Thursday, December 30, 2010

Common Assessments: Too Common and Not Truly Assessing

I've questioned the ideas behind PLCs for some time. Currently I've been mulling over the idea of common assessments. This year our school has a focus on common assessments and my team has been using them in math once a quarter. It's got me thinking about the purpose of these assessments.

Unless I am mistaken, common assessments are often used for assessing students. As surprising as it may sound, I don't think that's an appropriate use for them.

A lot can be learned from a common assessment, but it should not be used to judge the students. Assuming that every student in a grade level is ready for an assessment at the same time, or that they should all be assessed in exactly the same way, makes no sense. At least not if we really want to assess their understanding.

When we look at our common assessments we learn about misconceptions or language gaps our students have that we can address to help them understand the concept. We identify flaws in the assessment in order to improve it for the future. Sometimes we find that one teacher was really successful with a concept and should share his/her strategies.

But we don't learn much about what our students understand. There are infinitely better ways to do that than a common assessment.

It's possible I am completely misunderstanding the intention of common assessments or how they are frequently used.


Tyson said...

You just reminded me that I have a stack of common assessments (my district has actually begun calling them benchmark assessments) that need to be graded. We started PLCs this year and our focus also seems to be on discussing these common assessments (besides establishing norms). I think "one teacher was really successful with a concept and should share his/her strategies" is a major purpose, but most of our conversations seem to devolve into identifying (complaining) about the flaws in the assessment. Learning about our students is supposed to be another purpose, but like you, I think there are better ways.

Part of the problem is forcing a test to serve too many purposes. A test can usually only be designed to serve one purpose well. When you try to design a test to serve too many purposes, the quality declines.

Jessica Evans said...

I found your blog as I was reading on Really Good Stuff and this post caught my attention. My school has started PLCs this year and we are also working on developing common assessments for math once a quarter. One test can not assess a student's complete learning - it can show you their understanding for that day.

I have included the grades for these tests in my gradebook, but at the end of the quarter I go back and adjust any grades that just don't fit. Some kids will never be test takers and some will show understanding in speaking with them and seeing them work, but will have much larger gaps when it comes to writing their mathematical understanding.

I am still learning how to balance the assessments and decide what they are truly assessing, but at least for now my first grade team of 9 teachers have been able to work to a common goal of instruction. I think that has been the biggest result - common instruction which has been adapted for each teacher's style and students' readiness. And for that I think the assessments have really paid off.

Jenny said...

tspraul, Your point about a test trying to serve too many purposes is powerful. That might be worth a discussion in one of our upcoming team meetings.

Jessica, I'm thrilled to hear that these assessments have made a difference in your instruction across a grade level. I don't think we're there yet. I'll have to think more about why that is and how we move in that direction.