Common Formative Assessments

What do you know about Common Formative Assessments? Developing Common Formative Assessments opens the door for rich dialogues within grade levels or classes. I wish I would have had this opportunity when I was teaching in the high school. We often did compare sections, but the focus was more on students’ behavior than on assessment data. Honestly, we didn’t even have the same assessments! What a missed opportunity.

Common Formative Assessments offer insurance that students are getting the same material. CFAs also increase the chance that teachers will discuss success, struggles, misconceptions, et cetera. I love this Teaching Channel video in that teachers are examining patterns of learning for students and how to react to those needs.

For those of you not yet graduated, this video will help you immensely as you enter Task 3 of the edTPA. Being able to analyze student data for next steps for instruction is HUGE. As many of you know, student teachers state-wide score the lowest on Task 3 (Assessment) of the edTPA. You need to be able to examine data, understand learning for individuals, groups, and the whole class. Additionally, you have to be able to consider next steps for instruction based on your analysis. Here’s the best part — if you really practice CFA with fidelity, your workload is lighter. You have a support team to collaborate with and to reflect upon the needs of your students, team-wide.

For further study, consult the PLC work of Richard and Rebecca DuFour. PLC stands for Professional Learning Communities (2010). PLC is not a program. It is not common planning time. A PLC is an “ongoing process in which educators work collaboratively in recurring cycles of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results for the students they serve” (p. 11). Really owning a PLC requires a collaborative culture with a focus on learning for all students. This means that you have to care about your students and the students in your colleagues’ classes. All students in “x” grade are your students.

At the University, two colleagues and I knew that it was essential for our students to learn an essential set of skills and knowledge. We designed an experience for all students that follows the same process across all three classes. While we aren’t fully immersed in the work of a PLC just quite yet, we are well on our way to a true change in culture. As our students move through the process, we evaluate data and respond accordingly. For us, the real value has been in assessing what can we do to improve student learning before they get to this part of the process.

While the entire scope of PLC work will not be covered here, I will attempt to explain the four essential questions teachers in a PLC need to consider.

Together you need to ask four questions:

  1. What do we expect our students to learn?
  2. How will we know they are learning?
  3. How will we respond when they don’t learn?
  4. How will we respond if they already know it?

Let’s take a look at each one.

1. What do we expect our students to learn?

As a team, you should be looking at the scope and sequence (curriculum map) for your district to understand who is meeting which standards when. That valuable map will give you direction to be able to ask yourself, “What do we expect our students to learn?” After you’ve looked at the curriculum map, you’ll also need to consider district goals. For example, I worked in a district that asked teachers to increase literacy strategies and reading opportunities across the curriculum. No doubt that district goal impacted my curriculum for the year. Now teachers have SLOs to factor as well. Since you can not cover all of the Common Core standards for your discipline and grade level in a year, you need to establish a set of essential standards that your whole team will cover together.

2. How will we know they are learning?

As a team, you should be designing common formative and summative assessments to ensure that your students across the grade level are receiving a guaranteed curriculum. This is easy to say, but challenging to actually do. In ten years I’ve only worked on two teams where this was an expectation, and those two teams were so much stronger than any other team I’ve joined. As a team, you need to be able to discuss,

  • Formative assessments
  • Summative assessments
  • Assessment data

You also need to be able to have conversations around methods of teaching. Each person comes to the team with strengths and weaknesses. As  we all know, your college prepatory classes are not going to provide you with everything you need to teach. Much of what you do, will be learned on the job or with further study. College provides you with the foundations. Likewise, your colleagues will have gaps. As you start looking at student data, you might notice that your students are not scoring as well in one area, but your colleague’s are scoring quite well. If that’s the case, then it’s your responsibility, as a professional, to analyze how your methods could be improved. That might mean asking your colleague for help or for the opportunity to observe. Learn from one another. If it works, consider team teaching until you adopt your colleagues’ methods. Some teachers might suggest just swapping classes for that unit so the stronger teacher can teach that content, but that’s not really making the team better.

Once you’ve established a common set of assessments, similar and effective teaching strategies, and the willingness to examine and analyze assessment data, you can truly measure learning.

3. How will we respond when they don’t learn?

Differentiation and interventions can be exhausting. Ten years ago, most teachers that I worked with (myself included) struggled with interventions as RTI hadn’t become common practice.

After looking at data, you might notice that some students are not progressing as you’d expect. Now what? You’ll need to reteach, but also consider adjusting the content, process, or product (Tomlinson, 1999).

Do students need…

  • Leveled materials
  • Graphic organizers
  • Guided reading
  • Hands-on opportunities
  • Audio support
  • Additional time

Create a game plan for students that are not learning the material. Lean on the RTI process to ensure that your students will obtain another opportunity to learn.

4. How will we respond if they already know it?

Ah, I remember these days well. In my early years, I remember having a student or two that already read the book we were covering in class. I, unfortunately, remember saying, “Great! This will be easy for you.” Now I look back, ashamed. As I gained experience and understanding, I felt comfortable swapping out learning opportunities for something more appropriate. Really, if you offer choice with your learning opportunities, students will end up directing themselves most of the time. For example, this semester I had two students in a team creating a green screen movie. One student already had experience making a green screen project, but since I left the parameters flexible, aside from the rubric, I knew the team would design a video more appropriate. Not only did the team include advanced features, they ended up including their project in a video tutorial on how to do green screening using Do Ink’s “Green Screen” iPad app. To top it off, the team shared their project on Google+ and Do Ink eventually picked it up and shared it with thousands. Had I designed a rigid project, there is a good chance, I would never have seen that product. Try to give as much choice as possible so students with higher skills can run with your projects.

For students that already know the material you are covering, consider…

  • independent projects that ask for a deeper dive
  • more challenging books
  • open-ended writing opportunities that allow for self-direction

Consider allowing students that already know the material the opportunity to create a screencast demonstrating their knowledge using the iPad app, “Explain Everything” with the intention of publishing that screencast to Youtube. Many times students can explain material in a way that you might not, and your students will love sharing their knowledge with the world.

As you enter the profession, be sure to research Professional Learning Communities. This culture shift, this mindset, this way-of-doing-business is so important to ensure learning for all students.


DuFour, R. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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