Common formative assessments or CFAs, well designed and unwrapped so they are designed to measure the types of understanding that we want students to master, are an invaluable contributor to RTI data. When collaboratively created or curated, collaboratively administered, and collaboratively analyzed to inform instruction, they can be among the most powerful initiatives a school can embrace.
“Assessment for learning . . . when done well . . . is one of the most powerful, high-leverage strategies for improving student learning that we know of. Educators collectively at the district and school levels become more skilled and focused at assessing, disaggregating, and using student achievement as a tool for ongoing improvement.” (Fullan, 2006, p. 71).
“Effective use of formative assessment, developed through teacher learning communities, promises not only the largest potential gains in student achievement but also a process for affordable teacher professional development.” (Wiliam & Thompson, 2007, p. 67)
“Studies have demonstrated assessments for learning rivals one-on-one tutoring in its effectiveness, and that the use of assessment particularly benefits low-achieving students.” (Stiggins, 2007, p. 27)
We are not exaggerating when we submit that CFAs are proven tools that can dramatically improve student learning. While educators may agree with this sentiment, and while research supports this assertion, how do CFAs support RTI?
Universal screening measures can help schools predict students who lack foundational prerequisite skills, and they can proactively prevent students beginning a school year without support plans in place. We also described how pre-assessments administered before the beginning of units can help schools to predict which students lack immediate prerequisite skills, allowing us to proactively preteach students before, and at the beginning of, new units.
Universal screening measures and pre-assessments may not, however, predict which students may experience difficulties mastering new content within new units. Benjamin Bloom established the concept of Mastery Learning to anticipate these occurrences. We can be prepared to meet the needs of students who experience difficulties within units, and we can predict that there will be such students.
CFAs, both those administered during and at the conclusion of units, can answer three critical questions when collaboratively analyzed by teacher teams:
Who has not yet learned the prioritized standards within the unit?
For what specific standards, and skills within these standards, must the teacher devote more time and employ different approaches?
Which teacher on the team has had more relative success with these standards and skills?
If there is not a teacher on the team who has had more success, are there teachers within the broader school system who we can contact?
Or, what external resources, strategies, or professional development can we access?
Without CFAs, administered and analyzed through teacher teams, we lack the timely and specific evidence we need to inform these targeted supports.
We cannot overstate this critically important point: While assessment for learning and assessment as learning are powerful levers for improving dramatically improving student achievement, they will occur without greater focus. While screening, pre-assessments, and common formative assessments are research-based to improve and deepen all students’ learning, they take time. We will not have the time if we continue to race through the curriculum – if we do not focus on student mastery of the most highly prioritized content – if we do not collaboratively plan for a guaranteed, viable curriculum.
Well-written, well-designed assessments more accurately identify students who need assistance and why they need the assistance. When analyzed well, they validate Tier 1 supports for most students and provide the details needed to provide timely reteaching to others.