Common Formative Assessments: How to Connect Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment

reviewed by Julie Alonzo - July 25, 2006

coverTitle: Common Formative Assessments: How to Connect Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment
Author(s): Larry Ainsworth and Donald Viegut
Publisher: Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks
ISBN: 1412915783, Pages: 164, Year: 2006
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Ainsworth and Viegut (2006) state that they wrote Common Formative Assessments: How to Connect Standards-based Instruction and Assessment intending to “present a model of an integrated instruction and assessment system composed of seemingly separate practices and then to showcase common formative assessments as the centerpiece of that system” (p. 1). The authors organize their 10 chapters into a logical sequence, beginning with defining basic terms and briefly explaining how teachers might identify what they refer to as “Power Standards” (p. 31), which they suggest should guide teachers’ subsequent assessment development. They also recommend using these standards to provide a key backdrop for evaluating curriculum and instructional practices. In addition, the authors provide two chapters targeted more specifically to school and district administrators interested in using the approach that the authors describe as a key component of their school improvement process.

Their book does offer some skeletal guidelines that might be useful for school administrators and teachers interested in using data to guide their instructional decision-making process. Unfortunately, the authors stop short of providing sufficient detail to enable interested users to put their suggestions to use without additional study, an oversight with potentially harmful consequences should readers not be familiar enough with research in this area to realize the gaps in the information provided.

The authors integrate the idea of “backwards planning,” wherein teachers first identify the essential questions and critical concepts they want students to master, and then design their curriculum and instruction to meet these learning goals (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998). This planning incorporates the power of using formative assessments to guide instructional practice advocated by Richard Stiggins (2001), among others. Ainsworth and Viegut extend this work by including a focus on teacher collaboration vis a vis common assessments and the school leadership practices and structures that are necessary to allow such collaboration to occur. They suggest that engaging teachers in monthly conversations centered on the formative assessments the teachers have collaboratively designed, administered, and analyzed will foster a strong professional learning community at the school.

The basic premise behind the authors’ ideas is quite appealing, and the book is written in easily accessible language. However, there are several places where the authors seem to have over-simplified rather complex topics to the point where they have lost their significance. For instance, the authors mention the concept of technical adequacy in their discussion of assessment literacy, noting that “[w]hether the grade-level or department teams choose to ‘cut and paste’ assessment items from an established ‘test bank’ or create their own, the teams need to ensure the fairness, validity, and reliability of the items selected” (p. 61). They then provide two-sentence definitions of these three critical terms, yet provide no guidance as to how school teams should measure the degree to which their assessments meet the definitions. This omission is particularly troubling, given that these are critical concepts for anyone developing assessments to consider.

Telling teachers that “[r]eliability means consistency” or that “students would provide similar responses of the selected assessment items at different times or under different circumstances” (p. 61) fails to provide teachers with the information they need to be able to evaluate test-retest reliability of their common formative assessment. What’s more, this very basic definition also overlooks other types of reliability (e.g., alternate form, inter-rater, internal consistency) that should be evaluated as part of an examination of the technical adequacy of a particular assessment. Similar problems exist with the authors’ treatment of fairness and validity. In fact, the definition of validity provided by the authors appears to overlook completely the modern unified conceptualization of the term (AERA, APA, & NCME, 1999) in favor of a definition that has not been widely used in the field of educational assessments since the mid-1990s. A book on assessments that is intended to be widely used by practitioners risks misleading the very people it is intending to assist when it oversimplifies concepts that the measurement community agrees are critical features to consider when designing or using any assessment system with integrity.

Likewise, the authors present their ideas as fact when they might be advised to proceed a bit more cautiously. For example, in advocating that teachers collaborate to plan common formative assessments, the authors state: “The synergistic thinking sure to emerge during such professional collaboration will produce quality assessments to measure what the teachers want to find out…This team effort does more than produce great assessments…The group process—organized properly—provides a safe and restorative place…that cannot help but carry over into the classroom to positively impact student learning” (p. 39). These statements certainly make the process the authors advocate sound appealing. However, their stated argument seems more evangelical than empirical, leading the reader to question the rigor with which the authors have researched the effectiveness of this process to produce the results they suggest will follow. Especially in this era of NCLB-mandated “research-based practices,” representing opinion as fact may unintentionally mislead the target audience, and they may proceed to implement what they believe to be research-based practice without the data to support their claims.

To their credit, the authors have provided school administrators with some useful guidelines to follow in structuring professional development activities centered on aligning what teachers are teaching to important content standards and assessment objectives. The framework they provide highlights the importance of constructing assessments that measure concepts, information, and skills that are truly important in using the data such assessments provide to improve instruction. Their suggestions outline what appear to be constructive steps in helping school staff reach a common understanding of what their teaching should be focused on. Conversations centered on identifying the most important content and performance standards for students to master, designing curriculum, instruction, and assessment to match those standards, and engaging in ongoing critical discourse may well promote the type of professional learning communities school improvement researchers recommend.

When used in conjunction with the other texts recommended in Common Formative Assessments: How to Connect Standards-based Instruction and Assessment, Ainsworth and Viegut’s contribution may well help school administrators move their staff toward stronger instructional practices. As a stand-alone text, however, their book offers insufficient detail to adequately cover complex topics. As a result, it may leave readers with a false sense of security, believing that they are basing their school improvement efforts on a process with solid empirical backing, when that does not appear to be the case. For school districts working toward the laudable goal of aligning their curriculum, instruction, formative and summative assessments to state standards, I recommend they consider this particular book as part of a professional development library collection, but caution against turning to it alone as a definitive work.


Ainsworth, L. & Viegut, D. (2006). Common formative assessments: How to connect standards-based instruction and assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

American Educational Research Association (AERA), American Psychological Association (APA), & National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME). (1999). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Stiggins, R. J., (2001). Student-involved classroom assessment, (3rd ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design.  Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 25, 2006 ID Number: 12615, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 3:02:33 PM

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