Assessment in a PLC: Affirmations and Discoveries

by | Jul 8, 2019

Attendees at the Annual International PLC at Work Summit, Brisbane, Australia 2018Attendees at the Annual International PLC at Work Summit, Brisbane, Australia 2018

Tim Brown has 28 years of experience in education. As a principal of elementary, middle and high-schools in Missouri, he has transformed his schools using the Professional Learning Community at Work® process. He now shares that success with educators around the world and will be speaking at the 2nd Annual International Summit on PLC at Work® Melbourne, 29–30 August 2019.

Let me start by saying that my journey in the Professional Learning Community at Work process has been filled with a host of affirmations and discoveries. Affirmations have been those things that naturally occur when educators work collaboratively. I would not have been asked to contribute to this magazine had I not witnessed first-hand the impact that a collaborative culture has on student learning. Discoveries have been those beliefs and practices that occur as our consciousness is raised and we realise that changes are required. It is fascinating how these collective beliefs seem to unfold and evolve. I have seen changes in long-held assumptions, beliefs, structures, methods, and practices across the country as schools engage in the PLC at Work process. When a staff works toward the mission of all students succeeding, they develop strategies that support principles of learning. It would be incredibly rare for a school acting as a PLC not to have discovered some aspect of its culture, structure, or practices that needs reshaping.

Those who understand the four foundational pillars of a PLC (mission, vision, values, and goals) know that the values pillar is critical. Through a process of learning together, the staff identifies the vital behaviours they must develop, and the values pillar must include statements about creating a collaborative culture. There is no ambiguity about forming and supporting high-performing teams to accomplish schoolwide goals. Likewise, there is no ambiguity that teams will develop a guaranteed and viable curriculum, design common assessments, share instructional processes, intervene for their students, and respond in ways that promote high levels of student learning. In a school of high expectations, everyone clearly understands that they are expected to work interdependently to achieve common goals.

The work of the team is clear. Each team identifies essential learning outcomes and describes those outcomes in explicit success criteria. The teamwork that comes from this level of work provides greater instructional clarity about materials, resources, strategies, assessment, and responses to students throughout a unit of study. They do this unit by unit, with each team member contributing to this effort. Members of the team commit to using the success criteria as part of their lesson design. The lesson design includes formative assessments, and teachers on the team use formative assessment strategies as part of the teaching process. They see that formative assessments are beneficial for noting common errors, but they also understand how this teaching strategy helps students realise the desired outcome. Each member of the team is also aware that his or her response to a student is an opportunity to enhance the student’s self-efficacy. This is the shared reality that I hope every teacher understands and works to accomplish.

I recently asked a high school student how he did on an end-of-the-unit test. His reply was, “I did terrible. I failed it.” While it was true that he did not demonstrate mastery, his interpretation of his score was totally incorrect. He had scored a 65 percent, which shows that he has mastery of 65 percent of the concepts tested. He needed to be guided in recognising his strengths, as well as areas for further study. We must help students accurately interpret their results and set goals with a time frame for demonstrating mastery. Student involvement in the assessment process is an important key of formative assessment.

The third learning question of teams asks, “How will we respond when they don’t learn it?” Embedded in this question is the guarantee that there is a common response in each classroom. It makes sense that in a learning-centred school, teachers would have a common understanding about how assessment supports a culture of learning. To be blunt, each member of a team has the responsibility of responding appropriately to students who are struggling in his or her class. The act of responding is not just designed for the team to sort students into flexible groups to be serviced by the team. And, it is certainly not just for deciding if students are good or not good at something.

We must beware the false narrative that the only reason a student didn’t do well on an assessment is because he or she didn’t study hard enough. I believe we have all had the experience of studying really hard but not doing as well as we thought we would do on an assessment. As an example, my granddaughter recently failed a spelling test. She had studied throughout the week at school and at home. When she left her home that Friday morning, she could accurately spell each word on the list. During dictation, she became confused about a pattern and missed over half of the points possible. It was easy to recognise her errors. I wondered if her teacher shared the common vision of assessment in a learning-centred school. It was my hope that her teacher would help her recognise what she got right in addition to her errors. The last thing we want is for the teacher to simply record the failing grade and move on. It is critical that educators understand the impact of assessment on a child.

The essence of the question “How will we respond?” requires every member of the team to see assessment as an instructional tool. When a team embraces this view of assessment, it becomes an integral part of the teaching and learning process. The teachers understand that assessment is one of their most powerful tools for enhancing students’ desire to succeed. They know that the actions they take, the feedback they give a student and the class, reinforce the culture of learning they are trying to create. It is imperative that each member of a team views and values assessment as a direct link to a student’s self-efficacy.

Does every member of your team recognise and affirm that every student has an emotional, as well as a physiological, reaction to assessments and the results he or she receives? The feedback students receive influences their determination and willingness to persevere. The score they receive has a powerful effect on internal motivation. Internal motivation enhances the students’ relationships with the subjects they are attempting to learn.

It should also be noted that despite our best efforts to have students compare their performance to learning outcomes, students comparing their performance to that of their classmates is natural. As they do so, they are determining where they fi t in with their peers and wondering how their classmates see them. They are also wondering how you, the teacher, see them and what you believe about their capabilities.

Performance outcomes, either positive or negative, have a deep impact on students’ attitudes about themselves and about school. Developing ideas and processes that help students see themselves as learners through assessment for learning will lead students to see assessment differently. Team members must discover and support actions and procedures that help re-frame the purpose of assessment for themselves and for their students.

As I work with educators across the globe, I am encouraged by the deeper understanding of what assessment looks like in a PLC. The work of collaborative teams hinges on each teacher having the same vision of assessment. I’ve been impressed to see and hear of entire schools taking the time to build an understanding of formative assessment and the impact it has on student motivation and self-efficacy.

Whether it’s an affirmation or discovery, one thing is certain: a team will never be able to accomplish its goals unless there is a common understanding of and commitment to a vision of assessment. The science of our profession has established that formative assessment is a high-leverage practice. It would be unprofessional to ignore the keys that make it an effective practice. Let’s not wait for the keys of formative assessment to become a discovery. Let’s affirm that when we know better, we must all do better.

Learn from Tim and other leading local and international PLC at Work® experts at the 2nd Annual International Summit on PLC at Work®, Melbourne, August 29–30 2019. Register your place today at

This article first appeared in AllThingsPLC Magazine (PDF), Winter 2019 issue. Copyright 2019 by Solution Tree Press, 555 North Morton Street, Bloomington, IN 47404, 800.733.6786, All rights reserved. Used with permission

Tim Brown Tim Brown, a consultant, has 28 years of experience in education. As principal of elementary, middle, and high schools in Missouri, he led each to become a successful professional learning community. Read more articles by Tim Brown

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