child is afforded the same opportunities to be taught and to learn the “Power Standards” and to be assessed with the “Common Assessments”, the leadership must be tight on the pacing of the curriculum. If you have several teachers or teams not committing to the calendar and they are two weeks behind and this happens every quarter, their students will be missing eight weeks of instruction and learning, which students in other classes are getting. If material is not taught and learned in the time frame given, the students will continually fall farther and farther behind.

Additionally, if the teacher gives the excuse that his or her students aren’t ready to go on; it is the administrations job to monitor this. Is it 20 out of 25 who are not ready to go on? In this case, immediate action needs to take place, such as help for the teacher with pacing, content, and teaching skills. If it is 20 are ready to go on and 5 are not, then everyone must go on, and the five who are not getting it need to have a plan in place. They may need intervention on the particular skills not mastered during an extended block or some other time designated during the school day.

Regardless of the reason, there should be no excuses as to what is being taught and when it is being assessed. All students should be provided equal access to the entire curriculum in the time provided, as well as benefit from timely accurate feedback that these common assessments can provide. If your school is three years into this process and there is still not agreement on common formative assessments, let me assure you, you’re not going too fast or expecting too much.

Welcome the challenges and then go about sharing the research and building shared knowledge with your colleagues. If any of the resistors can share with objective evidence, as to why their way is better, please give them the opportunity. In my experience, they cannot and will choose not to provide the evidence to support their case.

Good luck with your journey!

Brian Butler

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We are running into an issue with Common Assessments in our junior high school and need some help. Our department teams have established Power Standards and Common Assessments. They also have collaborated to set timelines for Common Assessments. This year (year 3 in our PLC transformation), our building expectation has been set as a three-day assessment window, so that teacher teams can then sit down and collectively analyze results in a timely manner. The problem is that we have groups in which teachers are off schedule as much as two weeks. For a variety of reasons, some of our groups just can’t get dialed in and on the same timeline. Some of this relates to sacred cows, with teachers unwilling to let go of past practices that are putting them behind schedule. In other cases, teachers are saying that their class just can’t keep up.

No matter the reason, we want to hold firm on the expectation of a three-day assessment window, but we don’t want to create a civil war in the process. Are other schools encountering this same obstacle? What is your advice for dealing with this? Are we moving too fast and expecting too much? Do we need to analyze why this is happening or just lay down the law? We would greatly appreciate any direction you could provide.

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Regarding your answer:
It is best to “begin with the end in mind.” A team should agree on what they want students to know and be able to do as a result of taking the course. Once they are clear on that, they can begin thinking in terms of units. You won’t have a guaranteed and viable curriculum for your students until the team can answer the question, “What is it we want them to learn in this course?” Then they break it down into, “What is it we want them to learn in this unit?”

How long should a PLC Team work on the essential learning for the course? And how does one keep them motivated? It did occur to me that if they focused on a unit, they would have a better chance of staying motivated.

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Our district has moved to the following when calculating a final grade: 90% summative/10% formative

We also use a 5-point marking scale: 4-3-2-1-0. Because traditional grading systems are entirely subjective, we are hoping to shift our entire system to standards-based/competencies/skills focused developmental feedback to students.

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The question that comes to my mind when reading this blog is how grading policies are so different between teachers. It is not so easy to grade for proficiency as well as assigning a percent grade. What is the best way to balance grading between formative assessments and summation assessments. What weight do you give each?

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