Forming Professional Learning Communities Around Student Work Analysis

“That mind shift has to change. It’s not just: I gave a test, here’s a score, it goes in the gradebook…now we have to do something else so the student does accomplish the standard.” – Secondary Resource Teacher

When we used to gather with other teachers to look at student work from assessments, it was often for the purpose of evaluating student performance and coming up with a grade. However, we have since discovered there is even more value to be gained when looking at student work—it can provide insight into students’ ideas that can help us build on their current thinking to deepen their three-dimensional learning. This is when we started thinking about the shift from “assessment of learning” to “assessment for learning”.

Teachers discussing in a groupMaking this shift requires more than simply providing teachers with three-dimensional assessments. It also requires cultivating a community of practice within a school or district regarding the use of assessment to inform instructional practice responsive to students’ needs. Professional learning communities (PLCs) can support educators in working with assessments in powerful ways:

  • Interpreting students’ thinking
  • Illuminating trends across classrooms
  • Using common trends to identify instructional moves needed to address students’ strengths and needs

When teams of educators begin to value each other as resources who bring diverse perspectives to the interpretation of student work, they begin to view their PLCs as integral to their efforts to implement equitable three-dimensional learning in their classroom.

We once worked with a PLC in a large, urban district where they discovered some intriguing trends in student responses to their assessments that were consistent across subjects, grades, and schools. The group of middle school teams noticed that, despite wide variations in the assessments they used and the dimensions being assessed, a majority of their students were struggling to use relevant and appropriate evidence to support their explanations of the phenomena. In addition, students working at early stages of proficiency demonstrated challenges associated with limited understanding of the DCI. When they shared their findings with the teams of high school teachers, they discovered that they had identified many of the same trends.

As the teams reflected on this process, one teacher summarized the pattern they were seeing: integrating multiple pieces of evidence was difficult for all students, regardless of grade level. The persistent trends in student work led the teachers to agree that they needed to offer students far more support in making decisions about the selection and use of evidence—a practice that is central to making sense of any science phenomena. Students new to the NGSS are wrestling with this shift toward evidence-based reasoning and these teachers discovered a need for a parallel shift in their own practice.

Once the teachers, spanning 6-12th grade, recognized their students had similar challenges, their discussion turned to sharing strategies for addressing those challenges, including routines, scaffolds, and metacognitive activities that could be used across grade levels with varying levels of differentiation. They also planned to implement a common Claim, Evidence, Reasoning (CER) protocol that one school already tried and found transformative in helping students learn to work with evidence. By using a common protocol but decreasing the level of scaffolding over time, they hoped to strengthen this skill across grade levels in a way that is coherent from the students’ perspective.

There was a palpable excitement in the room at having the opportunity to use each others’ expertise to expand their toolkit of instructional next steps. As they were wrapping up their group discussion, one teacher said, “I could not imagine doing this work alone!” which was met with a lot of nodding in agreement. All teachers agreed that the professional learning community needed to be ongoing to ensure continuous improvement. Another teacher also expressed a need for specific professional development around implementing the CER protocol. This process empowered the teachers to share with their district leaders what the assessment trends meant for what they needed as professionals.

There were other important lessons for the district leaders who watched as teacher teams discussed these trends. The leaders were amazed by the depth of the discussions. They observed as teachers pressed on each others’ ideas, critically examined student evidence, and brought intentional focus to ways they can attend to the diverse needs of their students. The value of this kind of collaboration time was crystal clear to them; PLCs that are focused on analysis of student work from assessments create a vehicle to engage teachers in their district-wide priorities, including deeper learning strategies and equitable assessment and instructional practices that center students.

Following the work of the PLCs, there is a resounding sentiment among educators that “student work is gold.” There is a need for a cultural shift within schools and districts toward using assessments as a key to unlock instruction that is responsive to students’ learning, not simply a vehicle for grading. One teacher shared, “The work that we’ve been doing in performance assessment […] it’s ensuring that we as their teachers are being really thoughtful about who our students are and what we want them to do and ensuring our instruction gets them there.” This is the real power of assessment for learning.

How have you seen PLCs support educators with using assessments to support ongoing learning?

The SCALE Science team is new at WestEd! To learn more about the resources that SCALE Science offers to support these professional learning communities and about their work at their prior home of Stanford, visit
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