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Direct Instruction

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In general usage, the term direct instruction refers to (1) instructional approaches that are structured, sequenced, and led by teachers, and/or (2) the presentation of academic content to students by teachers, such as in a lecture or demonstration. In other words, teachers are “directing” the instructional process or instruction is being “directed” at students.

While a classroom lecture is perhaps the image most commonly associated with direct instruction, the term encompasses a wide variety of fundamental teaching techniques and potential instructional scenarios. For example, presenting a video or film to students could be considered a form of direct instruction (even though the teacher is not actively instructing students, the content and presentation of material was determined by the teacher). Generally speaking, direct instruction may be the most common teaching approach in the United States, since teacher-designed and teacher-led instructional methods are widely used in American public schools. That said, it’s important to note that teaching techniques such as direct instruction, differentiation, or scaffolding, to name just a few, are rarely mutually exclusive—direct instruction may be integrated with any number of other instructional approaches in a given course or lesson. For example, teachers may use direct instruction to prepare students for an activity in which the students work collaboratively on a group project with guidance and coaching from the teacher as needed (the group activity would not be considered a form of direct instruction).

In addition, the basic techniques of direct instruction not only extend beyond lecturing, presenting, or demonstrating, but many are considered to be foundational to effective teaching. For example:

  • Establishing learning objectives for lessons, activities, and projects, and then making sure that students have understood the goals.
  • Purposefully organizing and sequencing a series of lessons, projects, and assignments that move students toward stronger understanding and the achievement of specific academic goals.
  • Reviewing instructions for an activity or modeling a process—such as a scientific experiment—so that students know what they are expected to do.
  • Providing students with clear explanations, descriptions, and illustrations of the knowledge and skills being taught.
  • Asking questions to make sure that students have understood what has been taught.

It should be noted that the term direct instruction is used in various proprietary or trademarked instructional models that have been developed and promoted by educators, including—most prominently—Direct Instruction, created by Siegfried Engelmann and Wesley Becker, which is a “explicit, carefully sequenced and scripted model of instruction,” according to the National Institute for Direct Instruction.

Debate

In recent decades, the concept of direct instruction has taken on negative associations among some educators. Because direct instruction is often associated with traditional lecture-style teaching to classrooms full of passive students obediently sitting in desks and taking notes, it may be considered outdated, pedantic, or insufficiently considerate of student learning needs by some educators and reformers.

That said, many of direct instruction’s negative connotations likely result from either a limited definition of the concept or a misunderstanding of its techniques. For example, all teachers, by necessity, use some form of direct instruction in their teaching—i.e., preparing courses and lessons, presenting and demonstrating information, and providing clear explanations and illustrations of concepts are all essential, and to some degree unavoidable, teaching activities. Negative perceptions of the practice tend to arise when teachers rely too heavily upon direct instruction, or when they fail to use alternative techniques that may be better suited to the lesson at hand or that may improve student interest, engagement, and comprehension.

While a sustained forty-five-minute lecture may not be considered an effective teaching strategy by many educators, the alternative strategies they may advocate—such as personalized learning or project-based learning, to name just two options—will almost certainly require some level of direct instruction by teachers. In other words, teachers rarely use either direct instruction or some other teaching approach—in actual practice, diverse strategies are frequently blended together. For these reasons, negative perceptions of direct instruction likely result more from a widespread overreliance on the approach, and from the tendency to view it as an either/or option, rather than from its inherent value to the instructional process.

Curriculum Mapping

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Curriculum mapping is the process indexing or diagraming a curriculum to identify and address academic gaps, redundancies, and misalignments for purposes of improving the overall coherence of a course of study and, by extension, its effectiveness (a curriculum, in the sense that the term is typically used by educators, encompasses everything that teachers teach to students in a school or course, including the instructional materials and techniques they use).

In most cases, curriculum mapping refers to the alignment of learning standards and teaching—i.e., how well and to what extent a school or teacher has matched the content that students are actually taught with the academic expectations described in learning standards—but it may also refer to the mapping and alignment of all the many elements that are entailed in educating students, including assessments, textbooks, assignments, lessons, and instructional techniques.

Generally speaking, a coherent curriculum is (1) well organized and purposefully designed to facilitate learning, (2) free of academic gaps and needless repetitions, and (3) aligned across lessons, courses, subject areas, and grade levels. When educators map a curriculum, they are working to ensure that what students are actually taught matches the academic expectations in a particular subject area or grade level.

Before the advent of computers and the internet, educators would create curriculum maps on paper and poster board; today, educators are far more likely to use spreadsheets, software programs, and online services that are specifically dedicated to curriculum mapping. The final product is often called a “curriculum map,” and educators will use the maps to plan courses, lessons, and teaching strategies in a school. For a related discussion, see backward design.

While the specific approach or strategies used to map a curriculum may vary widely from district to district, school to school, or even teacher to teacher, the process typically aims to achieve a few common goals:

  • Vertical coherence: When a curriculum is vertically aligned or vertically coherent, what students learn in one lesson, course, or grade level prepares them for the next lesson, course, or grade level. Curriculum mapping aims to ensure that teaching is purposefully structured and logically sequenced across grade levels so that students are building on what they have previous learned and learning the knowledge and skills that will progressively prepare them for more challenging, higher-level work. For a related discussion, see learning progression.
  • Horizontal coherence: When a curriculum is horizontally aligned or horizontally coherent, what students are learning in one ninth-grade biology course, for example, mirrors what other students are learning in a different ninth-grade biology course. Curriculum mapping aims to ensure that the assessments, tests, and other methods teachers use to evaluate learning achievement and progress are based on what has actually been taught to students and on the learning standards that the students are expected to meet in a particular course, subject area, or grade level.
  • Subject-area coherence: When a curriculum is coherent within a subject area—such as mathematics, science, or history—it may be aligned both within and across grade levels. Curriculum mapping for subject-area coherence aims to ensure that teachers are working toward the same learning standards in similar courses (say, three different ninth-grade algebra courses taught by different teachers), and that students are also learning the same amount of content, and receiving the same quality of instruction, across subject-area courses.
  • Interdisciplinary coherence: When a curriculum is coherent across multiple subject areas—such as mathematics, science, and history—it may be aligned both within and across grade levels. Curriculum mapping for interdisciplinary coherence may focus on skills and work habits that students need to succeed in any academic course or discipline, such as reading skills, writing skills, technology skills, and critical-thinking skills. Improving interdisciplinary coherence across a curriculum, for example, might entail teaching students reading and writing skills in all academic courses, not just English courses.

Scaffolding

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In education, scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. The term itself offers the relevant descriptive metaphor: teachers provide successive levels of temporary support that help students reach higher levels of comprehension and skill acquisition that they would not be able to achieve without assistance. Like physical scaffolding, the supportive strategies are incrementally removed when they are no longer needed, and the teacher gradually shifts more responsibility over the learning process to the student.

Scaffolding is widely considered to be an essential element of effective teaching, and all teachers—to a greater or lesser extent—almost certainly use various forms of instructional scaffolding in their teaching. In addition, scaffolding is often used to bridge learning gaps—i.e., the difference between what students have learned and what they are expected to know and be able to do at a certain point in their education. For example, if students are not at the reading level required to understand a text being taught in a course, the teacher might use instructional scaffolding to incrementally improve their reading ability until they can read the required text independently and without assistance. One of the main goals of scaffolding is to reduce the negative emotions and self-perceptions that students may experience when they get frustrated, intimidated, or discouraged when attempting a difficult task without the assistance, direction, or understanding they need to complete it.

Scaffolding vs. Differentiation

As a general instructional strategy, scaffolding shares many similarities with differentiation, which refers to a wide variety of teaching techniques and lesson adaptations that educators use to instruct a diverse group of students, with diverse learning needs, in the same course, classroom, or learning environment. Because scaffolding and differentiation techniques are used to achieve similar instructional goals—i.e., moving student learning and understanding from where it is to where it needs to be—the two approaches may be blended together in some classrooms to the point of being indistinguishable. That said, the two approaches are distinct in several ways. When teachers scaffold instruction, they typically break up a learning experience, concept, or skill into discrete parts, and then give students the assistance they need to learn each part. For example, teachers may give students an excerpt of a longer text to read, engage them in a discussion of the excerpt to improve their understanding of its purpose, and teach them the vocabulary they need to comprehend the text before assigning them the full reading. Alternatively, when teachers differentiate instruction, they might give some students an entirely different reading (to better match their reading level and ability), give the entire class the option to choose from among several texts (so each student can pick the one that interests them most), or give the class several options for completing a related assignment (for example, the students might be allowed to write a traditional essay, draw an illustrated essay in comic-style form, create a slideshow “essay” with text and images, or deliver an oral presentation).

The following examples will serve to illustrate a few common scaffolding strategies:

  • The teacher gives students a simplified version of a lesson, assignment, or reading, and then gradually increases the complexity, difficulty, or sophistication over time. To achieve the goals of a particular lesson, the teacher may break up the lesson into a series of mini-lessons that progressively move students toward stronger understanding. For example, a challenging algebra problem may be broken up into several parts that are taught successively. Between each mini-lesson, the teacher checks to see if students have understood the concept, gives them time to practice the equations, and explains how the math skills they are learning will help them solve the more challenging problem (questioning students to check for understanding and giving them time to practice are two common scaffolding strategies). In some cases, the term guided practice may be used to describe this general technique.
  • The teacher describes or illustrates a concept, problem, or process in multiple ways to ensure understanding. A teacher may orally describe a concept to students, use a slideshow with visual aids such as images and graphics to further explain the idea, ask several students to illustrate the concept on the blackboard, and then provide the students with a reading and writing task that asks them articulate the concept in their own words. This strategy addresses the multiple ways in which students learn—e.g., visually, orally, kinesthetically, etc.—and increases the likelihood that students will understand the concept being taught.
  • Students are given an exemplar or model of an assignment they will be asked to complete. The teacher describes the exemplar assignment’s features and why the specific elements represent high-quality work. The model provides students with a concrete example of the learning goals they are expected to achieve or the product they are expected to produce. Similarly, a teacher may also model a process—for example, a multistep science experiment—so that students can see how it is done before they are asked to do it themselves (teachers may also ask a student to model a process for her classmates).
  • Students are given a vocabulary lesson before they read a difficult text. The teacher reviews the words most likely to give students trouble, using metaphors, analogies, word-image associations, and other strategies to help students understand the meaning of the most difficult words they will encounter in the text. When the students then read the assignment, they will have greater confidence in their reading ability, be more interested in the content, and be more likely to comprehend and remember what they have read.
  • The teacher clearly describes the purpose of a learning activity, the directions students need to follow, and the learning goals they are expected to achieve. The teacher may give students a handout with step-by-step instructions they should follow, or provide the scoring guide or rubric that will be used to evaluate and grade their work. When students know the reason why they are being asked to complete an assignment, and what they will specifically be graded on, they are more likely to understand its importance and be motivated to achieve the learning goals of the assignment. Similarly, if students clearly understand the process they need to follow, they are less likely to experience frustration or give up because they haven’t fully understood what they are expected to do.
  • The teacher explicitly describes how the new lesson builds on the knowledge and skills students were taught in a previous lesson. By connecting a new lesson to a lesson the students previously completed, the teacher shows students how the concepts and skills they already learned will help them with the new assignment or project (teachers may describe this general strategy as “building on prior knowledge” or “connecting to prior knowledge”). Similarly, the teacher may also make explicit connections between the lesson and the personal interests and experiences of the students as a way to increase understanding or engagement in the learning process. For example, a history teacher may reference a field trip to a museum during which students learned about a particular artifact related to the lesson at hand. For a more detailed discussion, see relevance.

Backward Design

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Backward design, also called backward planning or backward mapping, is a process that educators use to design learning experiences and instructional techniques to achieve specific learning goals. Backward design begins with the objectives of a unit or course—what students are expected to learn and be able to do—and then proceeds “backward” to create lessons that achieve those desired goals. In most public schools, the educational goals of a course or unit will be a given state’s learning standards—i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education.

The basic rationale motivating backward design is that starting with the end goal, rather than a starting with the first lesson chronologically delivered during a unit or course, helps teachers design a sequence of lessons, problems, projects, presentations, assignments, and assessments that result in students achieving the academic goals of a course or unit—that is, actually learning what they were expected to learn.

Backward design helps teachers create courses and units that are focused on the goal (learning) rather than the process (teaching). Because “beginning with the end” is often a counterintuitive process, backward design gives educators a structure they can follow when creating a curriculum and planning their instructional process. Advocates of backward design would argue that the instructional process should serve the goals; the goals—and the results for students—should not be determined by the process.

While approaches may vary widely from school to school or teacher to teacher, a basic backward-design process might take the following form:

  1. A teacher begins by reviewing the learning standards that students are expected to meet by the end of a course or grade level. In some cases, teachers will work together to create backward-designed units and courses. For a related discussion, see common planning time.
  2. The teacher creates an index or list of the essential knowledge, skills, and concepts that students need to learn during a specific unit. In some cases, these academic expectations will be called learning objectives, among other terms.
  3. The teacher then designs a final test, assessment, or demonstration of learning that students will complete to show that they have learned what they were expected to learn. The final assessment will measure whether and to what degree students have achieved the unit goals.
  4. The teacher then creates a series of lessons, projects, and supporting instructional strategies intended to progressively move student understanding and skill acquisition closer to the desired goals of the unit.
  5. The teacher then determines the formative-assessment strategies that will be used to check for understanding and progress over the duration of the unit (the term formative assessment refers to a wide variety of methods—from questioning techniques to quizzes—that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course, often for the purposes of modifying lessons and teaching techniques to make them more effective). Advocates typically argue that formative assessment is integral to effective backward design because teachers need to know what students are or are not learning if they are going to help them achieve the goals of a unit.
  6. The teacher may then review and reflect on the prospective unit plan to determine if the design is likely to achieve the desired learning goals. Other teachers may also be asked to review the plan and provide constructive feedback that will help improve the overall design.

While backward-design strategies have a long history in education—going back at least as far as the seminal work Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, by Ralph W. Tyler, published in 1947—the educators and authors Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe are widely considered to have popularized “backward design” for the modern era in their book Understanding by Design. Since its publication in the 1990s, Understanding by Design has evolved in series of popular books, videos, and other resources.

Reform

As a strategy for designing, planning, and sequencing curriculum and instruction, backward design is an attempt to ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in school, college, or the workplace. In other words, backward design helps educators create logical teaching progressions that move students toward achieving specific—and important—learning objectives. Generally speaking, strategies such as backward design are attempts to bring greater coherence to the education of students—i.e., to establish consistent learning goals for schools, teachers, and students that reflect the knowledge, skills, conceptual understanding, and work habits deemed to be most essential. For a related discussion, see curriculum mapping.

Backward design arose in tandem with the concept of learning standards, and it is widely viewed as a practical process for using standards to guide the development of a course, unit, or other learning experience. Like backward designs, learning standards are a way to promote greater consistency and commonality in what gets taught to students from state to state, school to school, grade to grade, and teacher to teacher. Before the advent of learning standards and other efforts to standardize public education, individual schools and teachers typically determined learning expectations in a given course, subject area, or grade level—a situation that can, in some cases, give rise to significant educational disparities.

For related discussions, see achievement gapequity, and high expectations.

Locus of Control

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Locus of control is a psychological concept that refers to how strongly people believe they have control over the situations and experiences that affect their lives. In education, locus of control typically refers to how students perceive the causes of their academic success or failure in school.

Students with an “internal locus of control” generally believe that their success or failure is a result of the effort and hard work they invest in their education. Students with an “external locus of control” generally believe that their successes or failures result from external factors beyond their control, such as luck, fate, circumstance, injustice, bias, or teachers who are unfair, prejudiced, or unskilled. For example, students with an internal locus of control might blame poor grades on their failure to study, whereas students with an external locus of control may blame an unfair teacher or test for their poor performance.

Whether a student has an internal or external locus of control is thought to have a powerful effect on academic motivation, persistence, and achievement in school. In education, “internals” are considered more likely to work hard in order to learn, progress, and succeed, while “externals” are more likely to believe that working hard is “pointless” because someone or something else is treating them unfairly or holding them back. Students with an external locus of control may also believe that their accomplishments will not be acknowledged or their effort will not result in success.

In special education, the locus-of-control concept is especially salient. Many educators believe that students with learning disabilities are more likely to develop an external locus of control, at least in part due to negative experiences they may have had in school. If their disabilities have made learning exceptionally difficult or challenging, and they have consequently experienced more failure than success in school, blaming other people and external factors can develop into a psychological coping mechanism (i.e., when someone or something else is always the cause, the students don’t need to take more responsibility over their success in school).

For related discussions, see growth mindset and stereotype threat.

Locus of control is related to a variety of psychological concepts, theories, and findings, including learned helplessness, which is when a person has learned to act as if they are helpless even when they actually have control over their situation or the power to change a circumstance or outcome. Some psychologists believe “externals” are more likely to develop learned helplessness than “internals.”

Reform

In recent decades, locus of control has become a more widely recognized and discussed concept in education. There are two main approaches that schools use when working with learning-disabled students who have an external locus of control:

  • Altering learning contexts: More structured, orderly, and supportive classrooms and learning environments are believed to benefit students with an external locus of control, while students with an internal locus of control often thrive in more unstructured learning environments.
  • Strengthening internal locus of control: Educators and specialists may also use a variety of strategies to encourage students to believe they have more control over their education and academic achievement, including techniques known as “attribution training.” Essentially, students are taught to internalize positive messages that tend to be intuitive to students with an internal locus of control. For example, the training may encourage students to say to themselves—out loud at first, then in a whispering voice, and then silently to themselves—that they can do the task they were assigned and that their hard work and effort will be rewarded with success.

Several questionnaires have been developed to help identify whether students tend toward an internal or external locus of control. Julian B. Rotter, the psychologist who originally developed the locus-of-control concept, created a widely used question-based assessment and a corresponding scale designed to identify where students are on the internal-external spectrum. The questionnaire offers a series of choices between two statements. For example, the respondent would choose between “I have often found that what is going to happen will happen” or “Trusting to fate has never turned out as well for me as making a decision to take a definite course of action.” Rotter’s assessment is one of a number of diagnostic tools and scales that may be used by psychologists and educators.

Standards-Referenced

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In education, the term standards-referenced refers to instructional approaches or assessments that are “referenced” to or derived from established learning standards—i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. In other words, standards-referenced refers to the use of learning standards to guide what gets taught and tested in schools.

The term standards-referenced is predominately used in two ways by educators:

  • Standards-referenced tests, and other forms of standards-referenced assessment, are designed to measure student performance against a fixed set of predetermined learning standards. In elementary and secondary education, standards-referenced tests evaluate whether students have learned a specific body of knowledge or acquired a specific skill set described in a given set of standards. The term standards-referenced test and criterion-referenced test are synonymous when the “criteria” being used are learning standards. The terms standard-referenced assessment and criterion-referenced assessment are similarly synonymous. (In education, assessment refers to the wide variety of methods that educators use to evaluate, measure, and document the academic readiness, learning progress, and skill acquisition of students, which includes tests and other methods of evaluation, such as graded assignments, demonstrations of learning, or formative assessments, for example.) For a more detailed discussion of standards-referenced testing, see criterion-referenced test.
  • A standards-referenced curriculum is a course of study that is guided by learning standards. In other words, the academic knowledge and skills taught in a school, or in a specific course or program, are based on learning standards, typically the learning standards developed and adopted by states. The standards determine the goals of a lesson or course, and teachers then determine how and what to teach students so they achieve the expected learning goals described in the standards. Depending on how broadly educators define or use the term, standards-referenced curriculum may refer to the knowledge, skills, topics, and concepts that are taught to students and/or to the lessons, units, assignments, readings, and materials used by teachers. For related discussions, see alignment, curriculum, coherent curriculum, learning objectives, and learning progression.

Standards-Referenced vs. Standards-Based

The distinction between standard-based and standards-referenced is often a source of confusion among educators and the public—in part because the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but also because the distinction between the two is both subtle and nuanced. In brief, standards-referenced means that what gets taught or tested is “based” on standards (i.e., standards are the source of the content and skills taught to students—the original “reference” for the lesson), while standards-based refers to the practice of making sure students learn what they were taught and actually achieve the expected standards, and that they meet a defined standard for “proficiency.” In a standards-referenced system, teaching and testing are guided by standards; in a standards-based system, teachers work to ensure that students actually learn the expected material as they progress in their education.

Another way of looking at it is that standards-referenced refers to inputs (what is taught) and standards-based is focused on outputs (what is learned).

While a particular course may be standards-referenced, for example, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is standards-based in the sense that the term is predominately used by educators. However, all standards-based curricula, instruction, and tests are—by necessity—standards-referenced. For example, all fifty states in the United States have developed and adopted learning standards that schools and teachers are expected to follow when they create academic programs, courses, and other learning experiences (before the 1980s and 1990s, states did not have learning standards). In theory, these educational policies suggest that all American public schools either are or should be teaching a standards-referenced curriculum. Yet comparatively few public schools are authentically standards-based in the sense that students are required to demonstrate achievement of expected standards, and meet defined proficiency expectations, as they progress through their education. For a more detailed discussion, see proficiency-based learning.

The following examples will help to illustrate the distinction between standards-based and standards-referenced:

  • Assessment: Say a teacher designs a standards-referenced test for a history course. While the content of the test may be entirely standards-referenced—i.e., it is aligned with the expectations described in learning standards—a score of 75 may be considered a passing score, suggesting that 25 percent of the taught material was not actually learned by the students who scored a 75. In addition, the teacher may not know what specific standards students have or have not met if only the scores tests and assignments are summed and averaged. For example, a student may be able to earn a “passing” grade in a ninth-grade English course, but still be unable to “demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing and speaking” or “demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings”—two ninth-grade standards taken from the Common Core State Standards. If the teacher uses a standards-based approach to assessment, however, students would only “pass” a test or course after demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills described in the expected standards. The students may need to retake a test several times or redo an assignment, or they may need additional help from the teacher or other educational specialist, but the students would need to demonstrate that they learned what they were expected to learn—i.e., the specific knowledge and skills described in standards.
  • Curriculum: In most high schools, students typically earn credit for passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D, suggesting that the awarded credit is based on a spectrum of learning expectations—with some students learning more and others learning less—rather than on the same learning standards being applied to all students equally. And because grades may be calculated differently from school to school or teacher to teacher, and they may be based on widely divergent different learning expectations (for example, some courses may be “harder” and others “easier”), students may pass their courses, earn the required number of credits, and receive a diploma without acquiring the most essential knowledge and skills described in standards. In these cases, the curricula taught in these schools may be standards-referenced, but not standards-based, because teachers are not evaluating whether students have achieved specific standards. In standards-based schools, courses, and programs, however, educators will use a variety of instructional and assessment methods to determine whether students have met the expected standards, including strategies such as demonstrations of learningpersonal learning plansportfoliosrubrics, and capstone projects, to name just a few.
  • Grading: In a standards-referenced course, grading may look like it traditionally has in schools: students are given numerical scores on a 1–100 scale and class grades represent an average of all scores earned over the course of a semester or year. In a standards-based course, however, “grades” often look quite different. While standards-based grading and reporting may take a wide variety of forms from school to school, grades are typically connected to descriptive standards, not based on test and assignment scores that are averaged together. For example, students may receive a report that shows how they progressing toward meeting a selection of standards. The criteria used to determine what “meeting a standard” means will defined in advance, often in a rubric, and teachers will evaluate learning progress and academic achievement in relation to the criteria. The reports students receive might use a 1–4 scale, for example, with 3s and 4s indicating that students have met the standard. In standards-based schools, grades for behaviors and work habits—e.g., getting to class on time, following rules, treating other students respectfully, turning in work on time, participating in class, putting effort into assignments—are also reported separately from academic grades, so that teachers and parents can make distinctions between learning achievement and behavioral issues.

Criterion-Referenced Test

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Criterion-referenced tests and assessments are designed to measure student performance against a fixed set of predetermined criteria or learning standards—i.e., concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. In elementary and secondary education, criterion-referenced tests are used to evaluate whether students have learned a specific body of knowledge or acquired a specific skill set. For example, the curriculum taught in a course, academic program, or content area.

If students perform at or above the established expectations—for example, by answering a certain percentage of questions correctly—they will pass the test, meet the expected standards, or be deemed “proficient.” On a criterion-referenced test, every student taking the exam could theoretically fail if they don’t meet the expected standard; alternatively, every student could earn the highest possible score. On criterion-referenced tests, it is not only possible, but desirable, for every student to pass the test or earn a perfect score. Criterion-referenced tests have been compared to driver’s-license exams, which require would-be drivers to achieve a minimum passing score to earn a license.

Criterion-Referenced vs. Norm-Referenced Tests
Norm-referenced tests are designed to rank test takers on a “bell curve,” or a distribution of scores that resembles, when graphed, the outline of a bell—i.e., a small percentage of students performing poorly, most performing average, and a small percentage performing well. To produce a bell curve each time, test questions are carefully designed to accentuate performance differences among test takers—not to determine if students have achieved specified learning standards, learned required material, or acquired specific skills. Unlike norm-referenced tests, criterion-referenced tests measure performance against a fixed set of criteria.

Criterion-referenced tests may include multiple-choice questions, true-false questions, “open-ended” questions (e.g., questions that ask students to write a short response or an essay), or a combination of question types. Individual teachers may design the tests for use in a specific course, or they may be created by teams of experts for large companies that have contracts with state departments of education. Criterion-referenced tests may be high-stakes tests—i.e., tests that are used to make important decisions about students, educators, schools, or districts—or they may be “low-stakes tests” used to measure the academic achievement of individual students, identify learning problems, or inform instructional adjustments.

Well-known examples of criterion-referenced tests include Advanced Placement exams and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which are both standardized tests administered to students throughout the United States. When testing companies develop criterion-referenced standardized tests for large-scale use, they usually have committees of experts determine the testing criteria and passing scores, or the number of questions students will need to answer correctly to pass the test. Scores on these tests are typically expressed as a percentage.

It should be noted that passing scores—or “cut-off scores“—on criterion-referenced tests are judgment calls made by either individuals or groups. It’s theoretically possible, for example, that a given test-development committee, if it had been made up of different individuals with different backgrounds and viewpoints, would have determined different passing scores for a certain test. For example, one group might determine that a minimum passing score is 70 percent correct answers, while another group might establish the cut-off score at 75 percent correct. For a related discussion, see proficiency.

Criterion-referenced tests created by individual teachers are also very common in American public schools. For example, a history teacher may devise a test to evaluate understanding and retention of a unit on World War II. The criteria in this case might include the causes and timeline of the war, the nations that were involved, the dates and circumstances of major battles, and the names and roles of certain leaders. The teacher may design a test to evaluate student understanding of the criteria and determine a minimum passing score.

While criterion-referenced test scores are often expressed as percentages, and many have minimum passing scores, the test results may also be scored or reported in alternative ways. For example, results may be grouped into broad achievement categories—such as “below basic,” “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced”—or reported on a 1–5 numerical scale, with the numbers representing different levels of achievement. As with minimum passing scores, proficiency levels are judgment calls made by individuals or groups that may choose to modify proficiency levels by raising or lowering them.

The following are a few representative examples of how criterion-referenced tests and scores may be used:

  • To determine whether students have learned expected knowledge and skills. If the criterion-referenced tests are used to make decisions about grade promotion or diploma eligibility, they would be considered “high-stakes tests.”
  • To determine if students have learning gaps or academic deficits that need to be addressed. For a related discussion, see formative assessment.
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of a course, academic program, or learning experience by using “pre-tests” and “post-tests” to measure learning progress over the duration of the instructional period.
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of teachers by factoring test results into job-performance evaluations. For a related discussion, see value-added measures.
  • To measure progress toward the goals and objectives described in an “individualized education plan” for students with disabilities.
  • To determine if a student or teacher is qualified to receive a license or certificate.
  • To measure the academic achievement of students in a given state, usually for the purposes of comparing academic performance among schools and districts.
  • To measure the academic achievement of students in a given country, usually for the purposes of comparing academic performance among nations. A few widely used examples of international-comparison tests include the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Reform

Criterion-referenced tests are the most widely used type of test in American public education. All the large-scale standardized tests used to measure public-school performance, hold schools accountable for improving student learning results, and comply with state or federal policies—such as the No Child Left Behind Act—are criterion-referenced tests, including the assessments being developed to measure student achievement of the Common Core State Standards. Criterion-referenced tests are used for these purposes because the goal is to determine whether educators and schools are successfully teaching students what they are expected to learn.

Criterion-referenced tests are also used by educators and schools practicing proficiency-based learning, a term that refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma.  In most cases, proficiency-based systems use state learning standards to determine academic expectations and define “proficiency” in a given course, content area, or grade level. Criterion-referenced tests are one method used to measure academic progress and achievement in relation to standards.

Following a wide variety of state and federal policies aimed at improving school and teacher performance, criterion-referenced standardized tests have become an increasingly prominent part of public schooling in the United States. When focused on reforming schools and improving student achievement, these tests are used in a few primary ways:

  • To hold schools and educators accountable for educational results and student performance. In this case, test scores are used as a measure of effectiveness, and low scores may trigger a variety of consequences for schools and teachers.
  • To evaluate whether students have learned what they are expected to learn. In this case, test scores are seen as a representative indicator of student achievement.
  • To identify gaps in student learning and academic progress. Test scores may be used, along with other information about students, to diagnose learning needs so that educators can provide appropriate services, instruction, or academic support.
  • To identify achievement gaps among different student groups. Students of color, students who are not proficient in English, students from low-income households, and students with physical or learning disabilities tend to score, on average, well below white students from more educated, higher income households on standardized tests. In this case, exposing and highlighting achievement gaps may be seen as an essential first step in the effort to educate all students well, which can lead to greater public awareness and resulting changes in educational policies and programs.
  • To determine whether educational policies are working as intended. Elected officials and education policy makers may rely on standardized-test results to determine whether their laws and policies are working as intended, or to compare educational performance from school to school or state to state. They may also use the results to persuade the public and other elected officials that their policies are in the best interest of children and society.

Debate

The widespread use of high-stakes standardized tests in the United States has made criterion-referenced tests an object of criticism and debate. While many educators believe that criterion-referenced tests are a fair and useful way to evaluate student, teacher, and school performance, others argue that the overuse, and potential misuse, of the tests could have negative consequences that outweigh their benefits.

The following are a few representative arguments typically made by proponents of criterion-referenced testing:

  • The tests are better suited to measuring learning progress than norm-referenced exams, and they give educators information they can use to improve teaching and school performance.
  • The tests are fairer to students than norm-referenced tests because they don’t compare the relative performance of students; they evaluate achievement against a common and consistently applied set of criteria.
  • The tests apply the same learning standards to all students, which can hold underprivileged or disadvantaged students to the same high expectations as other students. Historically, students of color, students who are not proficient in English, students from low-income households, and students with physical or learning disabilities have suffered from lower academic achievement, and many educators contend that this pattern of underperformance results, at least in part, from lower academic expectations. Raising academic expectations for these student groups, and making sure they reach those expectations, is believed to promote greater equity in education.
  • The tests can be constructed with open-ended questions and tasks that require students to use higher-level cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, reasoning, analysis, or interpretation. Multiple-choice and true-false questions promote memorization and factual recall, but they do not ask students to apply what they have learned to solve a challenging problem or write insightfully about a complex issue, for example. For a related discussion, see 21st century skills and Bloom’s taxonomy.

The following are representative arguments typically made by critics of criterion-referenced testing:

  • The tests are only as accurate or fair as the learning standards upon which they are based. If the standards are vaguely worded, or if they are either too difficult or too easy for the students being evaluated, the associated test results will reflect the flawed standards. A test administered in eleventh grade that reflects a level of knowledge and skill students should have acquired in eighth grade would be one general example. Alternatively, tests may not be appropriately “aligned” with learning standards, so that even if the standards are clearly written, age appropriate, and focused on the right knowledge and skills, the test might not designed well enough to achievement of the standards.
  • The process of determining proficiency levels and passing scores on criterion-referenced tests can be highly subjective or misleading—and the potential consequences can be significant, particularly if the tests are used to make high-stakes decisions about students, teachers, and schools. Because reported “proficiency” rises and falls in direct relation to the standards or cut-off scores used to make a proficiency determination, it’s possible to manipulate the perception and interpretation of test results by elevating or lowering either standards and passing scores. And when educators are evaluated based on test scores, their job security may rest on potentially misleading or flawed results. Even the reputations of national education systems can be negatively affected when a large percentage of students fail to achieve “proficiency” on international assessments.
  • The subjective nature of proficiency levels allows the tests to be exploited for political purposes to make it appear that schools are either doing better or worse than they actually are. For example, some states have been accused of lowering proficiency standards of standardized tests to increase the number of students achieving “proficiency,” and thereby avoid the consequences—negative press, public criticism, large numbers of students being held back or denied diplomas (in states that base graduation eligibility on test scores)—that may result from large numbers of students failing to achieve expected or required proficiency levels.
  • If the tests primarily utilize multiple-choice questions—which, in the case of standardized testing, makes scoring faster and less expensive because it can be done by computers rather than human scorers—they will promote rote memorization and factual recall in schools, rather than the higher-order thinking skills students will need in college, careers, and adult life. For example, the overuse or misuse of standardized testing can encourage a phenomenon known as “teaching to the test,” which means that teachers focus too much on test preparation and the academic content that will be evaluated by standardized tests, typically at the expense of other important topics and skills.

Student Outcomes

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The term student outcomes typically refers to either (1) the desired learning objectives or standards that schools and teachers want students to achieve, or (2) the educational, societal, and life effects that result from students being educated. In the first case, student outcomes are the intended goals of a course, program, or learning experience; in the second case, student outcomes are the actual results that students either achieve or fail to achieve during their education or later on in life. The terms learning outcomes and educational outcomes are common synonyms.

While the term student outcomes is widely and frequently used by educators, it may be difficult to determine precisely what is being referred to when the term is used without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation. When investigating or reporting on student outcomes, it is important to determine precisely how the term is being defined in a specific educational context. In some cases, for example, the term may be used in a general or undefined sense (“Our school is working to improve student outcomes”), while in others it may have a specific pedagogical or technical meaning (“The student outcomes for this course are X, Y, and Z”).

The following representative examples illustrate the different ways in which the term student outcomes may be used:

  • Positive and negative outcomes: Generally speaking, student outcomes are considered—either explicitly or implicitly—to be positive or negative by educators. If students are learning what they are expected to learn, or graduation rates in a school are rising, these results would generally be viewed as “positive student outcomes.” Conversely, low or declining test scores and high dropout rates would be “negative student outcomes.”
  • Instructional outcomes: Schools and teachers may define student outcomes as the knowledge, skills, and habits of work that students are expected to acquire by the end of an instructional period, such as a course, program, or school year. In this sense, the term may be synonymous with learning objectives or learning standards, which are brief written statements that describe what students should know and be able to do. Teachers often establish instructional goals for a course, project, or other learning experience, and those goals may then be used to guide what and how they teach (a process that is sometimes called “backwards planning” or “backward design”). While the term student outcomes may be used in this sense, terms such as learning objective and learning target are more common.
  • Educational outcomes: The results achieved by schools may also be considered “student outcomes” by educators and others, including results such as standardized-test scores, graduation rates, and college-enrollment rates. In this sense, the term may be synonymous with student achievement, since achievement typically implies education-specific results such as improvements in test scores.
  • Societal and life outcomes: In some cases, the term student outcomes, and synonyms such as educational outcomes, may imply broader, more encompassing, and more far-reaching educational results, including the impact that education has on individuals and society. For example, higher employment rates, lower incarceration rates, better health, reduce dependency on social services, and increased civic participation—e.g., higher voting rates, volunteerism rates, or charitable giving—have all been correlated with better education.

Long-Term English Learner

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Long-term English learner (or LTEL) is a formal educational classification given to students who have been enrolled in American schools for more than six years, who are not progressing toward English proficiency, and who are struggling academically due to their limited English skills. States, districts, and schools determine the criteria and student characteristics used to identify long-term English learners, but definitions and classification criteria may vary widely from place to place. Given that these students are typically identified after six or more years of enrollment in formal education, long-term English learners are most commonly enrolled in middle schools and high schools. While some long-term English learners come from immigrant families, the majority are American citizens who have lived most or all of their lives in the United States.

Generally speaking, long-term English learners struggle with reading, writing, and academic language—the oral, written, auditory, and visual language proficiency and understanding required to learn effectively in academic programs—and consequently they have fallen behind their English-speaking peers academically and have accumulated significant learning gaps over the course of their education. While many long-term English learners are bilingual and articulate in English, and many sound like native English speakers, they typically have limited writing and reading skills in both their native language and in English, and their academic-literacy skills in English are not as well developed as their social-language abilities.

The defining characteristic of long-term English learners is that their English-language deficits have grown more severe and consequential over time, which has negatively affected their ability to achieve their full academic potential. Many long-term English learners have also developed habits of social detachment, academic disengagement, or learned passivity, and while many aspire to attend college or pursue professional careers, the students may be unaware that their academic experiences are not adequately preparing them for these aspirations. Long-term English learners are also more likely to be held back or drop out of school.

English-language learners—students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses—may become long-term English learners for a number of reasons, including the following representative examples:

  • The students may have gone without adequate English-language instruction for an extended period of time due to a family relocation or disruption in their formal schooling. For example, their family may have moved to another country or to a school system that was not equipped to adequately teach and support English-language learners, or the students may have come from a country experiencing political, social, or economic upheavals, which prevented them from attending school for long periods of time.
  • The students may have been enrolled in weak, poorly designed, or ineffective language-development programs that did not improve or accelerate their English proficiency. For example, many schools with small populations of English-language learners do not have the experience, expertise, or resources need to create effective English-language instructional programs.
  • The elementary schools the students attended were not equipped to teach and support English-language learners, which delayed their acquisition of English proficiency, academic language, and the foundational knowledge and skills acquired by their English-speaking peers. For example, many teachers have not received training in the specialized instructional strategies required to teach English-language learners effectively, and some districts and schools do not have the resources needed to hire teachers with expertise in teaching English-language learners.
  • The students may have been misidentified by poorly designed diagnostic assessments or biased tests that led to their enrollment in inappropriate courses and programs. For example, the students may have been enrolled in special-education programs for native English speakers that did not help them develop their English proficiency, or they may have been identified as “struggling readers” rather than English-language learners who require specialized English-language instruction. For a related discussion, see test accommodations.
  • The families of long-term English learners may have been unable to advocate for their children due to cultural or linguistic barriers. For example, some immigrant parents may be unaccustomed to American schools and cultural expectations, and consequently they may not have the confidence or language ability needed to navigate school policies and request specialized services for their children.
  • The students may have experienced social, cultural, and linguistic isolation in school, or some may have experienced overt neglect, bias, or racism. For example, the “outsider status,” cultural exclusion, or sense of alienation that some long-term English learners feel could lead to a disinterest in school or in improving their English-language skills, while school programs and policies may intentionally or unintentionally limit or deny students access to specialized English-language instruction.

For more detailed discussions, including relevant reforms and debates, see academic languagedual-language education, English-language learner, and multicultural education.

Common Planning Time

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In schools, common planning time refers to any period of time that is scheduled during the school day for multiple teachers, or teams of teachers, to work together.

In most cases, common planning time is considered to be a form of professional development, since its primary purpose is to bring teachers together to learn from one another and collaborate on projects that will lead to improvements in lesson quality, instructional effectiveness, and student achievement. Generally speaking, these improvements result from (1) the improved coordination and communication that occurs among teachers who meet and talk regularly, (2) the learning, insights, and constructive feedback that occur during professional discussions among teachers, and (3) the lessons, units, materials, and resources that are created or improved when teachers work on them collaboratively. While common planning time may be used for other purposes in some schools and situations—for example, staff members may use the time to coordinate an academic program or school-improvement initiative—the term is predominately associated with teaching-related planning and work.

While the term suggests that the primary activity of common planning time is “planning,” the time may be devoted to a wide variety of activities. The following are a few representative examples of general activities that often take place during common planning time:

  • Discussing teacher work: Teachers may collectively review lesson plans or assessments that have been used in a class, and then offer critical feedback and recommendations for improvement.
  • Discussing student work: Teachers may look at examples of student work turned in for a class, and then offer recommendations on how lessons or teaching approaches may be modified to improve learning and the quality of student work.
  • Discussing student data: Teachers may analyze student-performance data from a class to identify trends—such as which students are consistently failing or underperforming—and collaboratively develop proactive teaching and support strategies to help students who may be struggling academically. By discussing the students they have in common, teachers can develop a stronger understanding of the specific learning needs and abilities of certain students, which can then help them coordinate and improve how those students are taught.
  • Discussing professional literature: Teachers may select a text to read, such as a research study or an article about a specialized instructional technique, and then engage in a focused conversation about the text and how it can help inform or improve their teaching techniques.
  • Creating courses and curriculum: Teachers may collaboratively work on lesson plans, assignments, projects, and new courses, such as an interdisciplinary course taught by two teachers from different subject areas (for example, an art-history course taught by an art teacher and a history teacher). Teachers may also plan or develop other types of learning experiences, such as capstone projects, demonstrations of learning, learning pathways, personal learning plans, or portfolios, for example.

Reform

Common planning time can be contrasted with “teacher preparation time” or “prep periods,” which are periods of time during the school day when individual teachers, typically working on their own, can plan and prepare for their classes, meet with students, or grade assignments. Common planning time could be considered an evolution of the traditional preparation period, and in recent decades there has been a growing movement in education to encourage more frequent and purposeful collaboration among educators.

While common planning time may be used differently from school to school, and it may be more or less effective in achieving its intended goals, the concept is often associated with two general school-improvement strategies:

  • Professional learning communities: A widely used professional-development strategy in schools, professional learning communities are groups of educators who meet regularly, share expertise, and work collaboratively to improve their teaching skills and the academic performance of their students. In some schools, the terms common planning time and professional learning community (or any of its many synonyms) may be used interchangeably, particularly when the time is largely or entirely devoted to activities commonly associated with professional learning communities. For a more detailed discussion, see professional learning community.
  • Teaming: Another widely used school-improvement strategy, teaming pairs a group of teachers (typically between four and six) with sixty to eighty students. The general goal of teaming is to ensure that students are well known by core group of adults in the school, that their learning needs are understood and addressed, and that they receive the social, emotional, and academic support from teachers and staff that they need to succeed in school. Common planning time is often provided to teachers on a particular team to help them plan and coordinate the team-related projects and work. For a more detailed discussion, see teaming.

Debate

While the common planning time concept is not typically an object of debate, skeptics may question whether the time will actually have a positive impact on student learning, whether teachers will use the time purposefully and productively, or whether students would be better served if teachers spent more of their time teaching. Since it often extremely difficult, from a research perspective, to attribute gains in student performance to any one influence in a school (because so many potential factors can affect performance, including familial or socioeconomic dynamics outside of a school’s control), the benefits of common planning time may be difficult to measure objectively and reliably.

It is more likely, however, that common planning time will be criticized or debated when the time is poorly used or facilitated, when meetings become disorganized and unfocused, when teachers have negative experiences during meetings, and when the practice is perceived as a burdensome administrative requirement— rather than, say, an opportunity to improve one’s teaching skills. Like any school-improvement strategy or program, the quality of the design and execution will typically determine the results achieved. If meetings are poorly facilitated and conversations lapse into complaints about policies or personalities, or if educators fail to turn group learning into actual changes in instructional techniques, common planning time is less likely to be successful.

Advocates of common planning time may argue that the practice can foster and promote a wide variety of positive professional interactions and practices among teachers in a school. For example:

  • Teachers may assume more leadership responsibility or feel a greater investment in a school-improvement process.
  • Teachers may feel more professionally confident and better equipped to address the learning needs of their students, and they may become more willing to engage in the kind of self-reflection that leads to professional growth and improvement.
  • The faculty culture may improve, and professional relationships can become stronger and more trusting if the faculty is interacting and communicating more productively.
  • Teachers may participate in professional collaborations more frequently, such as co-developing and co-teaching interdisciplinary courses.
  • More instructional innovation may take hold in classrooms and academic programs, and teachers may begin incorporating effective instructional techniques that are being used by colleagues.
  • Teachers may begin using more evidence-based approaches to designing lessons and delivering instruction.

When implementing common planning time, administrators and teachers may encounter a number of challenges that could give rise to criticism or debate. For example:

  • Competing responsibilities and logistical issues can make the scheduling of regular common planning time difficult. Insufficient meeting time or irregularly scheduled time may then undermine the strategy and its intended benefits.
  • A lack of support from the superintendent, principal, or other school leaders could lead to an inadequate investment of time, attention, and resources.
  • Inadequate training for group facilitators could produce ineffective facilitation, disorganized meetings, and an erosion of confidence in the strategy.
  • A lack of clear, explicit goals for common planning time can lead to unfocused conversations, misspent time, and general confusion about the purpose of the meetings.
  • A negative school or faculty culture could contribute to tensions, conflicts, factions, and other issues that undermine the potential benefits of common planning time.
  • A lack of observable, measurable progress or student-achievement gains can erode support, motivation, and enthusiasm for the strategy.
  • Highly divergent educational philosophies, belief systems, or learning styles can lead to disagreements that undermine the collegiality and sense of shared purpose typically required to make common planning time successful.

 

Social Promotion

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Social promotion is the practice of promoting students to the next grade level even when they have not learned the material they were taught or achieved expected learning standards. Social promotion is often contrasted with retention, the practice of holding students back and making them repeat a grade when they fail to meet academic expectations, or strategies such as proficiency-based learning, which may require students to demonstrate they have achieved academic expectations before they are promoted to the next grade level.

Generally speaking, the practice is called “social” promotion because non-academic factors and considerations, including societal pressures and expectations, influence promotion decisions. For example, educators and parents may not want to separate a young student from his or her friends or peer group, a school or community may not want a top athlete to lose his or her eligibility to play sports, or schools may not want to experience the consequences and public embarrassment that may result if significant numbers of students are held back. Considerations about the “socialization” of students—how they will learn to interact productively with peers and navigate social situations and expectations—also influence promotion decisions, particularly during the elementary grades. For example, educators may not want to damage a student’s self-esteem or put him or her at greater risk of suffering from the social, emotional, behavioral, and psychological problems often associated with grade retention. In these cases, promoting students, even though they did not meet academic expectations, is perceived to be in the best interests of the student. In a word, social promotion may result from a wide variety of educational, cultural, and socioeconomic causes—far too many to extensively catalogue here.

It should be noted that “social promotion” is largely used as a pejorative term, which complicates any attempt to define the concept since it carries negative connotations—the implication is that students are being promoted even though they are not academically ready and haven’t “earned” the promotion. The issue, however, is far more complicated in practice. While most debates about the topic are often framed as an either/or option between social promotion and grade retention, many observers have suggested that this dichotomy is both misleading and unhelpful, given that grade promotion may be the best option for students who have failed to meet academic expectations (because holding students back can have harmful effects), and grade retention is not the only solution to inadequate academic preparation (because schools can use a wide variety of academic support strategies to accelerate learning and help students catch up).

The central issue in social promotion is not the act of promotion, per se, but the problems associated with students progressing through the educational system when they haven’t learned what they were supposed to learn. The distinction here is subtle but significant. For example, are learning gaps growing over time and becoming more severe and consequential with each passing grade? Or are learning gaps being addressed and reduced over time, even though students have not met all academic expectations before being promoted from one grade to the next? In the first case, social promotion can have a variety of negative consequences for students and schools, while in the second case promotion is relatively harmless because the real problem—students not learning—is being addressed over time. When investigating or reporting on social promotion, it is important to scrutinize all the factors associated with practice, including the benefits or consequences it may have for students in specific situations.

Reform

While there is no way to determine precisely how prevalent social promotion is in public schools, the practice appears to be both common and widespread, particularly among students of color, students from lower-income households, students who are not proficient in English, and students with disabilities—i.e., groups more likely to experience cultural, socioeconomic, and educational inequality. One national survey, for example, found that a majority of participating public-school teachers reported that they promoted academically underprepared students in the preceding year. In addition, scores on standardized tests indicate that learning gaps are both significant and persistent across grade levels throughout the United States.

Given that the causes and forms of social promotion are both many and complex, states, districts, and schools may use a wide variety of strategies to eliminate or reduce social promotion. For example, proficiency-based learning, and related strategies such as demonstrations of learning, may require students to demonstrate achievement of expected learning standards before they are promoted to the next grade level. High-stakes tests—which may trigger penalties for underperforming schools, teachers, and students—are another strategy, although an extremely controversial one, used by states and policy makers. For example, students who perform poorly on some standardized tests may not be promoted to the next grade level until they achieve a minimum score on a test.

Educators may also use any number of academic support and acceleration strategies to help students meet expected learning standards or catch up with their peers academically, which would therefore render social promotion unnecessary. For example, “early warning systems” are used by educators to proactively identify students who may be at greater risk of dropping out or struggling academically, socially, and emotionally in school. Most early warning systems consist of educators collecting and analyzing student data—such as test scores, course grades, failure rates, absences, and behavioral incidences—before students begin a grade, and then using that information to provide the most appropriate academic programming, support, and services to help the students succeed. Schools are also increasingly using a variety of strategies known as “expanded learning time” to increase the amount of time students are learning in school, outside of school, and during vacation breaks, which can help who fallen behind academically catch up with their peers.

Other methods used to reduce learning gaps focus on the underlying causes of student underperformance, including a lack of sufficient interest, motivation, ambition, or aspirations. In these cases, educators may employ strategies that attempt to engage student interests and ambitions or provide them with more “personalized” instruction, lessons, and support. Strategies such as differentiation, learning pathways, and personalized learning would be three representative examples.

Debate

Social promotion is a complex problem with complex causes. While low-performing schools and poor-quality teaching certainly contribute to inadequate academic preparation, larger cultural and socioeconomic forces—from racism to income inequality to disparity in educational attainment—significantly contribute to the achievement gaps and opportunity gaps that often play a part in social promotion. For these reasons, debates about social promotion not only tend to be multifaceted and nuanced, and the practice has far-reaching implications for schools and society—and no easy solutions.

Critics of social promotion tend to argue that promoting academically unprepared students not only does an injustice to the students, but it can exacerbate the problems associated with the practice. For example, students are likely to fall further and further behind academically, which can increase the chances that they will not catch up with their peers and drop out of school before graduating. In addition, teachers in higher grades may become increasingly burdened with underprepared students who will not only require more time, attention and resources, but who will also be placed into courses alongside students who are ready for more challenging lessons and instruction. In these cases, the teacher’s job may become significantly more difficult, and the prepared students may not receive the attention and instruction they need and deserve. Or conversely, the unprepared students will require more of a teacher’s time and attention, which can negatively affect instructional quality for prepared students.

Critics of the practice may also argue that social promotion sends a variety of messages to students—for example, meeting expectations is optional, low-quality work is acceptable, or failure will still be rewarded—that could have negative long-term consequences for both the students and society. When social promotion becomes institutionalized or widespread, it can also mislead parents, policy makers, and the public into believing that students are making adequate progress in school and succeeding academically, when in fact their academic progress may be masking deeper, underlying problems in the system.

Critics may also argue that social promotion keeps students in the same type of educational settings, courses, and programs that are simply not working for them. In this case, if learning needs were being accurately diagnosed, the rationale goes, students could be placed into alternative courses and programs where they would be more likely to receive the kind of instruction and support they need to succeed in school (rather than being forced to retake the same courses that did not work the first time around, which may happen in the case of grade retention). Critics of social promotion may also cite research indicating that holding all students to high academic expectations increases their academic achievement and preparation, no matter where they started from, or that strong teaching and academic support can accelerate learning progress by months or years, thereby avoiding the need to socially promote students.

Those who support social promotion, or believe that it may be beneficial to students in certain cases, may argue that holding students back and making them repeat grades can have a variety of negative consequences: it will separate students from their natural peer group; it may increase the chances that they will struggle academically or drop out of school; it may increase the likelihood that they will suffer from low self-esteem, ridicule, and bullying; or it can increase the risk of social, emotional, behavioral, and psychological problems. In these cases, advocates of social promotion may cite research indicating that grade retention can have a variety of negative effects on students, and that in many cases grade retention does not work—students who are held back often never catch up with their peers, and they are at a greater risk of dropping out during adolescence.

In addition, the costs associated with grade retention can be significant, since holding students back effectively adds a year to the total cost of teaching those students (assuming the students remain in school). In this case, social promotion may result from financial pressures and logistical concerns, such as the increased costs and operational complexities associated with holding students back or providing them with the additional teaching and services they need to meet academic expectations.

Common Standards

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In education, the term common standards predominately refers to learning standards—concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education—that are used to guide public-school instruction, assessment, and curricula within a country, state, school, or academic field. That said, there are different types of common standards in education that may be used in a variety of ways (see examples below).

In brief, standards are consider “common” when (1) a single set of standards is used throughout an education system, state, district, or school, and (2) when they are applied and evaluated in consistent ways, whether they are learning standards for students or professional standards for educators. For example, standardized tests are one method used to consistently evaluate whether students from different schools and states have achieved expected learning standards.

For more detailed discussions, including relevant debates, see learning standards, proficiency, and high expectations.

The following are a few representative examples of the main forms of common standards in education:

  • Subject-area learning standards: Both national and international organizations that represent specific academic fields and content areas often develop learning standards for their academic disciplines. Typically, committees of experts and specialists develop these learning standards, which are then publicly released for voluntary adoption and use by countries, states, districts, schools, or subject-area professional organizations. The standards developed by the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance would be two examples. State and national governments and agencies also develop subject-area learning standards (see examples below).
  • International learning standards: Some international organizations representing groups of educators in specific academic disciplines throughout the world develop standards for learning or teaching in a specific academic field. The standards developed by the International Reading Association and the International Society for Technology in Education would be two examples.
  • National learning standards: Many countries, such as Canada and Singapore, use national learning standards to guide instruction in public schools—i.e., national governmental agencies are responsible for developing and overseeing the learning standards applied to public schools. In the United States, the Common Core State Standards for the subject areas of English language arts and mathematics are two sets of learning standards that have been adopted by a majority of states. Unlike Canada and Singapore, the federal government does not play a role in developing these learning standards, but their widespread adoption by most states makes them a form of common standards used throughout the country. The Next Generation Science Standards would be another example similar to the Common Core State Standards.
  • State learning standards: State education agencies (i.e., departments of education) and state-based professional organizations also develop common academic standards for use within a particular state. All fifty states in the United States have established—through legislative action or state rules and requirements—learning standards for the major academic content areas (i.e., English language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, health, etc.). Recently, many states incorporated the Common Core State Standards into their state learning standards, and many of those same states are participating in the development of the Next Generation Science Standards.
  • Professional standards: Many membership organizations for educators create common professional standards for their specific academic field or area of expertise—the National Science Teachers Association’s Standards for Science Teacher Preparation, the National Council for the Social Studies’ National Standards for Social Studies Teachers, and Learning Forward’s Standards for Professional Learning would be three examples. In addition to professional standards for teachers, professional standards have been developed for administrators and other school staff, such as guidance counselors, school psychologists, or athletic coaches. Professional standards may also be developed or adopted by state education agencies and other governing bodies, which then use the standards to guide job-performance evaluations or teaching licensure and certification, for example. Professional standards may be applied at the international, national, state, and organizational levels, and they typically describe expectations for competence, behavior, and professional growth.
  • Accreditation standards: Organizations and agencies that accredit schools, academic institutions, and teacher-education programs also develop and use common standards during the accreditation process. In these cases, the common standards may be used in the evaluation of schools and programs in a given state or region. For example, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges accredits public schools, career and technical education programs, and postsecondary institutions in the northeastern United States, it uses different sets of standards for the different types of schools it accredits.

Learning Objectives

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In education, learning objectives are brief statements that describe what students will be expected to learn by the end of school year, course, unit, lesson, project, or class period. In many cases, learning objectives are the interim academic goals that teachers establish for students who are working toward meeting more comprehensive learning standards.

Defining learning objective is complicated by the fact that educators use a wide variety of terms for learning objectives, and the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. For example, the terms student learning objectivebenchmark, grade-level indicatorlearning target, performance indicator, and learning standard—to name just a few of the more common terms—may refer to specific types of learning objectives in specific educational contexts. Educators also create a wide variety of homegrown terms for learning objectives—far too many to catalog here. For these reasons, this entry describes only a few general types and characteristics.

While educators use learning objectives in different ways to achieve a variety of instructional goals, the concept is closely related to learning progressions, or the purposeful sequencing of academic expectations across multiple developmental stages, ages, or grade levels. Learning objectives are a way for teachers to structure, sequence, and plan out learning goals for a specific instructional period, typically for the purpose of moving students toward the achievement of larger, longer-term educational goals such as meeting course learning expectations, performing well on a standardized test, or graduating from high school prepared for college. For these reasons, learning objectives are a central strategy in proficiency-based learning, which refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating understanding of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma (learning objectives that move students progressively toward the achievement of academic standards may be called performance indicators or performance benchmarks, among other terms).

Learning objectives are also increasingly being used in the job-performance evaluations of teachers, and the term student learning objectives is commonly associated with this practice in many states. For a more detailed discussion, including relevant reforms and debates on the topic, see value-added measures and student-growth measures.

Learning objectives are also a way to establish and articulate academic expectations for students so they know precisely what is expected of them. When learning objectives are clearly communicated to students, the reasoning goes, students will be more likely to achieve the presented goals. Conversely, when learning objectives are absent or unclear, students may not know what’s expected of them, which may then lead to confusion, frustration, or other factors that could impede the learning process.

While the terminology, structure, and use of learning objectives can differ significantly from state to state or school to school, the following are a few of the major forms that learning objectives take:

  • School-year or grade-level objectives: In this case, learning objectives may be synonymous with learning standards, which are concise, written descriptions of what students are expected to know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education. Grade-level learning objectives describe what students should achieve academically by the end of a particular grade level or grade span (terms such as grade-level indicators or grade-level benchmarks may be used in reference to these learning objectives or standards).
  • Course or program objectives: Teachers may also determine learning objectives for courses or other academic programs, such as summer-school sessions or vacation-break programs. In this case, the objectives may be the same academic goals described in learning standards (in the case of a full-year course, for example), or they may describe interim goals (for courses that are shorter in duration).
  • Unit or project objectives: Teachers may determine learning objectives for instructional units, which typically comprise a series of lessons focused on a specific topic or common theme, such as an historical period, for example. In the case of project-based learning—an instructional approach that utilizes multifaceted projects as a central organizing strategy for educating students—teachers may determine learning objectives for the end of long-term project rather than a unit.
  • Lesson or class-period objectives: Teachers may also articulate learning objectives for specific lessons that compose a unit, project, or course, or they may determine learning objectives for each day they instruct students (in this case, the term learning target is often used). For example, teachers may write a set of daily learning objectives on the blackboard, or post them to an online course-management system, so that students know what the learning expectations are for a particular class period. In this case, learning objectives move students progressively toward meeting more comprehensive learning goals for a unit or course.

In practice, teachers will commonly express learning objectives in different ways to achieve different instructional goals, or to encourage students to think about the learning process is a specific way. While the minutia and nuances of pedagogical strategy are beyond the scope of this resource, the following are a few common ways that learning objectives may be framed or expressed by teachers:

  • Descriptive statements: Learning objectives may be expressed as brief statements describing what students should know or be able to do by the end of a defined instructional period. For example: Explain how the Constitution establishes the separation of powers among the three branches of the United States government—legislative, executive, and judicial—and articulate the primary powers held by each branch. State learning standards, which may comprise a variety of learning objectives, are commonly expressed as descriptive statements.
  • “I can” statements: Teachers may choose to express learning objectives as “I can” statements as a way to frame the objectives from a student standpoint. The basic idea is that “I can” statements encourage students to identify with the learning goals, visualize themselves achieving the goals, or experience a greater sense of personal accomplishment when the learning objectives are achieved. For example: I can explain how the Constitution establishes the separation of powers among the three branches of the United States government—legislative, executive, and judicial—and I can articulate the primary powers held by each branch.
  • “Students will be able to” statements: “Students will be able to” statements are another commonly used format for learning objectives, and the abbreviation SWBAT may be used in place of the full phrase. For example: SWBAT explain how the Constitution establishes the separation of powers among the three branches of the United States government—legislative, executive, and judicial—and articulate the primary powers held by each branch.

Stakeholder

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In education, the term stakeholder typically refers to anyone who is invested in the welfare and success of a school and its students, including administrators, teachers, staff members, students, parents, families, community members, local business leaders, and elected officials such as school board members, city councilors, and state representatives. Stakeholders may also be collective entities, such as local businesses, organizations, advocacy groups, committees, media outlets, and cultural institutions, in addition to organizations that represent specific groups, such as teachers unions, parent-teacher organizations, and associations representing superintendents, principals, school boards, or teachers in specific academic disciplines (e.g., the National Council of Teachers of English or the Vermont Council of Teachers of Mathematics). In a word, stakeholders have a “stake” in the school and its students, meaning that they have personal, professional, civic, or financial interest or concern.

In some cases, the term may be used in a more narrow or specific sense—say, in reference to a particular group or committee—but the term is commonly used in a more general and inclusive sense. The term “stakeholders” may also be used interchangeably with the concept of a “school community,” which necessarily comprises a wide variety of stakeholders.

Reform

The idea of a “stakeholder” intersects with many school-reform concepts and strategies—such as leadership teams, shared leadership, and voice—that generally seek to expand the number of people involved in making important decisions related to a school’s organization, operation, and academics. For example, shared leadership entails the creation of leadership roles and decision-making opportunities for teachers, staff members, students, parents, and community members, while voice refers the degree to which schools include and act upon the values, opinions, beliefs, perspectives, and cultural backgrounds of the people in their community. Stakeholders may participate on a leadership team, take on leadership responsibilities in a school, or give “voice” to their ideas, perspectives, and opinions during community forums or school-board meetings, for example.

Stakeholders may also play a role in community-based learning, which refers to the practice of connecting what is being taught in a school to its surrounding community, which may include local history, literature, and cultural heritages, in addition to local experts, institutions, and natural environments. Community-based learning is also motivated by the belief that all communities have intrinsic educational assets that educators can use to enhance learning experiences for students, so stakeholders are necessarily involved in the process.

Generally speaking, the growing use of stakeholder in public education is based on the recognition that schools, as public institutions supported by state and local tax revenues, are not only part of and responsible to the communities they serve, but they are also obligated to involve the broader community in important decisions related to the governance, operation, or improvement of the school. Increasingly, schools are being more intentional and proactive about involving a greater diversity of stakeholders, particularly stakeholders from disadvantaged communities and backgrounds or from groups that have historically been underserved by schools or that have underperformed academically, including English-language learners, students of color, immigrant students, and special-education students. In some cases, federal or state programs and foundation grants may encourage or require the involvement of multiple stakeholder groups in a school-improvement effort as a condition of funding.

Stakeholder-engagement strategies are also widely considered central to successful school improvement by many individuals and organizations that work with public schools. Because some communities may be relatively uninformed about or disconnected from their local schools, a growing number of educational reformers and reform movements advocate for more inclusive, community-wide involvement in a school-improvement process. The general theory is that by including more members of a school community in the process, school leaders can foster a stronger sense of “ownership” among the participants and within the broader community. In other words, when the members of an organization or community feel that their ideas and opinions are being heard, and when they are given the opportunity to participate authentically in a planning or improvement process, they will feel more invested in the work and in the achievement of its goals, which will therefore increase the likelihood of success.

In some cases, when schools make major organizational, programmatic, or instructional changes—particularly when parents and community members are not informed in advance or involved in the process—it can give rise to criticism, resistance, and even organized opposition. As a reform strategy, involving a variety of stakeholders from the broader community can improve communication and public understanding, while also incorporating the perspectives, experiences, and expertise of participating community members to improve reform proposals, strategies, or processes. In these cases, educators may use phrases such as “securing community support,” “building stakeholder buy-in,” or “fostering collective ownership” to describe efforts being made to involve community stakeholders in a planning and improvement process. In other cases, stakeholders are individuals who have power or influence in a community, and schools may be obligated, by law or social expectation, to keep certain parties informed the school and involved in its governance.

English-Language Learner

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English-language learners, or ELLs, are students who are unable to communicate fluently or learn effectively in English, who often come from non-English-speaking homes and backgrounds, and who typically require specialized or modified instruction in both the English language and in their academic courses.

Educators use a number of terms when referring to English-language learners, including English learners (or ELs), limited English proficient (LEP) students, non-native English speakers, language-minority students, and either bilingual students or emerging bilingual students. The proliferation of terms, some of which may be used synonymously and some of which may not, can create confusion. For example, the term English-language learner is often used interchangeably with limited English proficient student, but some school districts and states may define the terms differently for distinct classifications of students. Nonetheless, the federal government and many state governments have acknowledged that both terms refer to the same group of students—those with limited proficiency in English. When investigating or reporting on English-language learners, it is important to determine precisely how the term, or a related term, is being defined in a specific educational context. In some cases, for example, the terms are used in a general sense, while in others they may be used in an official or technical sense to describe students with specific linguistic needs who receive specialized educational services.

Generally speaking, English-language learners do not have the English-language ability needed to participate fully in American society or achieve their full academic potential in schools and learning environments in which instruction is delivered largely or entirely in English. In most cases, students are identified as “English-language learners” after they complete a formal assessment of their English literacy, during which they are tested in reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension; if the assessment results indicate that the students will struggle in regular academic courses, they may be enrolled in either dual-language courses or English as a second language (ESL) programs.

English-language learners may also be students who were formerly classified as limited English proficient, but who have since acquired English-language abilities that have allowed them to transition into regular academic courses taught in English. While assessment results may indicate that they have achieved a level of English literacy that allows them to participate and succeed in English-only learning environments, the students may still struggle with academic language. For this reason, the federal government requires schools and programs receiving federal funding for English-language-learner programs to monitor the academic progress of students and provide appropriate academic support for up to two years after they transition into regular academic courses.

Reform

English-language learners are not only the fastest-growing segment of the school-age population in the United States, but they are also a tremendously diverse group representing numerous languages, cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. While most English-language learners were born in the United States, their parents and grandparents are often immigrants who speak their native language at home. In addition, English-language learners may face a variety of challenges that could adversely affect their learning progress and academic achievement, such as poverty, familial transiency, or non-citizenship status, to name just a few. Some English-language learners are also recently arrived immigrants or refugees who may have experienced war, social turmoil, persecution, and significant periods of educational disruption. In some extreme cases, for example, adolescent-age students may have had little or no formal schooling, and they may suffer from medical or psychological conditions related to their experiences (the term students with interrupted formal education, or SIFE, is often used in reference to this subpopulation of English-language learners).

On average, English-language learners also tend, relative to their English-speaking peers, to underperform on standardized tests, drop out of school at significantly higher rates, and decline to pursue postsecondary education. In school, they may also be enrolled—at significantly higher rates than their English-speaking peers—in lower-level courses taught by underprepared or less-experienced teachers who may not have the specialized training and resources needed to teach English-language learners effectively.

The increase in the number of English-language learners in public schools, coupled with the significant educational challenges faced by this student population, has led to numerous changes in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and teacher preparation. For example, states and national organizations have developed standards to guide curriculum and instruction in English-as a second language programs, while customized teaching and learning materials for English-language learners are now routinely introduced into regular academic courses. In addition, assessments and standardized tests have also been adapted to more accurately measure the academic achievement of English-language learners, and the majority of states now use the same large-scale assessment—the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment consortium’s ACCESS assessment (Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State)—to identify English-language learners, place them into appropriate programs, and measure their academic progress and English acquisition. Teacher-preparation programs and certification requirements have also been modified to address relevant skills and training, and many states and national accrediting associations require formal training in the instruction of English-language learners. And in schools with significant populations of English-language learners, relevant experience, credentials, and training are often given priority during hiring and employment.

While there are a wide variety of instructional models and academic-support strategies for English-language learners being used throughout the United States, the following represent the three dominant forms:

  • Dual-language education, formerly called bilingual education, refers to academic programs that are taught in two languages. While schools and teachers may use a wide variety of dual-language strategies, each with its own specific instructional goals, the programs are typically designed to develop English fluency, content knowledge, and academic language simultaneously.
  • English as a second language refers to the teaching of English to students with different native or home languages using specially designed programs and techniques. English as a second language is an English-only instructional model, and most programs attempt to develop English skills and academic knowledge simultaneously. It is also known as English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), English as an additional language (EAL), and English as a foreign language (EFL).
  • Sheltered instruction refers to programs in which English-language learners are “sheltered” together to learn English and academic content simultaneously, either within a regular school or in a separate academy or building. Teachers are specially trained in sheltered instructional techniques that may require a distinct licensure, and there are many different sheltered models and instructional variations.

Debate

Given the culturally sensitive and often ideologically contentious nature of the peripheral issues raised by the participation of non-English-speaking students in the American public-education system—including politicized debates related to citizenship status, English primacy, immigration reform, and employment and social-services eligibility for non-citizens—it is perhaps unsurprising that English-language learners, and the instructional methods used to educate them, can become a source of debate. For example, a significant number of states have adopted “English as the official language” statutes, and citizen referendums have passed in other states prohibiting dual-language instruction except in special cases.

The issues of citizenship status and fairness tend to be at the center of debates about English-language learners and the best ways to educate them. Critics often argue that the use of the non-English languages in public schools (outside of world-language courses) deemphasizes the role of English as a source of linguistic and cultural unification. While critics generally do not object to bilingualism—the ability to speak two languages—they often contend that non-English instruction inhibits or delays the acquisition of English fluency (yet there is a growing body of research indicating that increasing reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in their native languages can facilitate English acquisition among English-language learners).

While there is widespread agreement that English-language learners should become proficient in English, debates often center on issues related to cultural assimilation. Those who favor assimilation into American society tend to emphasize English-only policies and instruction, while those who favor acculturation tend to argue for the importance of maintaining bicultural identity and bilingual development. In addition, since English-language learners and dual-education programs may require additional funding, training, and staffing, debates about fairness and resource allocation may also arise.

For more detailed discussions, see dual-language education (for debates related to non-English instruction), multicultural education (for debates related to cultural education and assimilation), and test accommodations and test bias (for debates related to the assessment of English-language learners).

Other related entries include equity, learning gap, achievement gap, and opportunity gap.

Proficiency

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In education, the term proficiency is used in a variety of ways, most commonly in reference to (1) proficiency levels, scales, and cut-off scores on standardized tests and other forms of assessment, (2) students achieving or failing to achieve proficiency levels determined by tests and assessments, (3) students demonstrating or failing to demonstrate proficiency in relation to learning standards (for a related discussion, see proficiency-based learning); and (4) teachers being deemed proficient or non-proficient on job-performance evaluations.

To understand how proficiency works in educational contexts, it is important to recognize that all proficiency determinations are based on some form of standards or measurement system, and that proficiency levels change in direct relation to the scales, standards, tests, and calculation methods being used to evaluate and determine proficiency. It is therefore possible, for example, to alter the perception of proficiency by lowering standards or cut-off scores on tests, or to overlook that two distinct—and therefore incomparable—proficiency systems are being compared side-by-side, even though different standards, tests, or calculation methods were used to determine proficiency (see Common systems vs. disparate systems below). Because the bar for proficiency can diverge significantly from system to system, state to state, test to test, school to school, and course to course, or from year to year when changes are made to learning standards and accompanying tests, proficiency in education may become a source of confusion, debate, controversy, and even deception.

The following are a few of the major issues related to proficiency determinations in education:

  • High standards vs. low standards: One source of debate is related to the standards upon which a proficiency determination is based, and whether the standards are being applied consistently or fairly to produce accurate results. Some may argue, for example, that the standards or cut-off scores for “proficiency” on a given test are too low, and therefore the test results will only produce “false positives”—i.e., they will indicate that students are proficient when they are not. A test administered in eleventh grade that reflects a level of knowledge and skill students should have acquired in eighth grade would be one general example. Because reported “proficiency” rises and falls in direct relation to the standards used to make a proficiency determination, it’s possible to manipulate the perception and interpretation of test results by elevating or lowering standards. Some states, for example, have been accused of lowering proficiency standards to increase the number of students achieving “proficiency,” and thereby avoid the consequences—negative press, public criticism, large numbers of students being held back or denied diplomas (in states that base graduation eligibility on test scores)—that may result from large numbers of students failing to achieve expected or required proficiency levels.
  • Common systems vs. disparate systems: Since proficiency must be determined by some form of measurement system—whether it’s a certain percentage of correct answers on a test or a highly sophisticated mathematical algorithm, as with value-added measures used in teacher evaluation—proficiency determinations can be more or less accurate based on the quality of the system being used, or they can be comparable (when common systems are used) or incomparable (when disparate systems are used). Confusion may result when there is disagreement about the methods being used to determine proficiency, or when two different systems are being compared even though the results are not comparable in a valid or reliable way. For example, when the Common Core State Standards were adopted by a number of states, the states were then required to use different standardized tests, based on a different set of standards, to determine “proficiency” (i.e., the tests would measure achievement against the more recently adopted Common Core standards, as opposed to the learning standards formerly used by the states). In this case, both the standards and the tests used to measure proficiency have changed significantly, which makes any comparisons between the old system (student test scores from previous years) and the new system (student scores on the new tests) difficult or impossible. Advocates of the Common Core typically argue that the new standards will allow for more consistent comparisons of student performance across state lines—and thereby more reliably or usefully measure student learning—because “common” standards and “common” tests are being used.
  • Alignment vs. misalignment: Proficiency levels may also rise or fall in relation to the level of alignment between a test and the content actually taught to students. For example, if schools teach a selection of concepts and skills that are not evaluated on a given test, the results may produce a “false negative”—i.e., students may have learned what they were taught, but they were not tested on content they were taught, producing misleading results (proficiency is based on the content that was tested, not the content that was taught). The question of alignment and misalignment often arises in debates about learning standards. For example, when states adopt a new set of learning standards, teachers then have to “align” what they teach to the new standards. If the process of alignment is poorly executed or delayed, students may take tests based on the new standards even though what they were taught was still based on an older set of standards. The adoption of the Common Core State Standards by a majority of states has become a source of discussion and debate on this issue.
  • Learning vs. reporting: As described above, it may be possible for students to learn a lot (or very little) in schools but still appear to have learned very little (or a lot) due to the systems and standards being applied, or due to the misalignment of teaching and testing. Potential confusion and problems, therefore, may stem from the tendency of people to view test scores as accurate, absolute measures of learning, rather than relatively limited indicators of learning that may be potentially flawed or misleading. (For a related discussion, see measurement error.) For example, students may learn important skills in school such as problem solving and researching that are not specifically evaluated by tests, or they may be have learned a large body of knowledge, just not the specific knowledge evaluated by a given test or assessment. In these cases, “proficiency” rates on tests—often reported as either percent proficient or proportion proficient—may present only a partial or misleading picture of what students have learned. It is for this reason, among others, that testing experts often recommend against making important decisions about students on the basis of a single test score.
  • Appropriate vs. inappropriate proficiency levels: Given the issues described above, proficiency determinations are also the object of debates related to the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a given proficiency scale, standard, or system. For example: Is it appropriate to hold a non-English-speaking student to the same proficiency standards, as measured by the same English-language tests, as a native-English-speaking student? Or, similarly, a recently immigrated student who has had very little formal education in her home country? (For a related discussion, see test bias.) Teacher evaluations are another object of debate and controversy on this issue, particularly when it comes to factoring student achievement into performance evaluations. Advocates of using student-achievement indicators, such as test scores, may argue that it is appropriate to consider student achievement, given that it’s a teacher’s job to improve student learning. If the academic achievement of their students is not considered, how is possible to accurately or meaningfully evaluate teacher performance? Opponents may counter-argue, however, that student achievement is influenced by a host of factors outside of a teacher’s control, such as student’s prior educational experiences, the socioeconomic status of the student’s parents, or the stability and support present in a student’s home environment. Consequently, it would inappropriate to hold teachers accountable for factors that are beyond their influence or control. In these cases, proficiency systems and determinations may be debated or disputed when they are perceived to be biased, unfair, or inequitable by one group or another.

School Community

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When used by educators, the term school community typically refers to the various individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions that are invested in the welfare and vitality of a public school and its community—i.e., the neighborhoods and municipalities served by the school.

In many contexts, the term encompasses the school administrators, teachers, and staff members who work in a school; the students who attend the school and their parents and families; and local residents and organizations that have a stake in the school’s success, such as school-board members, city officials, and elected representatives; businesses, organizations, and cultural institutions; and related organizations and groups such as parent-teacher associations, “booster clubs,” charitable foundations, and volunteer school-improvement committees (to name just a few). In other settings, however, educators may use the term when referring, more specifically, to the sense of “community” experienced by those working, teaching, and learning in a school—i.e., the administrators, faculty, staff, and students. In this case, educators may also be actively working to improve the culture of a school, strengthen relationships between teachers and students, and foster feelings of inclusion, caring, shared purpose, and collective investment.

The term school community also implicitly recognizes the social and emotional attachments that community members may have to a school, whether those attachments are familial (the parents and relatives of students, for example), experiential (alumni and alumnae), professional (those who work in and derive an income from the school), civic (those who are elected to oversee a school or who volunteer time and services), or socioeconomic (interested taxpayers and the local businesses who may employ graduates and therefore desire more educated, skilled, and qualified workers). Depending on the specific context in which the term is used, school community may have more or less inclusive—or more or less precise—connotations.

School community may also be used interchangeably stakeholders, since a school community necessarily comprises a wide variety of “stakeholders.”

Reform

The “school community” concept is closely related to the concepts of voice and shared leadership, which generally seek to broaden the involvement of more individuals, and more diverse viewpoints, in the governance and programming in a school or district. The idea of a school community may also intersect with leadership teams and the development of mission and vision statements or school-improvement plans—all of which may involve students, parents, and other individuals who are not employed by a school. While the concept is related in some ways to professional learning communities, the “school community” concept is distinct (although the term “learning community” may refer to both school communities and professional learning communities).

The idea of a school community may also have an official, democratic connotation, given that the majority of public schools and districts are overseen by elected school boards or other governing bodies. School boards make and revise school policies, and they authorize certain governance decisions and activities—responsibilities that often extend to the development and approval of school-improvement proposals. In these cases, school-board members are elected to represent “the community” in a direct, official capacity.

Generally speaking, the growing use of school community reflects the recognition that schools, as public institutions supported by state and local tax revenues, are not only part of and responsible to the communities they serve, but they are also obligated to involve the broader community in important decisions related to the governance, operation, or improvement of the school. Increasingly, schools are being more intentional and proactive about involving a greater diversity of community members, particularly those from disadvantaged communities and backgrounds, or from groups that have historically been underserved by schools or that have underperformed academically, including English-language learners, students of color, immigrant students, and special-education students. In some cases, federal or state programs and foundation grants may encourage or require the involvement of multiple community groups in a school-improvement effort as a condition of funding.

Community-engagement strategies are also widely considered central to successful school improvement by many individuals and organizations that work with public schools. Because some communities may be relatively uninformed about or disconnected from their local schools, a growing number of educational reformers and reform movements in recent decades have advocated for more inclusive, community-wide involvement in an improvement process. The general theory is that by including more members of a school community in the process, school leaders can foster a stronger sense of “ownership” among the participants and within the broader community. In other words, when the members of an organization or community feel that their ideas and opinions are being heard, and when they are given the opportunity to participate authentically in a planning or improvement process, they will feel more invested in the work and in the achievement of its goals, which will therefore increase the likelihood of success.

In some cases, when schools make major organizational, programmatic, or instructional changes—particularly when parents and community members are not informed in advance or involved in the process—it can give rise to criticism, resistance, and even organized opposition. As a reform strategy, involving a variety of “stakeholders” from the broader community can improve communication and public understanding, while also incorporating the perspectives, experiences, and expertise of participating community members to improve reform proposals, strategies, or processes. Educators may use phrases such as “securing community support,” “building stakeholder buy-in,” or “fostering collective ownership” to describe efforts being made to involve community members in a planning and improvement process. In other cases, stakeholders are individuals who have power or influence in a community, and schools may be obligated, by law or social expectation, to keep certain parties informed the school and involved in its governance.

Alignment

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The term alignment is widely used by educators in a variety of contexts, most commonly in reference to reforms that are intended to bring greater coherence or efficiency to a curriculum, program, initiative, or education system.

When the term is used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what alignment is referring to. In some cases, the term may have a very specific, technical meaning, but in others it may be vague, undecipherable jargon. Generally speaking, the use of alignment tends to become less precise and meaningful when its object grows in size, scope, or ambition. For example, when teachers talk about “aligning curriculum,” they are likely referring to a specific, technical process being used to develop lessons, deliver instruction, and evaluate student learning growth and achievement. On the other hand, some education reports, improvement plans, and policy proposals may refer to the “alignment” of various elements of an education system without describing precisely what might be entailed in the proposed alignment process. And, of course, some “alignments” may be practical, thoughtful strategies that produce tangible improvements in schools and student learning, while others may be unspecific “action items” that never get acted on, or they may be strategies that show promise in theory, but that turn out to be overly complex and burdensome when executed in states, districts, and schools.

The following are a few representative examples of how the term is used in reference to education reforms:

  • Policy: Educators, reformers, policy makers, and elected officials may call for the “alignment of policy and practice.” For example, federal or state laws, regulations, and rules may not be enacted in districts or schools, or educators may not follow policies established by school boards and districts. Or enacted laws and regulations may contradict one another, leaving school leaders and teachers wondering which laws and rules they should follow. In addition, the interpretation and implementation of a given education policy in schools may diverge significantly from the guidance and objectives of a policy, which may then require modifications to—or the alignment of—the policy language and resulting “practices” used by educators. Generally speaking, the alignment of policy usually entails a process of refinement, iteration, clarification, and communication during the development, and following the adoption, of a new policy or set of policies.
  • Strategy: School leaders may work to “align” the organization and operation of a district or school, including how students are taught, with a given school-improvement plan, reform strategy, or educational model. In this case, the alignment process might entail a wide variety of reforms—from reallocating budgetary expenditures to restructuring school schedules to redesigning courses and lessons—in ways that are intended to achieve the objectives of the improvement plan, while also ensuring that its parts are working together coherently and effectively. For a related discussion, see action plan.
  • Learning Standards: Educators may work to “align” what and how they teach with a given set of learning standards, such as the Common Core State Standards or the subject-area standards developed by states and national organizations. In this case, modifications may be made to lessons, course designs, academic programs, and instructional techniques so that the concepts and skills described in the standards are taught to students at certain times, in certain sequences, or in certain ways. For related discussions, see learning progression and proficiency-based learning.
  • Assessment: Teachers may “align” assessments, standards, lessons, and instruction so that the assessments evaluate the material they are teaching in a unit or course. Test-development companies also “align” standardized tests to a state’s learning standards so that test questions and tasks address the specific concepts and skills described in the standards for a certain subject area and grade level. In individual cases, teachers may align assessments and lessons more or less precisely, but developers of large-scale standardized tests utilize sophisticated psychometric strategies intended to improve the validity and accuracy of the assessment results (although this is a source of ongoing debate). For a related discussion, see measurement error.
  • Curriculum: Educators may “align” curriculum in different ways, but perhaps the most common forms are (1) aligning curriculum—the knowledge, skills, topics, and concepts that are taught to students, and the lessons, units, assignments, readings, and materials used in the teaching process—with specific learning standards, and (2) aligning various curricula within a school, such as the curriculum for a particular course, with other curricula in the school to improve overall coherence and effectiveness. In the second case, for example, educators may align curricula by making sure that courses follow a logical learning sequence, within and across subject areas and grade levels, so that new concepts build on previously taught concepts. For a more detailed discussion, see coherent curriculum.
  • Professional Development: School leaders, educational experts, reform organizations, and government agencies may “align” professional development—such as training sessions, workshops, conferences, and resources—with the objectives of specific policies, improvement plans, or educational models. For example, state education agencies may provide training sessions for superintendents and principals to help them implement new teacher-evaluation requirements, or districts and schools may contract with experts and outside organizations to help their faculties learn new educational approaches or teaching techniques.

Interim Assessment

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An interim assessment is a form of assessment that educators use to (1) evaluate where students are in their learning progress and (2) determine whether they are on track to performing well on future assessments, such as standardized tests or end-of-course exams. Interim assessments are usually administered periodically during a course or school year (for example, every six or eight weeks) and separately from the process of instructing students. (In education, the term assessment refers to the wide variety of methods that educators use to evaluate, measure, and document the academic readiness, learning progress, and skill acquisition of students.)

Defining interim assessment is complicated by the fact that educators use a variety of terms for these forms of assessment—such as benchmark assessment or predictive assessment—and the terms may or may not be used synonymously. It should also be noted that there is often confusion and debate about the distinctions between formative assessments and interim assessments, and educators may define the terms differently from school to school or state to state.

Generally speaking, interim assessments fall between formative assessment and summative assessment, and understanding their intended purpose requires an understanding of the basic distinctions between these two assessment strategies.

Formative Assessment vs. Summative Assessment
Formative assessments are used collect detailed information that educators can use to improve instructional techniques and student learning while it’s happening. Summative assessments, on the other hand, are used to evaluate learning progress and achievement at the conclusion of a specific instructional period—usually at the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program, or school year. In other words, formative assessments are for learning, while summative assessments are of learning. Or as assessment expert Paul Black put it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” It should be noted, however, that the distinction between formative and summative is often fuzzy in practice, and educators may hold divergent interpretations of and opinions on the subject.

Like formative assessments, teachers may use interim assessments to identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills they are having difficulty mastering, or learning standards they have not yet achieved so that adjustments can be made to lessons, instructional techniques, and academic support. But unlike formative assessments, interim assessments—depending on how they are designed and used—may allow for the comparison of student results across courses, schools, or states, and they may be used by school, district, and state leaders to track the academic progress of certain student populations. The distinction here is between assessments that are used on a daily basis by individual teachers during the instructional process (formative assessments), and either standardized or “common” assessments that are used by multiple teachers, schools, districts, or states, which allow students results to be compared.

While there is no official definition for interim assessment, and it may be defined differently from place to place, the following examples will serve to illustrate two common types of assessment likely to be considered interim assessments:

  • A preliminary test developed by a company, organization, or consortium—such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—that is intended to evaluate how well students are prepared for a standardized test that will be administered on a future date. In this case, results from the interim assessment would be used by school leaders and teachers to better prepare students for the future test.
  • A common literacy assessment or rubric that teachers develop to evaluate student learning progress in relation to expected reading standards. In this case, the assessment would be used by multiple teachers in a school or district, and it would be used in advance of a summative literacy assessment. What is “common” in this example is both the assessment being used and the reading standards it is based on. Results from the interim assessment would be used to better prepare students for future assessments.

 

Summative Assessment

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Summative assessments are used to evaluate student learning, skill acquisition, and academic achievement at the conclusion of a defined instructional period—typically at the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program, or school year. Generally speaking, summative assessments are defined by three major criteria:

  • The tests, assignments, or projects are used to determine whether students have learned what they were expected to learn. In other words, what makes an assessment “summative” is not the design of the test, assignment, or self-evaluation, per se, but the way it is used—i.e., to determine whether and to what degree students have learned the material they have been taught.
  • Summative assessments are given at the conclusion of a specific instructional period, and therefore they are generally evaluative, rather than diagnostic—i.e., they are more appropriately used to determine learning progress and achievement, evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs, measure progress toward improvement goals, or make course-placement decisions, among other possible applications.
  • Summative-assessment results are often recorded as scores or grades that are then factored into a student’s permanent academic record, whether they end up as letter grades on a report card or test scores used in the college-admissions process. While summative assessments are typically a major component of the grading process in most districts, schools, and courses, not all assessments considered to be summative are graded.

 

Summative assessments are commonly contrasted with formative assessments, which collect detailed information that educators can use to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening. In other words, formative assessments are often said to be for learning, while summative assessments are of learning. Or as assessment expert Paul Black put it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” It should be noted, however, that the distinction between formative and summative is often fuzzy in practice, and educators may have divergent interpretations and opinions on the subject.

Some of the most well-known and widely discussed examples of summative assessments are the standardized tests administered by states and testing organizations, usually in math, reading, writing, and science. Other examples of summative assessments include:

  • End-of-unit or chapter tests.
  • End-of-term or semester tests.
  • Standardized tests that are used to for the purposes of school accountability, college admissions (e.g., the SAT or ACT), or end-of-course evaluation (e.g., Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams).
  • Culminating demonstrations of learning or other forms of “performance assessment,” such as portfolios of student work that are collected over time and evaluated by teachers or capstone projects that students work on over extended periods of time and that they present and defend at the conclusion of a school year or their high school education.

While most summative assessments are given at the conclusion of an instructional period, some summative assessments can still be used diagnostically. For example, the growing availability of student data, made possible by online grading systems and databases, can give teachers access to assessment results from previous years or other courses. By reviewing this data, teachers may be able to identify students more likely to struggle academically in certain subject areas or with certain concepts. In addition, students may be allowed to take some summative tests multiple times, and teachers might use the results to help prepare students for future administrations of the test.

It should also be noted that districts and schools may use “interim” or “benchmark” tests to monitor the academic progress of students and determine whether they are on track to mastering the material that will be evaluated on end-of-course tests or standardized tests. Some educators consider interim tests to be formative, since they are often used diagnostically to inform instructional modifications, but others may consider them to be summative. There is ongoing debate in the education community about this distinction, and interim assessments may defined differently from place to place. See formative assessment for a more detailed discussion.

Reform

While educators have arguably been using “summative assessments” in various forms since the invention of schools and teaching, summative assessments have in recent decades become components of larger school-improvement efforts. As they always have, summative assessments can help teachers determine whether students are making adequate academic progress or meeting expected learning standards, and results may be used to inform modifications to instructional techniques, lesson designs, or teaching materials the next time a course, unit, or lesson is taught. Yet perhaps the biggest changes in the use of summative assessments have resulted from state and federal policies aimed at improving public education—specifically, standardized high-stakes tests used to make important decisions about schools, teachers, and students.

Debate

While there is little disagreement among educators about the need for or utility of summative assessments, debates and disagreements tend to center on issues of fairness and effectiveness, especially when summative-assessment results are used for high-stakes purposes. In these cases, educators, experts, reformers, policy makers, and others may debate whether assessments are being designed and used appropriately, or whether high-stakes tests are either beneficial or harmful to the educational process. For more detailed discussions of these issues, see high-stakes test, measurement error, test accommodations, test bias, score inflation, standardized test, and value-added measures.