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Aurora Institute

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Common Assessment

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Courtney Belolan

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

CellThis post originally appeared on Courtney Belolan’s website on November 16, 2015. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

What do all of these student products have in common?

  • A children’s book page showing an animal cell, with labels and simple explanations of how the major organelles work.
  • A Prezi showing an animal cell. The presentation zooms in on different parts of the cell with a narrator explaining their functions.
  • A pop song about the animal cell. Each verse focuses on a different organelle.
  • A multi-paragraph essay describing the key parts of an animal cell.
  • ​A hand-sewn felt animal cell doll with all the major parts labeled and a display box with descriptions each major part.

These example products are all exactly the same, but different. While each product clearly connects to different skills sets or interests, each addresses the same learning target and level of rigor:

Understands the structures and functions of animal cells


This is the goal of common assessment in a learner-centered proficiency-based system. What is important here is that each student is being held accountable to the same standard, not the same assessment task. Because the level of rigor is defined, not a specific task, students can use their personal interests and strengths to show what they know. Each student is potentially addressing targets in other disciplines as well including art, music, writing, and digital literacy.

Given a scoring scale, any group of science teachers would be able to judge any one of these products and come to consensus on which meet the target and which do not. Likewise, any one science teacher could use the same scoring scale to judge all of these products and determine which students demonstrate proficiency and which do not. The assessments are all reliable and valid because they are being judged using the same criteria.

​This graphic from Great Schools Partnership, called Assessment Pathways Simplified, puts this idea into a visual representation.

See also:

Courtney Belolan works at RSU 2 in Maine where she supports K-12 teachers with performance-based, individualized learning. Courtney works closely with teams and teachers as a coach, and with the school and district leadership teams as an instructional strategist. Courtney has worked as a 6-12 literacy and instructional coach, a middle level ELA teacher, an environmental educator, and a digital literacy coach. Her core beliefs include the idea that the best education is one centered on student passions and rooted in interdisciplinary applications, and that enjoying learning is just as important as the learning itself.