Blogger's Note: Earlier this week, I sent out this Tweet about the role that common assessments play in a professional learning community:
Without common assessments, everything else about the professional learning community model is just window dressing.#atplc
— Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) May 27, 2012
My buddy Matt Townsley — an assessment junkie who works in a district level leadership role — asked me yesterday if I'd ever written more about common assessments as a foundational element of learning communities.
His request reminded me of a bit that I wrote years ago for another blog about the impact that writing common assessments had on my original professional learning team. Figured y'all might dig it, so I'm sharing it here.
Hope it helps,
Are you ready to be shocked?
Until I started to work on a collaborative team, I hadn't even really looked at the standards for the subjects that I was teaching.
Instead, I taught topics that I knew other teachers in my subject area were teaching – or that were listed in my set of classroom textbooks.
And I'm supposedly an "accomplished teacher?!"
That all changed when I began working in a school built on professional learning community concepts.
You see, one of the only requirements that our first principal had for our learning teams was that we had to develop common assessments that would be delivered in each of our classrooms.
He didn’t care how long they were. He didn’t care what kinds of questions we planned to ask. He didn’t care when we administered the assessments or how we planned to share results with parents and students.
He just expected us to write our assessments together, to deliver them at ABOUT the same time, and to look at the results of the assessments in one of our regularly scheduled team meetings.
That simple requirement forced our team to have conversations with peers that we’d never had before.
We started by wrestling over just what content really WAS essential for students to master – standardizing the implemented curriculum across our hallway and pushing our team to look carefully at the state standards for our subjects in ways we'd never done before!
What we discovered was nothing short of embarrassing, y’all: The lessons we'd been teaching for years didn't directly fit the standards defined by our state.
Take our approach to introducing our sixth graders to Ancient Greece and Rome.
Knowing that dudes with lightening bolts and rivers of fire capture the imagination of 11-year olds in a way that few subjects can, we LOVED our Ancient Worlds unit enough to spend TEN WEEKS on it every year.
We made temples, ran mock debates, practiced Socratic seminars, and read myths day after day – after day after day after day and after day. Heck, I'm pretty sure that I even threw on a toga once or twice and I HATE togas.
Now, I’m sure that our kids ENJOYED our Greecefest – and I'm also sure that they learned tons of essential standards and skills both in language arts and social studies.
But after looking closely at our standards, we realized that were burning nearly 50 instructional days on the TWO history objectives in our social studies curriculum while simultaneously glossing over the FORTY-ONE geographical objectives – things like studying the impact that the movement of people has on cultures and the links between economic resources and quality of life – that our students were supposed to learn before the end of sixth grade.
Crazy, isn’t it?
Making careful choices about what to teach – which many people assume plays a primary role in every teacher's preparation or professional experiences – came only when our professional learning team began to develop common assessments together.
Common formative assessments also pushed our team into meaningful conversations about what mastery looked like – something that teachers never have to consider while working in traditional buildings where success is defined by the standards of individual practitioners rather than by an external set of expectations informed by multiple perspectives.
Today, conversations about what mastery looks like happen all the time on my learning team – and while they are challenging discussions that we don't always look forward to, they are incredibly important.
By coming up with common definitions of mastery, we are increasing our collective assessment capacity.
What’s more, carefully considering what excellence looks like through the lenses of collaborative peers has made all of the members of my learning team more reliable judges of student performance as individuals, too.
Now don't get me wrong: My learning team still struggles to develop assessments that we think are reliable measures of student performance.
The simple truth is that we have had little training in how to craft assessments that are tied to state standards AND appropriate for the skills that we are attempting to measure.
We know we're supposed to deconstruct standards, but we don't have the time in our day to learn how. We know that certain skills and behaviors are best measured by performance tasks, but we don't know which ones they are.
We know that there are certain processes for identifying trends and drawing conclusions from collected data, but we don't have the tools to sort through the mountains of data that our common assessments generate.
In many ways, we’re STILL an assessment nightmare!
But the process of developing common assessments has benefited our students immensely because the instruction that we're delivering today is directly connected to state standards.
What’s more, we continue to have regular conversations about what students should know and be able to do – and about how we will know when those skills have been mastered.
In the end, those conversations are the "value-added" product of teacher teams collaborating around common assessments.
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