By Martin, Robert A. | Journal of Staff Development, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Martin, Robert A., Journal of Staff Development

Teacher leaders hear the warning and develop common assessments to improve student achievement

Sometimes, bad news can be exactly what organizations or individuals need to point them in a healthier direction.

That was the case at Thompson Middle School (Southfield, Mich.) in 2002, when the staff learned that the state had temporarily identified the school as needing "corrective action" after students failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress. About this time, the state of Michigan also began grading each individual school through its Education YES! Program. Thompson received a low C, a grade too low for the staff's comfort.

The double dose of bad news was a jolt to the school's culture and climate and had some faculty complaining of stressrelated headaches and stomach ailments. Although the state removed the corrective action label after the school appealed, the spotlight of that status brightly illuminated a need to focus on raising student achievement and undergirded the moral imperative to impact, touch, and save the lives of students.

Staff embarked on a journey to align curriculum - an effort that, three years later, resulted in significant improvement in students' achievement scores. The improvement process included designing and implementing common assessments and deepening teacher collaboration and professional conversation around interpreting data and allowing data to inform teachers' practices.


To successfully use common assessments, teachers must be clear about what the state, district, and school want students to learn. Ensuring that teachers were clear about what students should learn was essential: What's the point, after all, of cooperating to measure something if you're measuring the wrong thing?

Teachers at Thompson said:

* "Common assessments took getting used to - but I found that I enjoy graphing data and understanding problems in learning. Sometimes they are simple, and sometimes it takes major adjustment."

* "(Developing common assessments) forces you to work with staff members and ask, 'What did you do well?' This is hard for some teachers, but it brings out the best in the kids and adults. "

* "(Common assessment) allows more organization of what we are teaching and shifts the focus to the areas we need to improve. "

The first step in the school's journey to develop common assessments was to ensure that the curriculum was aligned both within and across grade levels with the state's curriculum standards. The school first had to ensure that what was taught was what was intended, or developing common assessments would be a frustrating exercise and probably have little impact on improving student learning.

Each department began with the state benchmarks and standards and the district's grade-level expectation. The Michigan Educational Assessment Program, the state's highstakes test, is aligned with the Michigan Curriculum Framework, so it was vital for staff to understand, interpret, and implement aligned curriculum in the classroom.

Staff devoted most of the school's professional development time over two years to creating the curriculum pathway. Teachers had released time for professional learning, took part in after-school work sessions, and spent portions of district-mandated professional development time working on developing and aligning the curriculum. Thompson's leadership team -department chairs, counselors, gradelevel curriculum coordinators and administrators - led the faculty through this curriculum realignment.

Teachers first collaboratively agreed on essential outcomes (power standards) as the core knowledge that each student would master. These essential outcomes established a core curriculum that would ensure that every student would learn the same content, regardless of which teacher they were assigned.

Same-subject teams created and submitted common lesson plans.

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