Should #atplc Teams Develop EVERY Common Formative Assessment Together?

After reading my bit on the role that common assessments should play in an #atplc school, KHC stopped by and asked:

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.

My first reaction, KHC, is that common assessments are the least of your worries! 

There's just NO WAY that 11 teachers can collaborate with one another efficiently and effectively given the limited amount of time that we have for working together in schools.

Heck, I have a hard enough time coming to shared decisions with the THREE other teachers on my learning team.  I can't even imagine trying to work with TEN other teachers all at the same time. 

So PLEASE break your larger learning team apart into two smaller collaborative groups that meet with each other on a weekly basis

That doesn't mean you won't make SOME shared decisions as a whole group. 

Maybe you can spend staff development days together, brainstorming lists of essential knowledge and skills that ALL children need to learn.  Maybe you can have a few volunteer representatives meet monthly to ensure that there's some consensus and shared direction across the hallway. 

But regularly trying to meet with 11 people is a recipe for collaborative disaster.  No matter how great it sounds in theory, your meetings will be inefficient and ineffective on a good day and downright frustrating on a bad day.  You'll quit before you even get started.

As for which assessments should be common, the answer is simple:  EVERY summative task must be common. Common summative tasks help to ensure that EVERY student on the hallway is exposed to the same essential knowledge and skills.

They are a tangible manifestation of the answer to the first key question of a learning community — What DO we want students to know and be able to do? — and they serve as curriculum guides for teachers who need to make daily choices about what to teach. 

The process of developing common summative tasks also gives teams the opportunity to wrestle with core beliefs about curriculum and assessment together.  You'll quickly learn what individual teachers think is essential for kids to learn — a conversation that teachers almost always avoid in traditional schools.

If you do decide to divide your large learning team into two smaller groups, it is important for common summative assessments to be developed by the ENTIRE team.

Your summative assessments will serve as the common thread between your groups, ensuring that every child is being exposed to the same knowledge and skills.

Maybe a small group of representatives from each collaborative group can develop drafts of the summative tasks together before sharing them with the entire group.  Doing so would save all y'all time — and if you choose those representatives carefully, the final products they develop will probably need little revision even after they are reviewed by the entire team.

As far as common formative assessments go, I'm always troubled when learning teams work hard to develop large sets of predetermined formative tasks because they are forgetting what formative assessment is SUPPOSED to be all about. 

Formative assessment is designed to INFORM both teachers and students about progress towards mastering required curriculum.  When you're doing it right, formative assessment is an ongoing, natural part of classroom practice. 

A quick example:  We were working on developing hypotheses in class this week.  I wanted to get a sense for how well my students understood the key elements that go into writing testable questions.  So we looked at a few samples together.  Then, kids wrote a hypothesis for a lab we are about to start. 

At that point, I wanted to see where my kids stood in their understanding of hypotheses –  I needed some formative feedback before I could figure out what to do next instructionally — so I asked them to put their heads down and to show me on their hands using a scale of one to five how confident they were that their hypotheses were on the mark.

What I found surprised me:  The VAST majority of my kids rated themselves low on the scale — ones, twos or threes. 

I expected them to be far more confident after spending an entire class period looking at hypotheses, but I knew immediately that I'd need to try something new before my kids would be able to write testable questions on their own. 

Long story short: I used a simple strategy to monitor the progress my kids were making towards mastering a required skill and then I changed my plans based on the surprising feedback that I collected.


When teams work to define EVERY formative task ahead of time, they are focusing on PRODUCTS instead of PROCESSES. 

They're forgetting that formative assessment is a VERB — it's something that you DO.  Instead, they see formative assessment as a NOUN — something that you MAKE.

Sure, teams might agree upon a small set of common formative tasks that they ask students to complete along the way — but I'd rather see teams who care about formative assessment developing common sets of STRATEGIES for quickly gathering information about student progress. 

Doing so reminds everyone that the best formative assessment isn't scheduled.  It is a fluid part of our daily practice.

Does any of this make sense?


(*Author's Note: The noun/verb analogy I'm using here was inspired by Marc Prensky, who made a similar argument about educational technology here.)


Related Radical Reads:

Common Assessments are the CORNERSTONE of #atplc Work

Shareski's Right: My Students CAN Assess Themselves

Is REAL Formative Assessment Even Possible?



10 thoughts on “Should #atplc Teams Develop EVERY Common Formative Assessment Together?

  1. Jagkise

    Excellent! I was recently nearly stymied in coaching a new math teacher whose prep time was being consumed by team collaboration on writing fact-based “formative assessments” to cover every state standard when he needed to work on the kinds of daily assessments that inform instruction.

  2. Medahl

    Ok, after much thought, here are my thoughts on this…
    1. I like the idea of formative assessments not having to be common, however, help me understand how we can work as a PLC to gather “matching ” data to see the big picture, to make sure all students learning at high levels. Our PLC is made up of 7 K teachers (8 as for today) along with 3 specialist teachers. We look at data together to make sure our specialist teachers, especially, are getting to our neediest students. If the data isn’t common then how can we measure who needs the most help?
    2. You and I have talked about this a few times, and again I stated above our PLC includes 10 people. We are all in different places in our PLC journey. If we were able to split into 2 groups how could/would this be done to make sure we continue to move forward as a grade level and individually?
    3. We came up with our essencial concepts in reading, math, and writing last week as a grade level. Next, we are suppose to move to creating common formative assessments, if we didn’t do this, what could we do instead to continue our discussion/learning?
    4. Our summative assessments are handed down to us from Administration, some… ok most…. don’t relate to our enacted curriculum nor our essencial concepts but we have to do them because they are board approved and it is what we record on report cards along with cum files. If we didn’t create common formative assessments, what could we do to ensure our students were learning our essencial concepts?
    Thank you for challenging my thinking and helping me continue in my PLC journey!
    PS I mentioned you in my Twitter PD session last week. I had told you prior to your session a year ago in MN that I didn’t want you to think I was texting, but that I was Tweeting and you said “You are in charge of your own learning”. That has stuck with me ever sense, in every meeting I have been in!

  3. kelly hansen

    I love reading your posts, Bill, and I ALWAYS end up thinking and coming to more coherent thoughts during and after reading.
    One of the objections I have had to my districts mandated CFAs is that I don’t teach the same kids with the same learning styles under the same teacher as another teacher teaching the same content. My district has resorted to calling our quarterly Benchmark tests the District CFAs. Not at all formative, I would think, since the tests are created by the district and based on the district pacing guide. I like what Mike F. has written, calling them “interim” assessments.
    One way that my curriculum partner and I did do CFA in the past was to select a set of questions from Study Island and create a benchmark that all of our 7th graders took. This was a pretty good tool to let us know what areas we needed to work on and where his and my strengths differed. We considered swapping classes for particular lessons so the students would benefit from those strengths, but were unable to accomplish that (he took an AP placement at another school, so I ended up, basically, teaching the whole 7th grade for the last quarter.) I know there are other sites like Study Island that would allow KHC and her 10 teammates to create a CFA that would be both formative and useful to all 11 members.
    Thanks for allowing me to contribute.

  4. Fisher1000

    @Brett I like that micro/macro spin on things. Good wording…
    As for the Common Formative assessments; I wonder if teachers are getting them confused with Common Interim Assessments? The formative should drive in-the-moment instruction, while the interim assesses a block of priority standards every 8-10 weeks, with subsequent assessments re-examining previously taught priority standards. (Those priorities come from previously known test items in years past, leverage, endurance, or readiness.)
    The most important thing though, I think, is the conversation. I agree that consensus on common formative assessments for 11 teachers would be difficult, but they should be talking enough so that what they may create individually isn’t vastly different. The collaborative and communicative are highly valued in the modern classroom and teachers should be the model for those crucial modern skills for their students.
    -Mike Fisher

  5. BGruetzmacher

    Bill @plugusin
    Your thoughts make total sense, but I also belief that good solid learning objectives can be difficult to craft and that the PLC can create them together. I just know that time is limited and the more people create together is for their benefit. But getting back to to your point, the PLC needs to focus on the macro and the individual teachers need to deal with the micro.

  6. Bill Ferriter

    Brett wrote:
    Unless the assessments are common the daily objectives and standards being taught will be all over the place.
    – – – – – – –
    Hey Brett,
    Definitely agree that common assessments help to ensure that all kids are being exposed to the same essential content — but in my mind, that’s the job of a common summative assessment.
    And personally, I don’t ever want DAILY objectives and instruction to automatically be the same on any learning team.
    Doing so prioritizes content over kids.
    Teaching the same objective becomes more important than teaching the objectives that your kids actually need to master.
    Finally, while the end result of any unit of instruction on a PLC should be kids learning the same essential content and skills — the answer to the first key question of a PLC IS, after all, What Do We Want Students to Know and Be Able to Do — the goal of a PLC isn’t to standardize the day-to-day instruction of teachers.
    If it were, I’d quit.
    You see, like any professional, I’m motivated to experiment with my practice and my craft. I need the professional flexibility to do that within a PLC or I’m out.
    I see summative assessments as tools for providing structure and direction for a learning team, but I firmly believe there needs to be autonomy within the structure that those assessments set.
    Autonomy places our kids at the forefront of the decisions that we make for our classrooms.
    Autonomy encourages us to experiment and to try new things.
    Any of this make sense?

  7. Matt Townsley

    You said, “Thinking about ‘formative assessment’ as a process — a set of strategies — used to gather information on student progress towards the mastery of essential skills reminds teachers that they SHOULD ALWAYS be looking to gather information about whether their practices are making a difference.”
    I couldn’t agree more!
    “‘Summative assessments’ in my thinking are the tasks that teams agree on at the beginning of a unit of instruction. They provide the comparison data that is then used to determine the practices that are making the greatest impact on student learning. They also serve as a guide for instruction.”
    If they also serve as a guide for (future) instruction, then I think we’d both agree they’re actually formative in nature, which brings us to your point that I think sums it all up:
    “I think the words ‘formative’ and ‘summative’ are actually the stumbling block in the whole conversation — and I’d argue they should be axed completely from PLC conversations.”
    I really like the title of Jason’s blog ( I’m guessing somebody has written about it somewhere else in the blogosphere, but an “always formative” approach doesn’t seem to exist in the mainline education journals and books I read. They’re instead sifting through the differences between summative and formative.
    In summary, I agree with the majority of your points here, Bill. Thanks for taking the time to clear it up for me (and maybe others, too?)!

  8. BGruetzmacher

    Bill @plugusin
    Once again you gave us something to wrestle with in our educational minds. When I think about common assessment whether they are formative or summative I believe that they are critical in terms of a check and balance system for a guaranteed and viable curriculum. Unless the assessments are common the daily objectives and standards being taught will be all over the place.
    Just my thoughts. Take care.

  9. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Matt,
    I think the #180ness of the conversation has to do with wrestling with the terms ‘formative’ and ‘summative.’
    In my thinking ‘formative assessment’ are the regular steps that teachers take to gather information about what their kids know on a day in and day out basis.
    When ALL of that work is predetermined — when teams develop weekly or bi-weekly tasks that they use as ‘formative assessments’ — teachers STOP thinking about learning on a daily basis.
    Thinking about ‘formative assessment’ as a process — a set of strategies — used to gather information on student progress towards the mastery of essential skills reminds teachers that they SHOULD ALWAYS be looking to gather information about whether their practices are making a difference.
    ‘Summative assessments’ in my thinking are the tasks that teams agree on at the beginning of a unit of instruction. They provide the comparison data that is then used to determine the practices that are making the greatest impact on student learning. They also serve as a guide for instruction.
    I think the words ‘formative’ and ‘summative’ are actually the stumbling block in the whole conversation — and I’d argue they should be axed completely from PLC conversations.
    Heck, even if you look at the DuFour bit that you shared in your comment, I see evidence of both ‘formative’ and ‘summative’ assessment.
    Look specifically at bullet one and two — those sound to me like the role that summative tasks play on a learning team. And they’re referred to as “common assessments” instead of “common formative assessments” in the piece.
    The last paragraph of Rick’s bit also talks about the fact that not every assessment should be a common assessment — that teachers should be regularly monitoring progress in their classrooms.
    I think that’s the common ground between what Rick has written and what I’m thinking here.
    Any of this make sense?
    PS: Remember — this question came from a person working with ELEVEN partners. Can you even imagine trying to agree on common formative assessments — something that should be happening almost daily in the classroom — with eleven other people?
    PPS: As far as the use of the word formative in my own bit goes, I’ll have to go back and take a look at how I used it. If I said formative, it’s definitely not what I meant!
    But it could also be evidence of the evolution of my thinking, too. I’ll openly admit that I wrestle with what ‘formative’ and ‘summative’ means — and my thinking has changed over time.

  10. Matt Townsley

    Hey Bill,
    In all of my #atplc reading, I’ve seen references to the importance of common formative assessments. i.e.
    In the previous post you linked to (“Common Assessments are the cornerstone…”), you explained how common FORMATIVE assessments were important to you and your team… Here’s a snippet:
    “Common formative assessments also pushed our team into meaningful conversations about what mastery looked like”
    After I read your post above, I’m seeing a bit of a 180.

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