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On the value of common assessments

Assessment and Pedagogy


After seeing the explosion of interest when George Couros wrote about common assessments this past weekend, I thought there would be value in trying to describe how common assessments fit into my teaching practice and philosophy. While they are something that I take for granted as being part of good teaching practice, I realize that others might have different experiences and views.

I’m not going to get into the established literature, but you can start with ‘The Case for Common Formative Assessments‘ if you want to read more. You will recognize a lot of what I say as coming from Dylan Wiliam, Ken O’Connor, and Columbia’s Reading and Writing Project.

I slip in and out of “I” and “we” in this piece because I do not want to speak on behalf of those I work with or my institution (*opinions my own), but do want to acknowledge that I am not making this happen alone. In fact, that would be impossible.

As a quick orientation to my pedagogical context, I teach English in a middle school and our classes are not streamed. We are an inclusive international school, and we have students in learning support as well as many who are learning English. However, only students in the highest level of ELD support join in the mainstream English class. As a department, we have very few graded assessments and focus our effort on formative assessment. We provide students with feedback throughout the writing process and allow students to re-write assignments if it will benefit their learning. I’m under no pressure to teach to a test.

Do common assessments mean ‘giving the same test’?


No. It means planning instruction and assessments across a department or grade level and is part of ‘planning with the end in mind’, ‘backwards planning’, or just simply ‘planning’. For example, suppose that we want students to learn how to write a literary analysis essay and develop the skill of using theory as a lens to read the word and world. We then plan on and agree what shape that assessment will take and how we will get there.

As a team of teachers, it means committing to certain formative assessments, but most importantly, to the same summative assessment. But there’s no reason why teachers can’t plan modified versions of the assessment for certain students or groups of students as part of the process. I wouldn’t expect someone who is just learning English to write the same essay everyone else is.

There’s also plenty of room for individual teachers to bring their own passions, interests, and talents to class. It is not about moving in lock step. If we are assessing students on their ability to develop character in a short piece of writing, we might all use different examples as we teach students. While we might all read Alice Munro, we might then draw on our own expertise and show students examples of authors that speak to us as individual teachers (and encourage kids to find authors that speak to them too, of course).

What we assess depends on what we teach. If I assess students on their ability to speak fluently without a lot of ‘uhms’, then I teach it first. Or, if I teach narrative writing and give students the option of making a podcast, then I wouldn’t grade them on the technical quality of the podcast, but on the narrative writing. That’s not to say I wouldn’t give them feedback or help them with the technical aspects of the podcast, but having a common assessment helps to keep me focused on only grading what I teach.

Do common assessments preclude differentiation?


Not at all. Designing the assessment as a team opens up conversations about differentiation. This is the time to go ask learning support what they think. We also talk with librarians to ask for help selecting books or planning lessons on research skills. In fact, the design process brings together our collective expertise to make sure that each of us has strategies in place to help every student. Let me give you a specific example of two assessments.

In one unit, we use Chimamanda Ngozi Adhichie’s The Danger of a Single Story to help frame a unit about power. We read several short stories together and study author’s craft as it connects with larger thematic ideas. Students have a wide choice of novels to read. We also learn research and critical media analysis skills. As summatives, we are looking for a piece of creative writing that develops a character using techniques we have learned and reflecting an important theme related to power. We are also looking for an analytical essay where students write a thematic analysis about one or more of the works they have studied using Adichie to frame their analysis.

Agreeing on common summatives is only the start of planning common assessments. Here are some ways that we explicitly think about differentiation during the design process:

  • Range of choice in reading: Does our selection of books speak to a wide range of interests and represent a wide range of voices? Can students at different reading levels find what’s right for them? Do we have enough challenging books to help push students?
  • Range of choice in writing: Are we teaching important and relevant forms of writing? Do we allow students enough choice within the constraints of the assessment?
  • Support: What formative assessments will we use along the way to make sure that students are learning the skills and concepts we teach? What small-group lessons do we have planned to target students who struggle in particular areas? Do we have resources that students can access to work ahead or go back and review? Do we have an annotated exemplar as a model to help students understand what we are learning?
  • Grading: How will we break down the assignment into separate criteria so that we don’t confuse grading sentence structure with grading the quality of the argument? Do we have clear rubrics that students can use to self-assess along the way?


Who benefits from common assessments?


Everyone. Common assessments are not an attempt to standardize our students, but rather a part of thinking through how equitable our classrooms and pedagogies are. I’m going to slightly disagree with Bill Ferriter’s comment that “Common assessments to me aren’t about the students at all.” When teachers consider the needs of everyone when they plan together and moderate assessments, then all students benefit.

Can’t we just aim for “common understandings”?


Couros suggests that we should look to ‘common understandings’ to allow for multiple pathways for students to show what they understand. I am probably alone on this, but I think that appealing to ‘understandings’ just muddies the waters by making it seem like ‘understandings’ are an entity that floats free of specific performances and artifacts. I don’t believe that essays, sculptures, and poetry could all be evidence of some thing called an ‘understanding’. This is not an argument against using different mediums, or an attempt to elevate one over the other, but a recognition that real mastery and creativity depends on being intimately familiar with a medium and skilled in its use.

I love to have students make creative responses to books they have read. A beautiful black canvas with paper figures constructed out of lines from Romeo and Juliet sits behind my desk. But I value that work on its own terms and don’t think it can replace an essay anymore than I think an essay can replace a cello solo or glass blowing. All of these performances can speak to a similar theme, and we can encourage a diversity in expression without rationalizing it by appealing to ‘understandings’.

This may seem like a tangent, but it speaks to an important part of common assessments. If the common assessment is going to take the form of a poem, it’s because I’m teaching something about poetic form. Asking kids to express their understanding of feminism through any medium they choose – a poem, song, video, painting, or scientific study – allows for choice and has a place, but this can too easily float free of teaching and learning specific skills. I would simply make room for more free-ranging acts of expression that don’t need to be graded, which is more enjoyable for everyone and a story for another time.

Artwork by a former student

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