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Sunday / July 22

The Power of Common Formative Assessment 2.0™—Learning Progressions & Quick Progress Checks

Part 1: Developing Learning Progressions

There are many differences between elementary and secondary teachers in terms of the challenges they face in supporting their students to learn at the highest levels.

Elementary Teachers Diagnose—Secondary Teachers Prescribe

Elementary teachers face different challenges than their secondary counterparts. For example, they often have fewer students on their overall load—But they have responsibility to teach (and assess) multiple subjects (English Language Arts, Math, Science, etc.). Different challenges often give rise to teachers developing different skill sets. Elementary teachers (as a whole) do a better job than middle and high school teachers in diagnosing student learning gaps. Through some aspects of their pre-service pedagogy training as well as the natural make up of the structure in which they teach, primary teachers are usually more efficient in detecting student misconceptions and gaps in learning. They more often focus their ongoing formative assessment practices in determining where specific foundational student learning gaps exist and act decisively to address these before moving on. They realize that if they don’t tackle a student’s learning gap with blending sounds they will never help them with the next aspect phonemic awareness towards reading proficiently.

Middle & high school teachers often are faced with different challenges in their classroom and school structures. They often have much larger numbers of students on their caseload—and while some do have multiple course preparations –they often have specialized expertise in teaching one specific subject matter. Also, secondary teachers often are faced with the task of working with students who have much larger learning gaps compared to their peers that have developed over years of schooling. They are faced with tighter time lines for helping students reach mastery of essential learning goals in the curriculum.

For example, in any 9th grade classroom for example, teachers could expect to find (at least some) students who are reading & have skill levels close to 11th & 12th grade students sitting next to (at least some) students who are closer to 5th grade levels. This presents a huge challenge with the pressure of expected curriculum to be taught and mastered within a structured time frame—as well as seeing students for one class period per day. With that said, where secondary teachers fall short is that we are more inclined to prescribe treatment—to assign tasks and activities for students to meet curricular objectives before we really look at the current learning needs of the patient. (I can say personally as a former high school biology teacher I fell short in searching first for current student learning needs before I prescribed medicine in the form of tasks and activities.) Sometimes this is due to teachers having real or perceived unrealistic curricular demands and limited resources of time.  Sometimes this is also due to a lack of planning out expected learning progressions as a guide to assessment driving instruction.

Common Formative Assessment 2.0—Learning Progressions & Quick Progress Checks

In his Common Formative Assessment 2.0™ Process, Larry Ainsworth emphasizes that quality assessment design must include teachers and teacher-teams determining what prerequisite knowledge and skills students must acquire, on some incremental basis, before they move to more advanced levels of concept application mastery.

Learning progressions are the sequential building blocks of instruction necessary for students to understand the larger learning intentions of the unit. They provide the instructional pathway students need to traverse in order to arrive at the learning destination. It may be helpful to think of learning progressions as the daily “chunks” of instruction that incrementally build student understanding over time toward a more complex learning outcome. (Ainsworth, 2015, p.15).

When applying the CFA 2.0™ framework, teams develop their post Common Formative Assessment drafts—based on targeting their assessment items and questions to appropriate rigor levels of unwrapped concepts & skills of priority standards for the unit. Where many teachers and collaborative teams fall short in their overall assessment design and implementation is they stop here—and fail to plan and map out the expected learning paths most students will follow towards intended end of unit outcomes. This can often inhibit teachers, especially at the secondary level, to miss out on how they plan the sequence of lessons, activities, and student tasks, as well as where to look for evidence of student learning. When teachers consider and map out expected learning progressions to for students to meet end of unit targets, they can more effectively begin to diagnose student learning gaps & decisively intervene during the unit of instruction through to help all students reach mastery of essential objectives.

Nagel_CFA Process

In CFA 2.0™, Larry ties together the work of W. James Popham & Margaret Heritage for effective use of learning progressions as part of the overall assessment design.  Popham notes in Transformative Assessment, “To make formative assessment function most effectively, it is almost always necessary for teachers to employ learning progressions as the frameworks by which they can identify appropriate occasions for assessment-informed adjustment decisions” (2008, ASCD, p. 29).

Ainsworth specifically cites Popham in providing teachers a four-step path in determining learning progressions:

Step 1: Acquire an understanding of the targeted curricular aim: What is the focus and priority (standard) concepts and skills for the unit?

Step 2: Identify all requisite subs kills and bodies of enabling knowledge:  What are the “essential” need-to-knows for students during the unit—Not the “would-be-nice-to-knows”? (Popham, 2008, p. 37)

Step 3: Determine if it is possible to measure how students are developing in their learning of essential building blocks: How will I (and my collaborative team/peers) be able to gather evidence of student learning of these essential learning progressions?

Step 4: Arrange building blocks in an instructionally defensible sequence: How can this drive instructional planning in a manner than allows for effective and on-going classroom formative assessment that makes sense?

These four steps can help support all teachers in planning their targeted instructional sequence once they have developed their post-CFA to better look for evidence of student learning as well as where critical learning gaps exist.

Please look for part two of this post in the coming days: How teachers can use quick progress checks as part of their quality CFA 2.0™ assessment design process with specific examples.


Ainsworth, L & Viegut, D. (2015). CFA 2.0: How Teacher Teams Intentionally Align

Standards, Instruction, and Assessment.  Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA

Popham, W. J. (2008). Transformative Assessment. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

Written by

Dave Nagel is an international educational consultant and researcher. His educational career started as a middle school science and high school biology teacher. His administrative experiences involved being a middle school assistant principal, high school associate principal, and director of extended day and credit recovery programs. In his former district, Dave was instrumental in implementing power standards and performance assessments. He was honored numerous times as a “Senior Choice” winner, with graduating seniors selecting him as someone who dramatically affected their life in a positive way.

Dave has been a national and international presenter and consultant to schools for over 10 years. Using his experience and expertise, he has presented and helped schools, from pre-K through Grade 12, implement effective practices leading to gains in student achievement. His main focus when working with schools has revolved around assessment, instruction, leadership, and effective collaboration. He has worked specifically with schools in implementing the following topics: prioritizing standards, common formative assessments, building authentic performance tasks, effective use of scoring guides, data teams, rigorous curriculum design, and effective grading practices.

Dave is the author of Effective Grading Practices for Secondary Teachers.


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