Common Assessments are the CORNERSTONE of #atplc Work, Y’all.

Blogger's Note:  Earlier this week, I sent out this Tweet about the role that common assessments play in a professional learning community:

My buddy Matt Townsley — an assessment junkie who works in a district level leadership roleasked 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,

Bill

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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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Related Radical Reads:

Writing Student Friendly Learning Goals

More on Student Friendly Learning Goals

Calling Out #atplc Nation

 

15 thoughts on “Common Assessments are the CORNERSTONE of #atplc Work, Y’all.

  1. khc

    Bill, by common assessments, do you mean ALL formative and ALL summative? My Language Arts team of eleven teachers has been mandated to do so. It seems VERY restrictive to me that every single formative and summative has to be exactly the same for all eleven teachers. (Simply from a time perspective, I don’t see how it will work. Eleven teachers having to agree on every single formative, in addition to summative!)

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    This may be heresy but I also dont necessarily believe that every
    student needs to learn the exact same thing. I am more interested in
    them learning skills that will allow them to independently learn
    whatever they choose to in the future.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Im down with this, Mike. I can certainly get behind the notion that skills matter at least as much — if not more — than content to todays kid.
    But that doesnt mean that teachers in your school CANT give common assessments. What if you focused on the best ways to develop collaborative problem solving in kids, developed a problem solving experience for your students to be involved in, and then assessed the impact of your practices by recording video of one student group working on the activity together.
    If you used a shared rubric to rate the mastery of collaborative problem solving skills and watched the videos together, youd have a common assessment.
    I think one of the instant reactions teachers have when they hear common assessment is to substitute content-driven multiple choice tests into the sentence. The simple fact is that common assessments can be ANYTHING that teams do together to measure/monitor the impact of their work.
    Any of this make sense?
    Bill

  3. Mike Kaechele

    Bill,
    I will concede that my experience with standardization was not done well.
    Here is a link to a video I made last year that summarizes my thoughts on personalization instead of standardization


    I also think of this cartoon every time I hear standardized assessment: http://d24w6bsrhbeh9d.cloudfront.net/photo/4239400_460s.jpg
    To answer your question about how we recognize what good teaching looks like. We are a PBL school so we all use that method (not saying that it is the only good method, but I do think that it is one good model). We have many discussions about how to implement that model and what seems to be working or not working with students.
    I would say that we are informally assessing our students learning non-stop and that seems more valuable to me than a standardized assessment.
    This may be heresy but I also don’t necessarily believe that every student needs to learn the exact same thing. I am more interested in them learning skills that will allow them to independently learn whatever they choose to in the future.
    BTW your blog is in my reader so I read all of your posts even if I don’t comment often 🙂

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Marsha asked:
    Is it more important to create that atmosphere where kids love coming to
    class and learning or cover all the standards? Or is it somewhere in
    the middle?
    Ya know Ive got to poke back a little at all this all stick together
    and march down the road in unison stuff!!!
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Heres the thing, Marsha: In a highly functioning PLC, the answers to your questions are generated by teachers, whatever they happen to be. Our common assessments CAN focus on higher order thinking skills instead of content if we want them to. In fact, my science team focused on metaphorical thinking and making connections between diverse content this year on our primary assessments.
    Or we can focus on the foundational content that kids will need to know in order to function in science classrooms as they move through schools.
    Or we can focus on making sure that kids are engaged and motivated and curious and interested.
    Or we can do a little of all of it.
    That should be the point of common assessments regardless of what school youre working in. TEAMS and TEACHERS — not district offices or federal departments of education — decide together based on their understanding of student strengths and weaknesses : (1). what they want students to know and be able to do, (2). how they will measure progress towards those essentials and (3). what they will do when kids struggle and/or succeed.
    I have no trouble marching down the road in unison under those circumstances because the road was chosen collaboratively by teachers.
    Im starting to think that the resistance teachers have to anything that suggests standardization is a matter of misunderstood definitions. Standardization when it is forced on educators from the outside is bad. Standardization when it is collaboratively defined and explored by teams of teachers working together is a good thing.
    Any of this make sense?
    Bill

  5. Dan McGuire

    “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!”
    Naiku http://www.naiku.net/ is a tool that enables PLCs to draw conclusions and identify trends. Naiku also provides teachers a way more easily personalize curriculum for students. Without the tools to do common assessments easily and effectively than can, indeed, be shackles.

  6. Dodie Ainslie

    This is one of those which comes first I think- A good PLC needs to be in place before groups can really have great discussions on teaching and learning. I’ve seen great things happen when teachers work together to create common assessments, but I can only imagine how much more could have happened if a true PLC was in place.
    Thanks for making me think today—

  7. Marsha

    I get the whole idea of matching time to curriculum emphasis.
    But what if it’s not about the curriculum emphasis? What if’s about the historical inquiry process and the bigger overarching ideas?
    Where are those in common assessments? I find that to be the most frustrating part of CA’s. Is the whole idea to then use this feedback to change the curriulum’s objectives into more of what we imagine that it should be? I get that too.
    I just wonder how successful we’ll be at doing that. And….in 10 years will your students remember the stuff you’re going to cover in the 50 standards you missed(and now will cover) better than the GreeceFest?
    Is it more important to create that atmosphere where kids love coming to class and learning or cover all the standards? Or is it somewhere in the middle?
    Ya know I’ve got to poke back a little at all this “all stick together and march down the road in unison” stuff!!!

  8. Matt Townsley

    Bill,
    Thank you for taking the time to post these thoughts on the Radical. I plan to share it with those in my local context as we move forward with common assessments.

  9. Bill Ferriter

    Mike wrote:
    Standardization is the opposite of this goal in my opinion.
    PLCs to me should help teachers support each other in good teaching
    methods. Standardized assessments can be shackles on teachers and
    students from trying different ways of learning (which is how I felt at
    my previous job where I was required to give standardized assessments
    for every unit)
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Hey Mike,
    First, good seeing you in this space! Its been awhile since weve crossed paths. Hope youre doing well.
    Second, I definitely get that many PLC schools and districts use common assessments to shackle teachers. Been there and done that myself.
    But those districts are wrong — plain and simple. Theyre implementing a good idea in a bad way. That shouldnt cheapen the idea. Instead, it should cheapen the district decision-makers who havent worked to understand just what a common assessment is SUPPOSED to be in an #atplc school.
    A few examples: Ive never worked in a MORE inventive and creative building than when I was working in the school that Im writing about in this post — which required teachers and teams to give common assessments for every unit. Our common assessments werent designed to shackle teachers into particular instructional practices.
    While we did agree in advance on the content and the skills that we were going to monitor in each unit — and while we did agree on ways that we were going to ask students to demonstrate mastery — we were all free to design our own lessons and to experiment with our own instructional practices. We shared what we were doing with one another, but teachers were never required to teach in the same way as their peers.
    That being said, we DID start to standardize some of the practices that we used on the hallway — but that standardization was all voluntary. When we saw the practices that other people were using — and the results that those practices were producing — it often made us more willing to rethink the practices that we had grown comfortable with over our careers.
    Again — no one required us to change what we were doing. The only requirements were that we (1). agree on what content and skills we were going to teach, (2). develop a shared method of measuring student progress towards mastery of those content and skills, and (3). look at the results that we gathered together.
    Let me ask you a quick question: If the goal in your building is to support each other in good teaching methods, how are you determining which teaching methods are good and bad? Couldnt common assessments help you to tease out the impact of practices?
    Im starting to think that the words standardize and standardization have been ruined in education. I wonder if the negative connotations tied to those words in this coercive accountability world have ruined them for educators. I only say that because the standardization Ive experienced as a member of a collaborative team studying practice together has all been teacher-driven AND rewarding.
    Any of this make sense?
    Bill

  10. Bill Ferriter

    John wrote:
    Where I find myself in slight disagreement is the cornerstone label. A
    culture of trust and shared values are the cornerstone of a PLC. If
    those arent happening, all else would fall into the category of window
    dressing.
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    Im with you, John. Maybe my title would read better if I called common assessments a fundamental pillar — implying that common assessments are only one critical element in building that shared vision and trust.
    I do think, however, that the process of building common assessments can provide teams and teachers — particularly teams that are struggling to figure out where to start with their collaborative work — with pretty powerful opportunities to talk about their shared values.
    Think about your argument that common assessments have to be something more than multiple choice tests. Thats DEFINITELY a values statement that many teams and teachers wouldnt even talk about if they didnt have to write common assessments — and it can lead teams and teachers into discussions about who they are and what they believe as a collective.
    For example, if multiple choice assessments arent all that valuable, doesnt that mean that the content that can be measured by multiple choice assessments isnt all that valuable too? And if that kind of content isnt valuable, what kind of content IS valuable?
    Those are COOL questions for teams to be wrestling with — and for many teams, that wrestling just wouldnt happen without the non-negotiable requirement that teams craft common assessments together. Sure, super motivated teams full of high-flyers can probably have those kinds of questions without ever needing common assessments — but the majority of the teams in our buildings arent full of high-flyers. For the other teams, crafting common assessments becomes a starting point for important conversations about what teams really do believe.
    Enjoying the conversation,
    Bill

  11. Janet Abercrombie

    We’ve been in the process of developing and using common assessments for almost ten years now. I wonder why it still feels “in progress.” Your post sheds some light on it.
    Common assessments involve:
    – intentional comparison of standards to instruction
    – aligned instructional outcomes
    – the creation of authentic, valid, and reliable common assessments
    – analysis of student work
    None of those things are easy!

  12. John T. Spencer

    I’m a fan of common assessment, if they are common. They need to be collaborative, authentic and based upon the wrestling democratically of what a particular standard means. They should not be mere multiple choice or, almost as bad, an assessment of the “product” attributes (Is it pretty? Is it creative?)
    Where I find myself in slight disagreement is the cornerstone label. A culture of trust and shared values are the cornerstone of a PLC. If those aren’t happening, all else would fall into the category of “window dressing.”

  13. Mike Kaechele

    I found this perspective surprising from you. I am not a fan of common assessments at all, admitting my bias here. To me this post mixes two issues: common assessments and standards based teaching.
    From your experience looking at common assessments led you to consider whether or not you were teaching to the state standards. But that is not the only way to get to that point. One, and I would argue I did this, could start by looking at standards and properly align to them without a PLC at all.
    My school does not use PLC terminology, but I feel like we have that kind of relationship as a staff.
    Our focus is on individualizing curriculum for student-centered learning and growing our school. We spent most of our time talking about how to hand over responsibility for learning over to students. Standardization is the opposite of this goal in my opinion.
    PLC’s to me should help teachers support each other in good teaching methods. Standardized assessments can be shackles on teachers and students from trying different ways of learning (which is how I felt at my previous job where I was required to give standardized assessments for every unit)>

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