Saturday / May 25

Common Formative Assessment: What’s Missing in the Middle?

common formative assessment

With new and more rigorous standards, school systems must build or buy new assessments to provide teachers with tools to assess student learning. In the best of systems, the assessments are aligned to Priority Standards and a vertical articulation of assessments is determined K-12. Such tools are critical for success and alignment, but what’s missing?

While it is critical to have aligned assessments in a school system, teachers often still struggle with students reaching proficiency. We regularly hear, “The end-of-unit assessment was too hard; my students just weren’t ready.” What we may have been missing all along is a deep understanding of the learning progressions and formative assessment measures needed to help students reach the targeted standards. Have we given teachers time enough to determine the learning progressions, to eliminate extraneous content, and to build a streamlined, focused approach to instruction with on-going, embedded formative assessments? Have we taken the time to ensure that students understand both the learning intentions and what it will take to be successful in reaching them?

In Common Formative Assessments 2.0, Larry Ainsworth addresses this critical need. He shares the analogy of a highway of aligned assessments, with some that are more formal such as the pre- and post-unit assessments, and others that are on-going, informal assessments aligned to the learning progressions embedded in the standards. Constructing this “aligned assessment highway” provides students and teachers with a clear roadmap to success. Think for a moment about taking an actual road trip. We don’t need to know only where to start and finish. We need landmarks and signposts to guide us during the journey. Having these will mean the difference between making it to the destination or finding ourselves stuck somewhere along the way.

Similarly, the CFA pre- and post- unit assessments serve as orientation points that teacher teams use to plan their trip. To ensure that the journey will be a success, teachers need time to develop clear learning intentions, discover and plan the learning progressions along the way, establish clear criteria for success with students that will accelerate learning, and generate simple, but meaningful formative progress checks. With these components clearly in place, teachers and students can engage in a powerful feedback exchange throughout the journey. Students can then monitor their progress toward the learning intentions, using the success criteria, while teachers work to adjust their instruction based on student feedback and performance.

We know that in every system, there are skillful and passionate teachers already putting these powerful practices in place. However, we must explore if this is happening system-wide. Have we taken the time to allow teachers to collaborate around what happens between the pre- and post-unit assessments? If not, might this be the time to collaboratively plan the actual journey instead of just determining the end destination?


Written by

Kara Vandas is an educator at heart and has an enduring passion for learning and supporting and fostering learning for others. She began her career in education at a private school for high-need and at-risk youth. Her desire was to enable students to see and realize their true potential. She has worked in K-12 education for over 15 years with a focus in instruction, curriculum design, using data to drive instruction, science education, learning environments, formative assessment, Visible Learning, and more. She is the co-author of Partnering With Students.

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