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Formative Assessment

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Formative assessment refers to a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course. Formative assessments help teachers identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills they are having difficulty acquiring, or learning standards they have not yet achieved so that adjustments can be made to lessons, instructional techniques, and academic support.

The general goal of formative assessment is to collect detailed information that can be used to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening. What makes an assessment “formative” is not the design of a test, technique, or self-evaluation, per se, but the way it is used—i.e., to inform in-process teaching and learning modifications.

Formative assessments are commonly contrasted with summative assessments, which are used to evaluate student 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.

Many educators and experts believe that formative assessment is an integral part of effective teaching. In contrast with most summative assessments, which are deliberately set apart from instruction, formative assessments are integrated into the teaching and learning process. For example, a formative-assessment technique could be as simple as a teacher asking students to raise their hands if they feel they have understood a newly introduced concept, or it could be as sophisticated as having students complete a self-assessment of their own writing (typically using a rubric outlining the criteria) that the teacher then reviews and comments on. While formative assessments help teachers identify learning needs and problems, in many cases the assessments also help students develop a stronger understanding of their own academic strengths and weaknesses. When students know what they do well and what they need to work harder on, it can help them take greater responsibility over their own learning and academic progress.

While the same assessment technique or process could, in theory, be used for either formative or summative purposes, many summative assessments are unsuitable for formative purposes because they do not provide useful feedback. For example, standardized-test scores may not be available to teachers for months after their students take the test (so the results cannot be used to modify lessons or teaching and better prepare students), or the assessments may not be specific or fine-grained enough to give teachers and students the detailed information they need to improve.

The following are a few representative examples of formative assessments:

  • Questions that teachers pose to individual students and groups of students during the learning process to determine what specific concepts or skills they may be having trouble with. A wide variety of intentional questioning strategies may be employed, such as phrasing questions in specific ways to elicit more useful responses.
  • Specific, detailed, and constructive feedback that teachers provide on student work, such as journal entries, essays, worksheets, research papers, projects, ungraded quizzes, lab results, or works of art, design, and performance. The feedback may be used to revise or improve a work product, for example.
  • “Exit slips” or “exit tickets” that quickly collect student responses to a teacher’s questions at the end of a lesson or class period. Based on what the responses indicate, the teacher can then modify the next lesson to address concepts that students have failed to comprehend or skills they may be struggling with. “Admit slips” are a similar strategy used at the beginning of a class or lesson to determine what students have retained from previous learning experiences.
  • Self-assessments that ask students to think about their own learning process, to reflect on what they do well or struggle with, and to articulate what they have learned or still need to learn to meet course expectations or learning standards.
  • Peer assessments that allow students to use one another as learning resources. For example, “workshopping” a piece of writing with classmates is one common form of peer assessment, particularly if students follow a rubric or guidelines provided by a teacher.

In addition to the reasons addressed above, educators may also use formative assessment to:

  • Refocus students on the learning process and its intrinsic value, rather than on grades or extrinsic rewards.
  • Encourage students to build on their strengths rather than fixate or dwell on their deficits. (For a related discussion, see growth mindset.)
  • Help students become more aware of their learning needs, strengths, and interests so they can take greater responsibility over their own educational growth. For example, students may learn how to self-assess their own progress and self-regulate their behaviors.
  • Give students more detailed, precise, and useful information. Because grades and test scores only provide a general impression of academic achievement, usually at the completion of an instructional period, formative feedback can help to clarify and calibrate learning expectations for both students and parents. Students gain a clearer understanding of what is expected of them, and parents have more detailed information they can use to more effectively support their child’s education.
  • Raise or accelerate the educational achievement of all students, while also reducing learning gaps and achievement gaps.

Reform

While the formative-assessment concept has only existed since the 1960s, educators have arguably been using “formative assessments” in various forms since the invention of teaching. As an intentional school-improvement strategy, however, formative assessment has received growing attention from educators and researchers in recent decades. In fact, it is now widely considered to be one of the more effective instructional strategies used by teachers, and there is a growing body of literature and academic research on the topic.

Schools are now more likely to encourage or require teachers to use formative-assessment strategies in the classroom, and there are a growing number of professional-development opportunities available to educators on the subject. Formative assessments are also integral components of personalized learning and other educational strategies designed to tailor lessons and instruction to the distinct learning needs and interests of individual students.

Debate

While there is relatively little disagreement in the education community about the utility of formative assessment, debates or disagreements may stem from differing interpretations of the term. For example, some educators believe the term is loosely applied to forms of assessment that are not “truly” formative, while others believe that formative assessment is rarely used appropriately or effectively in the classroom.

Another common debate is whether formative assessments can or should be graded. Many educators contend that formative assessments can only be considered truly formative when they are ungraded and used exclusively to improve student learning. If grades are assigned to a quiz, test, project, or other work product, the reasoning goes, they become de facto summative assessments—i.e., the act of assigning a grade turns the assessment into a performance evaluation that is documented in a student’s academic record, as opposed to a diagnostic strategy used to improve student understanding and preparation before they are given a graded test or assignment.

Some educators also make a distinction between “pure” formative assessments—those that are used on a daily basis by teachers while they are instructing students—and “interim” or “benchmark” assessments, which are typically periodic or quarterly assessments used to determine where students are in their learning progress or whether they are on track to meeting expected learning standards. While some educators may argue that any assessment method that is used diagnostically could be considered formative, including interim assessments, others contend that these two forms of assessment should remain distinct, given that different strategies, techniques, and professional development may be required.

Some proponents of formative assessment also suspect that testing companies mislabel and market some interim standardized tests as “formative” to capitalize on and profit from the popularity of the idea. Some observers express skepticism that commercial or prepackaged products can be authentically formative, arguing that formative assessment is a sophisticated instructional technique, and to do it well requires both a first-hand understanding of the students being assessed and sufficient training and professional development.

Expanded Learning Time

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Also called extended learning time, the term expanded learning time refers to any educational program or strategy intended to increase the amount of time students are learning, especially for the purposes of improving academic achievement and test scores, or reducing learning losslearning gaps, and achievement gaps. For this reason, expanding learning time could be considered a de facto reform strategy, since expanding learning time is typically needed or proposed only when students are not performing or achieving at expected levels. (One exception would be optional learning-enrichment programs, which may increase the amount of time students are learning, but that may also viewed as elective or nonrequired opportunities for students to enhance or further their education.)

Extended (or expanded) school days and school weeks are also used as a strategy for increasing the amount of time students receive instruction; engage in learning opportunities in areas such as sports and arts; learn through non-traditional experiences such as apprenticeships or internships; or get academic support as part of their school days or years.

While expanded learning time may take a wide variety of forms from state to state or school to school, the following is a representative list of a few widely used strategies:

  • Expanded school years add to the number of days students are required to attend school. While states generally determine a minimum number of required attendance days—and state legislatures or departments of education may pass legislation or create regulations that increase minimum school-attendance requirements—districts and schools may also independently elect to increase the number of days in their school year.
  • Expanded school days and school weeks are also used as a strategy for increasing the amount of time students receive instruction from teachers and other educators; participate in learning activities in such as clubs, competitions, and performances; learn through nontraditional learning pathways, such as internships and apprenticeships; or receive or academic support from educators and specialists. Moving from half-day to full-day kindergarten is one example, but public schools may also add an hour or more onto the customary duration of a school day. In these cases, the increase may be long-term or short-term, and schools might be seeking to improve the overall academic performance of the student body, or the objective may be more specific—e.g., increasing instructional time and test preparation in advance of a high-stakes test.
  • Increasing or supplementing instructional time during the regular school day is another common way that educators might expand learning time for students. For example, schools may eliminate study halls and replace them with academic courses, tutoring sessions, or other forms of academic support, such as learning labs, in which students are engaged in purposeful learning activities intended to help them meet learning expectations in an academic course. States or schools may also increase course and credit requirements for graduation (often in a particular subject area, such as mathematics or science), which require students to take more courses in particular subject area, thereby effectively requiring them to spend more time learning the subject. For example, some high schools require “five years” of math, which means that students are required to take and complete at least five year-long math courses (two courses would be completed during one year if they plan to graduate in four years).
  • Summer school, winter sessions, school-break programs, and summer-bridge programs are other strategies that states, districts, or schools can use to expand learning time for students. By requiring or offering additional learning opportunities during school breaks—usually the longer summer, fall, winter, and spring breaks—schools can support students who have fallen behind academically and accelerate their learning progress. In some cases, these school-break programs are required if students have either failed courses or failed to meet learning standards (as with many traditional summer-school sessions), but others are optional or encouraged for those students who educators believe would benefit from the opportunities.
  • Before-school programs and after-school programs are school-run or school-affiliated learning opportunities that happen before or after regular school hours, usually for the purposes of supporting or supplementing student learning (although some programs, particularly those in the elementary schools, may resemble child-care programs more than strict academic programs). While they can take a wide variety of forms, before- and after-school programs are often used to provide academic support to students—i.e., teachers, tutors, mentors, and educational specialists develop programming to help students improve their learning, catch up with their peers, meet learning standards, or generally succeed in school. The programs may be operated by districts, schools, community organizations, or charitable initiatives, and they may be designed to supplement or enrich student learning, often in the form of co-curricular programing—i.e., educational activities that are connected, in some way, to what students are learning in school (musical and theatrical performances, math teams, mock trials, debate competitions, or robotics clubs, among many other possible activities, are examples of co-curricular programming). In some cases, students who are struggling academically or have specialized learning needs may be referred to a before- or after-school program or required to participate in one. (It should be noted that some advocates of expanded learning time would not consider the programs to be “expanded learning” unless they were mandatory.)
  • Digital and online learning options can also be used to expand learning time. While students have long completed homework assignments or project outside of regular school hours, new learning technologies allow for instructional interactions that go well beyond reading and assignment completion. For example, students can watch videos and recorded lectures, communicate with teachers electronically, or use interactive programs that support students as they work through a problem, task, or assignment. For related discussions, see blended learningasynchronous learning and synchronous learning.

Debate

Expanding learning time throughout a state system of public education, or even within an individual district or school, can have complicated and far-reaching implications, which can give rise to criticism and debate. For example, expanding learning time may require significant changes in school operations, scheduling, and transportation, which can increase associated costs—from bus fuel, heating, and lighting to staffing, compensation, and benefits—and have a significant effect on school budgets, particularly during times when funding is being cut. And since teaching contracts typically stipulate the number of hours teachers are required or allowed to teach each week, extending the length of school days and years will usually have implications for collective-bargaining negotiations and contractual agreements.

Another source of debate is whether expanding learning time in public schools actually leads to improvements in student learning and academic achievement. If the additional time is not meaningfully, purposefully, or effectively utilized, schools may increase costs, complicate operations, and upset teachers and unions without realizing the desired benefits in student learning. In addition, while research studies have provided evidence that expanding learning time can lead to improvements in student learning and academic achievement, some observers have pointed out that some of the world’s highest-performing educational systems, notably Finland’s, have shorter school days and years than public schools in the United States, which suggests, in the view of some critics, that improving student achievement is more about quality than quantity.

Learning Experience

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Learning experience refers to any interaction, course, program, or other experience in which learning takes place, whether it occurs in traditional academic settings (schools, classrooms) or nontraditional settings (outside-of-school locations, outdoor environments), or whether it includes traditional educational interactions (students learning from teachers and professors) or nontraditional interactions (students learning through games and interactive software applications).

Because students may learn in a wide variety of settings and ways, the term is often used as a more accurate, preferred, or inclusive alternative to terms such as course, for example, that have more limited or conventional connotations. Learning experience may also be used to underscore or reinforce the goal of an educational interaction—learning—rather than its location (school, classroom) or format (course, program), for example.

The growing use of the term learning experience by educators and others reflects larger pedagogical and technological shifts that have occurred in the design and delivery of education to students, and it most likely represents an attempt to update conceptions of how, when, and where learning does and can take place. For example, new technologies have dramatically multiplied and diversified the ways in which students can learn from and interact with educators, in addition to the level of independence they may have when learning. Students can email, chat, or have video conversations with teachers, and they can use online course-management systems to organize and exchange learning materials (e.g., the assignments given by teachers or the work turned in by students). Students can use software programs, apps, and educational games to learn on their own time, at their own pace, and without instruction or supervision from teachers. Students can also watch videos created by their teachers, conduct online research to learn more about a concept taught in a class, or use tablets to record scientific observations in a natural environment—among countless other possible options and scenarios. While listening to a lecture, reading a book, or completing a homework assignment remain “learning experiences,” students are now learning in different ways than they have in the past and in a wider variety of outside-of-school settings, such as through internships, volunteer activities, or dual-enrollment programs, to name just a few examples.

For related discussions, see learner, learning environment, and learning pathway.

Seat Time

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When used in the context of education reform, the term seat time refers to the use of academic credits based on the 120-hour Carnegie unit. The term is typically a derogatory reference to the perception that course credits more accurately measure “seat time”—i.e., the amount of time students have sat in a classroom—than what students have actually learned or failed to learn. For example, high school students typically earn credit by 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 high expectations being applied to all students equally. And since grades may be calculated differently from school to school or teacher to teacher, and they may be based on highly divergent learning expectations (i.e., some courses may be “harder” and others “easier”), it’s may be possible for students to pass their courses, earn credits, and receive a diploma without acquiring important knowledge and skills.

Critics of “seat time” typically argue that if credits are not based on some form of consistently applied learning standards—expectations for what students should know and be able to do at a particular stage of their education—then it becomes difficult to determine what students have learned or failed to learn. Some educators and education reformers argue that strategies such as proficiency-based learning and demonstrations of learning, among others, provide more valid and reliable ways to determine what students have learned, whether they should be promoted to the next grade level, and whether they should receive a diploma.

Academy

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The term academy has historically been used to describe private schools or semi-private schools (such as schools that receive partial funding from a state or town), but more recently educators have used the term in reference to three common reform strategies: (1) “smaller learning communities” (a strategy that reorganizes students into smaller groups within a school); (2) teaming, a strategy that groups students with a designated team of teachers for a year or multiple years; and (3) theme-based academies, or educational programs that are built around a specific academic or career theme. In some cases, the term “academy” may be used to describe a professional-development experience for educators—e.g., teachers may participate in a one-week “summer academy” that provides training in a specialized instructional technique.

Honors Course

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The term honors course is a common label applied to courses, predominantly at the high school level, that are considered to be more academically challenging and prestigious. Students enrolled in honors courses generally receive greater academic recognition and possibly, if the course awards weighted grades, a numerical advantage when it comes to grading. Historically, honors courses have entailed more demanding college-preparatory coursework, and they were intended for the highest-achieving or most academically accelerated students in a school. In many cases, students need to meet certain prerequisites, such as a teacher recommendation or an average grade of B or higher in a previous course, to gain admission to an honors course. Honors courses may be the highest-level courses or “track” offered by the school, or they may be above “college prep” but below specialized courses such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. In some schools, however, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses will be considered the school’s “honors courses.”

It is important to note that there are no specific standards or universal definition for “honors courses.” Consequently, honors courses may vary greatly in design, content, quality, or academic challenge from school to school, and even from course to course within a school.

Reform

One common alternative to traditional honors courses is the honors challenge, or the practice of offering higher-level or more academically challenging assignments, coursework, and learning opportunities in a “heterogeneously grouped” or “mixed-ability” course—i.e., a course in which students of different abilities or levels of preparation are grouped together. In academic programs that do not have tiered course levels, honors challenges may be used in place of distinct honors courses.

Access

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In education, the term access typically refers to the ways in which educational institutions and policies ensure—or at least strive to ensure—that students have equal and equitable opportunities to take full advantage of their education. Increasing access generally requires schools to provide additional services or remove any actual or potential barriers that might prevent some students from equitable participation in certain courses or academic programs. Factors such as race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, perceived intellectual ability, past academic performance, special-education status, English-language ability, and family income or educational-attainment levels—in addition to factors such as relative community affluence, geographical location, or school facilities—may contribute to certain students having less “access” to educational opportunities than other students. For a related discussion, see opportunity gap.

Reform

Generally speaking, the widespread use of the term access in education, along with related terms such as equity or at-risk, reflects increased national attention to the needs of students who have historically been underserved by schools, who have failed to take full advantage of their education, whose learning needs have been overlooked, or who have otherwise “fallen through the cracks.” When used in reference to education reforms, access typically refers to school strategies or policies designed to remove institutional disincentives, impediments, or barriers to academic success, whether intentional or unintentional, or to provide the resources, social services, and academic support that certain students may need to succeed in school. If access is denied or left unaddressed by a school, students may struggle academically or drop out, learning gaps may compound or widen over time, students may graduate unprepared to enroll and succeed in a postsecondary-degree program, or students may be unable to participate in certain courses, school programs, extracurricular activities, or sports, among other undesirable outcomes.

The following constitutes a brief, representative list of the types of access that government agencies, districts, and schools may provide to students:

  • Access to assistive technologies, accommodations, or modified school facilities and transportation vehicles that make full participation in school programs possible for students with various forms of disability (the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, for example, establish minimum compliance requirements for schools).
  • Access to equal opportunities in educational programs and activities regardless of gender, race, or sexual orientation, including extracurricular activities and sports (Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972 and the Student Nondiscrimination Act of 2010 are examples of policies that establish minimum compliance requirements for schools).
  • Access to adequate health care and nutritional services, including free or reduced-price school breakfasts and lunches to ensure that children living in poverty are not attending school sick or hungry.
  • Access to adequate public transportation to attend public schools and charter schools that may or may not be located near student homes.
  • Access to preschool or kindergarten so that students enter school prepared to learn and succeed academically regardless of income level or a family’s ability to pay for early childhood education.
  • Access to intensive instruction in the English language or academic language for students who cannot read, write, or speak English, and access to interpreters and translated documents for non-English-speaking students, parents, and families, including multilingual translations of school policies, academic materials, parent communications, event announcements, website content, etc.
  • Access to counseling, social services, academic support, and other resources that can help students who are at risk of failure or dropping out remain in school, succeed academically, graduate with a diploma, and pursue postsecondary education.
  • Access to individualized education programs (IEPs) for special-education students, access to mainstream classrooms and academically challenging content through inclusion strategies, which includes access to any trained professionals or specialized educational resources that may be needed to ensure that the needs of special-education students are being met.
  • Access to advanced-level learning opportunities such as honors courses or Advanced Placement courses, dual-enrollment opportunities, or other programs that historically required students to meet prerequisites before being allowed to enroll in a course or participate in a program. (By eliminating certain prerequisites or other barriers, schools can increase access to more challenging academic content, stronger preparation for postsecondary success, and college-level learning.)
  • Access to technology, including high-speed internet connections and adequate hardware (computers, laptops, tablets) and software (particularly learning applications) so that students have equitable access to the same digital and online learning opportunities regardless of their family’s income level or ability to pay for these technologies.

Debate

There are many potential debates that might arise in response to access-related issues in education. Perhaps one of the most well-known, high-profile examples is affirmative action, since affirmative action is, generally speaking, an attempt to increase access, whether it’s access to college for minority students or access to jobs for minority educators.

While the debates about access in education are both numerous and nuanced, many debates center on differing interpretations of equity—what is fair and just—and equality—what is applied, allocated, or distributed equally. For example, a school might choose to allocate resources—funding, teachers, staff time, etc.—equally among all students. In this hypothetical case, white, wealthy, and high-performing students would receive the same amount of school resources as minority, low-income, and special-needs students. On the other hand, another school might choose to allocate resources in ways that it deems to be equitable. In this case, minority, low-income, and special-needs students might receive comparatively more resources in an attempt to compensate for and overcome preexisting factors that might place them at an educational disadvantage. Some view equal resource allocation as equitable (every student receives the same level of resources), while others perceive equal resource allocation to be fundamentally inequitable because it fails to take into account the preexisting inequities in society that may have already adversely affected some students and placed them at an educational or aspirational disadvantage, such as racial prejudice, income inequality, or disability, for example.

College access is another potential source of debate. Some educators might argue, for example, that all students should be able to pursue collegiate education and that the only way to ensure college access is enroll every student in a course of study that prepares them to succeed academically in college-level courses when they graduate from high school. The failure to prepare all students is equivalent to denying them college access because they lack the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes they would need to gain admission to a collegiate program and earn a postsecondary degree. In addition, some may argue that educators should proactively encourage students to consider college, particularly students who may be less likely to pursue higher education, such as students whose parents did not earn a postsecondary degree or whose familial culture does not value or encourage collegiate education. Such strategies would be considered ways to increase access for students who are at a disadvantage in terms of college preparedness and aspirations. For a related discussion, see college-ready.

Others, however, might argue that college is a personal decision and that schools should not encourage students to pursue college degree if they are not interested in college, if their career ambitions do not require a degree, or if their family cannot afford college, for example. In this view, preparing all students for college could become inequitable because it “forces” students to take a college-preparatory course of study, it may discourage students from pursuing other forms of education (such as career and technical education), or it may inadvertently discourage students from considering alternative options (such as a career in the military or skilled trades, which may not require a college degree) because of the overt and implied messages students receive in school. In this case, equal treatment—all students being prepared for and encouraged to attend college—may be seen as denying students access because it allocates educational resources to achieve a specific outcome (more students attending college), which could divert resources away from other educational programs, reduce the perceived value of other options, and potentially stigmatize non-collegiate ambitions.

Continuous Improvement

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In education, the term continuous improvement refers to any school- or instructional-improvement process that unfolds progressively, that does not have a fixed or predetermined end point, and that is sustained over extended periods of time. The concept also encompasses the general belief that improvement is not something that starts and stops, but it’s something that requires an organizational or professional commitment to an ongoing process of learning, self-reflection, adaptation, and growth. For example, when a school is continuously improving, a variety of small, incremental changes are occurring daily and in ways that cumulatively, over time, affect multiple dimensions of a school or school system.

Generally speaking, the concept of continuous improvement also reflects a tacit recognition that improving the effectiveness of schools and teaching is not only highly complex, but it entails unforeseen challenges, complications, and reversals, as well as steep or prolonged learning curves—among other unavoidable factors—that require a sustained commitment to incremental, ongoing improvements, rather than the execution of rapidly implemented, breakthrough changes that deliver up the desired results in a predictable fashion.

In the view of many educators, continuous improvement also requires schools to have the on-staff knowledge, skills, and expertise needed to improve educational results and sustain improvement over time. For example, if a school’s improvement depends on external organizations, consultants, contracts, and expertise, any realized improvements would probably be neither continuous nor sustainable. In this way, the concept of continuous improvement is related to capacity—the abilities, skills, and expertise of school leaders, teachers, faculties, and staffs—and to action research—informal, in-process research that helps educators develop, in real time, adaptive solutions and improvement strategies. In some cases, a continuous-improvement plan or process will be graphically represented as a circle or ring of arrows—often called a cycle of action or cycle of inquiry—since the process may follow a defined series of steps that are repeated over time.

It should be noted that continuous improvement has become something of a buzzword in education, and the appearance or use of the term does not necessarily mean that a school or school system is actually executing, in any practical or authentic sense, an improvement process that could be accurately labeled “continuous” in the senses described above.

For a related discussion, see systemic reform.

Mission Statement

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A mission statement, or simply a mission, is a public declaration that schools or other educational organizations use to describe their founding purpose and major organizational commitments—i.e., what they doe and why they do it. A mission statement may describe a school’s day-to-day operational objectives, its instructional values, or its public commitments to its students and community.

The term mission statement is often used interchangeably with vision statement. While some educators and schools may loosely define the two terms, or even blur the traditional lines that have separated them, there appears to be general agreement in the education community on the major distinctions between a “mission” and a “vision.” Generally speaking, a vision statement expresses a hoped-for future reality, while a mission statement declares the practical commitments and actions that a school believes are needed to achieve its vision. While a vision statement describes the end goal—the change sought by a school—a mission statement may describe its broad academic and operational assurances, as well as its commitment to its students and community.

For a more detailed discussion, see mission and vision.

 

Teaming

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While the term team may be applied to a variety of organizational and instructional practices in a school, the most common application of the term teaming refers to pairing a group of teachers (typically between four and six) with a group of  sixty to eighty students. Proponents of the strategy believe that teaming allows teachers to discuss the students they have in common and to establish stronger teacher-student relationships based on an improved understanding of the students and their specific learning needs. In most cases, a team will be built around the core-subject-area teachers in English language arts, math, science, and social studies, but the particular composition of teams may vary widely from school to school. Guidance counselors, special-education teachers, and other specialists are commonly assigned to teams. While teaming may be structured differently from school to school, there are two general forms: horizontal teaming, the grouping of students and teachers at a particular grade level, and vertical teaming, which is the continuation of a horizontal team across multiple grades, such as the seventh and eighth grades or ninth and tenth grades. With vertical teaming, the student group typically remains intact, while the team of teachers assigned to them changes. Vertical teaming may also be called looping, a term that specifically refers to the practice of grouping students with the same teacher (in the elementary grades) or group of teachers (in the upper grades) for two or more years. The general goal of teaming is to provide a more personalized learning experience for students—i.e., to ensure that students are well known by 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 academically and remain in school. While teaming is widely used in middle schools, it is becoming a more common strategy for grouping students and determining course assignments in high school. Since educators typically see more students struggling with behavior and attendance, failing courses, or dropping out during the first two years of high school, teaming is often used as a proactive strategy for addressing these trends. While teaming is sometimes used in the upper grades of high school, it is far less common during these years, in part because teaming is based on the specific developmental needs of students in their early adolescence. During these years, having consistent, supportive, understanding relationships with teachers and adults appears to have a positive effect on learning, emotional growth, and social development. Teaming is one of many strategies educators may use to achieve these ends.

Reform

Teaming is an alternative to more traditional ways of organizing a school’s academic program. Historically, students in middle schools and high schools have been dispersed across several different courses and teachers, which makes it more difficult for teachers to develop strong and understanding relationships with students (mainly because the time they could spend with any particular student was limited). And when students are dispersed across courses, it is more logistically challenging for teachers to discuss the students they share or work collaboratively to address a particular student’s academic troubles and learning needs. With teaming, it may be logistically easier for a group of teachers to schedule regular meetings and discuss the students they have in common, often in the form of a professional learning community. Team teachers may meet to review student-performance data, discuss which teaching methods are working for some students and which are not, plan appropriate support strategies for students, and develop lessons and projects collaboratively. When designed and executed successfully, teaming can also foster greater collaboration among teachers, provide a feeling of continuity and mentorship for students, and create a stronger sense of community and belonging among students.

Debate

When transitioning from a traditional academic program to teaming, schools may encounter a variety of challenges that could give rise to debate or criticism:

  • In high school, teachers may feel that teaming is a “middle school” strategy that doesn’t encourage students to develop independence and self-reliance.
  • Teaming may be seen as limiting academic options for students, particularly in high school, because they may have fewer choices about which courses and teachers they can take.
  • In high schools, team teachers may have fewer students than do teachers in the upper grades (for example, a ninth-grade team teacher might have eighty students, while a eleventh-grade teacher may have a hundred or more), which can lead to resentment among those who have to teach more students.
  • Teaming can introduce a variety of scheduling and logistical complications. For example, at the high school level students tend to take a wider variety of courses, which means they have fewer courses in common. In middle schools, teaming is often logistically easier because students tend to take the same core course of study.
  • Teams may not be afforded adequate time to meet and discuss student needs. Without sufficient meeting and planning time, teams may not be able to function optimally or as they were intended, which can undermine both commitment and effectiveness.
  • Conflicts or tension could arise among team members, and some teachers may not embrace the strategy, which could have a negative effect on team culture and collaboration.
  • Parents may not like the idea of their child staying with the same teacher or teachers for multiple years, and they may request their child be transferred to a different team because of problems with a certain teacher.
  • A lack of consistent or clear communication could lead to confusion, frustration, or disorganization within teams, and the personalities of some team members may lead them to dominate discussions or assert too much control.

Learning Progression

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The term learning progression refers to the purposeful sequencing of teaching and learning expectations across multiple developmental stages, ages, or grade levels. The term is most commonly used in reference to learning standards—concise, clearly articulated descriptions of what students should know and be able to do at a specific stage of their education.

Learning progressions are typically categorized and organized by subject area, such as mathematics or science, and they map out a specific sequence of knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn as they progress through their education. There are two main characteristics of learning progressions: (1) the standards described at each level are intended to address the specific learning needs and abilities of students at a particular stage of their intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development, and (2) the standards reflect clearly articulated sequences—i.e., the learning expectations for each grade level build upon previous expectations while preparing students for more challenging concepts and more sophisticated coursework at the next level. The basic idea is to make sure that students are learning age-appropriate material (knowledge and skills that are neither too advanced nor too rudimentary), and that teachers are sequencing learning effectively and avoiding the inadvertent repetition of material that was taught in earlier grades.

It should also be noted that learning progressions may be more accelerated or less accelerated relative to one another. For example, in some European and Asian countries students learn algebra during their middle-school years, while it has been more common in the United States for students to begin taking algebra courses in high school. Depending on the sequencing of standards and progressions, students may be taught concepts sooner or later in their education. For a related discussion, see acceleration.

When learning progressions are organized by grade level or grade span, they may be called grade-level expectations or grade-level standards. It should be noted, however, that while learning progressions are typically organized by grade level in the United States, some educators advocate that students should be able to progress through their education at a faster or slower pace based on their ability to learn the required material and demonstrate proficiency—i.e., academic programming should not necessarily be organized into age-determined grade level, but should based on each student’s distinct learning needs. For example, if a fourteen-year-old student, who would customarily be enrolled in ninth grade, is capable of doing eleventh-grade math, the student should be held to the appropriate learning standards and taught at an “eleventh-grade level” regardless of his or her age. For a related discussion, see proficiency-based learning.

The following reading standards—taken from the Common Core State Standards—provide an example of how learning progressions work and how each standard builds on the previous one, increasing in complexity as students advance from one level to the next:

Kindergarten: Identify the front cover, back cover, and title page of a book.

First Grade: Know and use various text features (e.g., headings, tables of contents, glossaries, electronic menus, icons) to locate facts or information in a text.

Second Grade: Know and use various text features (e.g., captions, bold print, subheadings, glossaries, indexes, electronic menus, icons) to locate key facts or information in a text efficiently.

Third Grade: Use text features and search tools (e.g., key words, sidebars, hyperlinks) to locate information relevant to a given topic efficiently.

Fourth Grade: Describe the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in a text or part of a text.

Fifth Grade: Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.

Grades 6–8: Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to an understanding of the topic.

Grades 9–10: Analyze the structure of the relationships among concepts in the text, including relationships among key terms (e.g., force, friction, reaction force, energy).

Grades 11–12: Analyze how the text structures information or ideas into categories or hierarchies, demonstrating understanding of the information or ideas.

Debate

Educators may debate whether learning progressions are actually learning progressions, or whether they are merely content progressions or teaching progressions. This somewhat technical debate occurs mostly among educators, researchers, and education experts. The basic idea is that standards, by necessity, are created by adults with only a limited understanding of how students actually learn and develop cognitively at specific ages. Consequently, grade-level standards and learning progressions reflect “best-guess” ideas about how content or teaching should be sequenced across grades, but they do not necessarily reflect the ways in which students actually learn new knowledge and acquire new skills. For this reason, they may not facilitate learning in the most effective ways, or they may inadvertently promote and reinforce less-effective teaching strategies.

Theme-Based Academy

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A theme-based academy is either a stand-alone school or a distinct academic program housed within a larger school that emphasizes and builds its academic program around specific academic disciplines, professional fields, or career paths. A few common examples include schools and education programs that focus on science and engineering, information and technology, architecture and design, business and finance, health and social services, education and child development, hospitality and tourism, or the fine and performing arts.

Theme-based academies are largely secondary institutions or programs (grades 9–12), although some may include lower grades or serve younger students. Theme-based academies may be called career academies or career-based academies—the most popular form of themed academy—but they are usually distinct from career and technical education schools.

In some cases, theme-based academies operate similarly to “early college high schools,” which allow students to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree after five or six years of study. When a theme-based academy is housed in an existing school, the students enrolled in these “schools within a school” typically take a separate core course of study and pursue distinct learning opportunities, but they may take some courses—such as health, physical education, or art—with the regular student population. The academy students will also participate in the larger school’s extracurricular, co-curricular, and athletic programs. Some theme-based academies offer four-year courses of study, while others offer only two years of themed-based study.

In both stand-alone schools and in themed-based programs that operate as extension of an existing high school, students typically follow a specialized academic program that integrates a specific academic or career theme into classes and coursework. For example, students may study science, technology, and engineering topics in their English, math, and social-studies courses. The course of study in such schools is typically designed to be both career and college preparatory—i.e., students receive an education that is comparable to, or that exceeds, the level of academic challenge found in more traditional college-preparatory high school programs.

Students may also pursue additional academic- or career-themed projects and learning experiences, both inside and outside the classroom, such as internships, apprenticeships, job-shadowing experiences, volunteer opportunities, or field trips to local businesses, museums, performances, or social programs (for a related discussion, see learning pathway). Students may earn academic credit for these outside-of-school experiences, which may be required to complete the program or graduate from the school. Students may also be taught or supervised by both teachers and outside mentors—such as local business leaders, scientists, artists, or other professionals—and in some cases companies, organizations, or foundations may sponsor or partner with a theme-based academy, or a network of academies, to help the schools with funding, mentors, or career-related learning opportunities and work experiences.

Several national or regional organizations—such as the National Career Academy Coalition, National Academy Foundation, and College and Career Academy Support Network—are involved in supporting, operating, or promoting career-themed academies.

Reform

When theme-based academies operate within an existing school, they are often considered a form of “small learning community” or learning pathway, as well as a strategy for introducing personalized learning into the educational experience of students. Advocates of smaller, theme-based academies argue that integrating personal interests, career exploration, preprofessional preparation, and on-the-job learning opportunities, as well as other aspirations-building experiences, can increase student enthusiasm for learning, particularly for students who may be struggling or disengaged in more traditionally structured high schools. Theme-based academies are also promoted as a way to increase graduation rates, college enrollments, or postgraduation work placements and employment rates.

Debate

Some educators argue that theme-based academies and career academies, if they are not properly structured and administered, can inadvertently become a de facto form of “tracking”—i.e., the grouping of students based on perceived ability, past academic performance, or other factors. Critics of tracking contend that such grouping practices can create inequities in educational quality, increase achievement gaps, or perpetuate class and socioeconomic divisions, among other negative outcomes. Proponents would counterargue, however, that theme-based academies are often specifically designed to counteract such negative outcomes.

Theme-based academies have also been criticized for not delivering promised or anticipated results, such as failing to increase graduation rates, college enrollments, or postgraduation employment rates. It is important to note, however, that even though theme-based academies may share the “academy” label, most schools and programs are unique institutions that reflect a wide variety of designs and different levels of educational quality. Consequently, learning experiences are often not comparable from one theme-based academy to the next, and varying educational results, as with any general school or program design, are to be expected.

In addition, theme-based academies, specifically those housed within existing schools, may be criticized because they are more “themed” in name than anything else. In other words, high schools may create an “arts academy” or “STEM academy” that is only minimally or superficially built around a specific academic or career theme. In these cases, the course of study and teaching practices used in the “theme-based academy” may vary relatively little from the content and teaching offered in the regular school program. Critics of such academies would likely argue that the “theme-based” label is misleading, since the learning experiences provided to students are not substantively different in content, instruction, or quality from the school’s regular course of study. On the opposite end of the spectrum are schools such as the Boston Arts Academy, for example, a public school in Massachusetts that integrates intensive arts-related content and instruction into every course and program.

Portfolio

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A student portfolio is a compilation of academic work and other forms of educational evidence assembled for the purpose of (1) evaluating coursework quality, learning progress, and academic achievement; (2) determining whether students have met learning standards or other academic requirements for courses, grade-level promotion, and graduation; (3) helping students reflect on their academic goals and progress as learners; and (4) creating a lasting archive of academic work products, accomplishments, and other documentation. Advocates of student portfolios argue that compiling, reviewing, and evaluating student work over time can provide a richer, deeper, and more accurate picture of what students have learned and are able to do than more traditional measures—such as standardized tests, quizzes, or final exams—that only measure what students know at a specific point in time.

Portfolios come in many forms, from notebooks filled with documents, notes, and graphics to online digital archives and student-created websites, and they may be used at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Portfolios can be a physical collection of student work that includes materials such as written assignments, journal entries, completed tests, artwork, lab reports, physical projects (such as dioramas or models), and other material evidence of learning progress and academic accomplishment, including awards, honors, certifications, recommendations, written evaluations by teachers or peers, and self-reflections written by students. Portfolios may also be digital archives, presentations, blogs, or websites that feature the same materials as physical portfolios, but that may also include content such as student-created videos, multimedia presentations, spreadsheets, websites, photographs, or other digital artifacts of learning.

Online portfolios are often called digital portfolios or e-portfolios, among other terms. In some cases, blogs or online journals may be maintained by students and include ongoing reflections about learning activities, progress, and accomplishments. Portfolios may also be presented—publicly or privately—to parents, teachers, and community members as part of a demonstration of learning, exhibition, or capstone project.

It’s important to note that there are many different types of portfolios in education, and each form has its own purpose. For example, “capstone” portfolios would feature student work completed as part of long-term projects or final assessments typically undertaken at the culmination of a middle school or high school, or at the end of a long-term, possibly multiyear project. Some portfolios are only intended to evaluate learning progress and achievement in a specific course, while others are maintained for the entire time a student is enrolled in a school. And some portfolios are used to assess learning in a specific subject area, while others evaluate the acquisition of skills that students can apply in all subject areas.

The following arguments are often made by educators who advocate for the use of portfolios in the classroom:

  • Student portfolios are most effective when they are used to evaluate student learning progress and achievement. When portfolios are used to document and evaluate the knowledge, skills, and work habits students acquire in school, teachers can use them to adapt instructional strategies when evidence shows that students either are or are not learning what they were taught. Advocates typically contend that portfolios should be integrated into and inform the instructional process, and students should incrementally build out portfolios on an ongoing basis—i.e., portfolios should not merely be an idle archive of work products that’s only reviewed at the end of a course or school year.
  • Portfolios can help teachers monitor and evaluate learning progress over time. Tests and quizzes give teachers information about what students know at a particular point in time, but portfolios can document how students have grown, matured, and improved as learners over the course of a project, school year, or multiple years. For this reason, some educators argue that portfolios should not just be compilations of a student’s best work, but rather they should include evidence and work products that demonstrate how students improved over time. For example, multiple versions of an essay can show how students revised and improved their work based on feedback from the teachers or their peers.
  • Portfolios help teachers determine whether students can apply what they have learned to new problems and different subject areas. A test can help teachers determine, for example, whether students have learned a specific mathematical skill. But can those students also apply that skill to a complex problem in economics, geography, civics, or history? Can they use it to conduct a statistical analysis of a large data set in a spreadsheet? Or can they use it to develop a better plan for a hypothetical business. (Educators may call this ability to apply skills and knowledge to novel problems and different domains “transfer of learning”). Similarly, portfolios can also be used to evaluate student work and learning in non-school contexts. For example, if a student participated in an internship or completed a project under the guidance of an expert mentor from the community, students could create portfolios over the course of these learning activities and submit them to their teachers or school as evidence they have met certain learning expectations or graduation requirements.
  • Portfolios can encourage students to take more ownership and responsibility over the learning process. In some schools, portfolios are a way for students to critique and evaluate their own work and academic progress, often during the process of deciding what will be included in their portfolios. Because portfolios document learning growth over time, they can help students reflect on where they started a course, how they developed, and where they ended up at the conclusion of the school year. When reviewing a portfolio, teachers may also ask students to articulate the connection between particular work products and the academic expectations and goals for a course. For these reasons, advocates of portfolios often recommend that students be involved in determining what goes into a portfolio, and that teachers should not unilaterally make the decisions without involving students. For related discussions, see student engagement and student voice.
  • Portfolios can improve communication between teachers and parents. Portfolios can also help parents become more informed about the education and learning progress of their children, what is being taught in a particular course, and what students are doing and learning in the classroom. Advocates may also contend that when parents are more informed about and engaged in their child’s education, they can play a more active role in supporting their children at home, which could have a beneficial affect on academic achievement and long-term student outcomes.

Debate

While portfolios are not generally controversial in concept, it’s possible that skepticism, criticism, and debate may arise if portfolios are viewed as burdensome, add-on requirements rather than as a vital instructional strategy and assessment option. Portfolios may also be viewed negatively if they are poorly designed and executed, if they tend to be filed away and forgotten, if they are not actively maintained by students, if they are not meaningfully integrated into the school’s academic program, if educators do not use them to inform and adjust their instructional techniques, or if sufficient time is not provided during the school day for teachers and students to review and discuss them. In short, how portfolios are actually used or not used in schools, and whether they produce the desired educational results, will likely determine how they are perceived.

Creating, maintaining, and assessing student portfolios can also be a time-consuming endeavor. For this reason and others, some critics may contend that portfolios are not a practical or feasible option for use in large-scale evaluations of school and student performance. (Just imagine, for example, what it would require in terms of funding, time, and human resources to evaluate dozens or hundreds of pages of academic documentation produced by each of the of tens of thousands of eleventh-grade students scattered across a state in any given year.)

Standardized tests, in contrast, are relatively efficient and inexpensive to score, and test results are considered more reliable or comparable across students, schools, or states, given that there is less chance that error, bias, or inconsistency may occur during the scoring process (in large part because most standardized tests today are scored in full or in part by automated machines, computers, or online programs). Student portfolios are a comparably time-consuming—and therefore far more expensive—assessment strategy because they require human scorers, and it is also far more challenging to maintain consistent and reliable evaluations or student achievement across different scorers. Many advocates would argue, however, that portfolios are not intended for use in large-scale evaluations of school and student performance, and that they provide the greatest educational value at the classroom level where teachers have personal relationships and conversations with students, and where in-depth feedback from teachers can help students grow, improve, and mature as learners.

Advisory

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An advisory is a regularly scheduled period of time, typically during the school day, when teachers meet with small groups of students for the purpose of advising them on academic, social, or future-planning issues. In some cases, other adults and staff members, such as guidance counselors or social workers, may act as advisors or participate in an advisory program. “Advisories,” as these meetings are commonly called, may be casual and loosely organized in some schools, or they may follow a prescribed curriculum and clear set of routines determined by school leaders, teachers, and students. Advisories may meet daily, multiple times a week, or only a few times a month. Advisory periods tend to be shorter than a typical class, perhaps as 20 or 30 minutes long, and they are often used as an alternative to more traditional homeroom periods.

The broad purpose of an “advisory period” or “advisory program” is to ensure that at least one adult in the school is getting to know each student well, making sure their learning needs are being met, and encouraging them to make good academic choices and plan for their future. Advisories are designed to foster stronger adult-student relationships and a stronger sense of belonging and community among students. While many advisories pair groups of students with individual teachers for a single school year (in this case, students would move on to a different advisor the next year), advisory programs may also pair students with the same teachers for multiple years (e.g., all four years of high school). Proponents may argue that the most effective advisories tend to be well organized, scheduled frequently and during normal school hours, and focused on specific advisory objectives, such as providing academic assistance or guidance on planning for college and career goals after graduation.

Depending on the priorities and structure of the program, students may receive guidance on a wide range of topics during an advisory period, including course selection, future planning, study skills, social problems, and outside-of-school learning opportunities. In addition to one-on-one conversations with a designated advisor, students may also participate in group discussions or team-building exercises intended to build stronger peer relationships and teach students the value of collaboration, constructive feedback, and healthy peer interactions. Some schools also use “peer advisories,” which pair students with peer advisors, which are typically older mentor students or peer tutors who can help fellow student with specific academic problems.

Reform

Advisories are one of many possible strategies that schools use to make sure that students don’t “fall through the cracks”—that is, to ensure that their social, emotional, and academic needs are not being overlooked or left unattended. For this reason, advisories are often considered to be a form of personalized learning or academic support focused on helping all students succeed academically, stay in school, and make more informed educational decisions that will help them prepare for the future.

Advisories may also be seen as reform strategy focused on using available school time more intentionally and purposefully. In many schools, advisories will take the place of traditional study halls and homeroom periods, which—in the view of some educators—are often underutilized as learning time or student-support opportunities. In schools that are experiencing high dropout rates, low academic achievement, or other indicators of poor performance, for example, educators may argue that these schools should not squander available time that could be used more effectively—i.e., to help students catch up academically, prepare for college, or receive guidance, mentoring, and academic assistance. Advisories are one of many strategies for using school time more productively.

While advisories may be used in all grade levels, they have become a common school-improvement strategy in high schools, where students have historically had more limited opportunities to build strong relationships with teachers and other adults in the school.

Debate

While the advisory concept is not typically controversial, it is a fairly common for specific advisory programs to become the objects of criticism, usually due to wide variability in the quality of their design or execution. As a reform strategy, advisory programs are often created with good intentions, but these periods can easily lapse into unfocused inactivity or socializing if they are not properly structured and monitored. For example, if school leaders fail to establish clear expectations and goals for advisory periods, or they fail to regularly monitor and evaluate how the time is being used and whether it’s being used effectively, both advisors and students may become confused about the purpose of an advisory and therefore critical of the program. If advisory periods are too infrequent or too short, or if too many students are assigned to an advisory group, adult advisors may also struggle to maintain focus and continuity, use available time effectively, or give students the attention they need.

In addition, teachers may not feel comfortable advising students on non-academic problems, or they may feel unprepared or unqualified to be advisors, particularly when it comes to addressing a student’s personal, social, emotional, or psychological problems. In these cases, teachers may argue that the advisory role is not part of their job description, and that advising students on non-academic issues should be the responsibility of trained professionals, such as guidance counselors and school social workers.

School leaders and educators may not support advisories for any number of reasons: some may perceive these programs to take instructional time away from the school day, for example, while others may become frustrated if an advisory program is either overly prescriptive or completely unstructured, which may require teachers to spend more time planning and preparing for advisories—a situation that can become problematic or contentious if teachers are already feel overworked because they are teaching large classes, teaching too many classes, or taking on additional professional responsibilities.

As with any school-reform strategy, the success of advisories depends largely of the quality of their design and execution, and schools may need to provide relevant training or professional development to increase the likelihood that advisories will be effective.

Core Course of Study

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Also called core curriculum, core course of study refers to a series or selection of courses that all students are required to complete before they can move on to the next level in their education or earn a diploma. In high schools, a core course of study will typically include specified classes in the four “core” subject areas—English language arts, math, science, and social studies—during each of the four standard years of high school. Since elementary and middle schools generally offer students a predetermined academic program with fewer optional courses, the term core course of study nearly always refers to requirements in high school programs.

In some schools, the core course of study may also entail additional credit requirements in specified subject areas, such as the arts, computer science, health, physical education, and world languages, but not all schools may define their core courses of study in this way. A core course of study typically does not include electives—optional courses that students choose to take and that may or may not satisfy credit requirements for graduation.

The general educational purpose of a core course of study is to ensure that all students take and complete courses that are considered to be academically and culturally essential—i.e., the courses that teach students the foundational knowledge and skills they will need in college, careers, and adult life. Yet depending on the structure of the academic program in a particular school, the core course of study may be different for some students. For example, some schools offer distinct academic programs in parallel with their regular academic programs—such as International Baccalaureate or theme-based academies, among many other possible options—and students enrolled in these programs will likely have to satisfy different requirements to complete the program or earn a diploma.

Credits are awarded when students complete a course with a passing grade. Therefore, increasing subject-area credit requirements effectively increases course requirements. This is why states may attempt to influence the quality or effectiveness of academic programs by modifying state-mandated credit requirements: schools may offer a wide variety of math courses and academic tracks, but they all offer courses in the subject area of math. Still, there is a nuanced distinction between core academic courses and credit requirements: some history courses, for example, may be elective in a school while others are considered part of the core course of study. To complete the core course of study and satisfy a school’s graduation requirements, then, students will need to pass the required history courses, not just earn a specified number of history credits.

Reform

For decades, high schools have typically used some form of graduation requirements to ensure that students complete a specified selection of courses before they are awarded a diploma. States have also passed legislation that determined minimum credit requirements in a selection of subject areas for public high schools, although districts and schools can elect to increase those requirements. To this day, graduation requirements still vary considerably from state to state and school to school, both in terms of (1) the total number of courses or credits required in each subject and (2) the kinds of courses or learning experiences required.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, however, graduation requirements—including mandatory courses and other learning experiences, such computer-literacy or community-service requirements—became objects of reform. Growing calls to improve academic achievement and student preparation led states, districts, and schools to increase course and credit requirements as a mechanism for elevating academic expectations and improving education results. For example, many states moved to require that all public high school students complete four “years” (or credits) in English, and to increase credit requirements for math, science, or social studies from two years (a formerly common requirement) to three or four years. Some states even now require students to complete specific courses, not just specific credit requirements—for example, students may be required to complete four “years” of math up to and including courses deemed to be at an “Algebra II” level or above. Schools also used the core course of study, and any attendant graduation requirements, as a way to improve the academic achievement, attainment, and preparation of more students, while also mitigating learning loss, learning gaps, achievement gaps, and opportunity gaps.

Pedagogically and philosophically, the core course of study, as a reform strategy, is related to concepts such as access, equity, high expectations, and rigor. The basic rationale is that increasing requirements in the “core” subjects will not only improve student learning and skill acquisition, but it will give graduates more educational and career options because they will graduate better educated and prepared. The core course of study, as a reform strategy, is also related to learning standards (i.e., the general educational intent is similar), but course requirements are distinct from standards: a core course of study establishes minimum course requirements, while standards establish minimum learning requirements. Many learning standards may be addressed or taught in a course, but standards are not specific to certain courses (although they are typically organized by subject area and grade level). Learning standards describe knowledge and skill expectations, but those standards can be met either within or outside of a course.

Debate

Some education leaders question whether it is sufficient or useful to simply require students to take more courses, when such requirements do not guarantee that students will actually learn more in certain subject area or graduate better prepared for adult life. Since courses may be more challenging or less challenging, and since students may learn a lot or not learn much in any given course, many educators argue that states, districts, and schools should require students to meet learning standards, not just complete courses, because standards describe the specific knowledge and skills students are expected to acquire. For example, reform strategies such as proficiency-based learning require students to demonstrate mastery of the knowledge and skills outlined in learning standards before they can pass a course, move on to the next grade level, or graduate. If schools have a core course of study in place, students may take more courses, but they may also be able to pass those courses with low grades and without having acquired the knowledge and skills described in learning standards.

Less commonly, core courses of study, learning standards, and other attempts to standardize what gets taught in schools may be perceived by some parents or public figures as a form of “forced curriculum”—i.e., an attempt to control what gets taught to students. In most cases, such criticism mirrors larger political debates and ideological fault lines in the United States, such as whether and how schools should teach the science of evolution (a highly politicized topic). While core courses of study and learning standards are, in fact, overt attempts to standardize education and ensure that students learn certain foundational knowledge and skills, the majority of educators do not see ominous or ideological intent behind these strategies.

Multicultural Education

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Multicultural education refers to any form of education or teaching that incorporates the histories, texts, values, beliefs, and perspectives of people from different cultural backgrounds. At the classroom level, for example, teachers may modify or incorporate lessons to reflect the cultural diversity of the students in a particular class. In many cases, “culture” is defined in the broadest possible sense, encompassing race, ethnicity, nationality, language, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, and “exceptionality”—a term applied to students with specialized needs or disabilities.

Generally speaking, multicultural education is predicated on the principle of educational equity for all students, regardless of culture, and it strives to remove barriers to educational opportunities and success for students from different cultural backgrounds. In practice, educators may modify or eliminate educational policies, programs, materials, lessons, and instructional practices that are either discriminatory toward or insufficiently inclusive of diverse cultural perspectives. Multicultural education also assumes that the ways in which students learn and think are deeply influenced by their cultural identity and heritage, and that to teach culturally diverse students effectively requires educational approaches that value and recognize their cultural backgrounds. In this way, multicultural education aims to improve the learning and success of all students, particularly students from cultural groups that have been historically underrepresented or that suffer from lower educational achievement and attainment.

Instructionally, multicultural education may entail the use of texts, materials, references, and historical examples that are understandable to students from different cultural backgrounds or that reflect their particular cultural experience—such as teaching students about historical figures who were female, disabled, or gay (a less common practice in past decades). Since schools in the United States have traditionally used texts, learning materials, and cultural examples that commonly—or even exclusively—reflect an American or Eurocentric point of view, other cultural perspectives are often absent. Consequently, some students—such as recently arrived immigrants or students of color, for example—may be placed at an educational disadvantage due to cultural or linguistic obstacles that have been overlooked or ignored.

The following are a few representative ways in which multicultural education may play out in schools:

  • Learning content: Texts and learning materials may include multiple cultural perspectives and references. For example, a lesson on colonialism in North America might address different cultural perspectives, such as those of the European settlers, indigenous Americans, and African slaves.
  • Student cultures: Teachers and other educators may learn about the cultural backgrounds of students in a school, and then intentionally incorporate learning experiences and content relevant to their personal cultural perspectives and heritage. Students may also be encouraged to learn about the cultural backgrounds of other students in a class, and students from different cultures may be given opportunities to discuss and share their cultural experiences.
  • Critical analysis: Educators may intentionally scrutinize learning materials to identify potentially prejudicial or biased material. Both educators and students might analyze their own cultural assumptions, and then discuss how learning materials, teaching practices, or schools policies reflect cultural bias, and how they could be changed to eliminate bias.
  • Resource allocation: Multicultural education is generally predicated on the principle of equity—i.e., that the allocation and distribution of educational resources, programs, and learning experiences should be based on need and fairness, rather than strict equality. For example, students who are not proficient in the English language may learn in bilingual settings and read bilingual texts, and they may receive comparatively more instructional support than their English-speaking peers so that they do not fall behind academically or drop out of school due to language limitations.

Reform

Multicultural education evolved out of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Although it began with the African-American community, the movement soon expanded to include other cultural groups who were subject to discrimination. In recent years, as student populations have grown more diverse, multicultural approaches to education are increasingly being used in public schools.

The following are few representative ways in which multicultural education may intersect with efforts to improve schools:

  • Curriculum design: In teaching materials and learning experiences, the backgrounds and perspectives of previously excluded subcultures are increasingly being represented in school curriculum. In addition, learning standards—brief descriptions of what students are expected to learn and be able to do at particular ages and grade levels—are evolving to reflect greater cultural diversity (for example, the Common Core State Standards intentionally consider the educational experiences of English-language learners and students with special needs). In addition, there are now educational programs, such as ethnic and gender studies, that focus on specific cultural groups, and school learning experiences and social-justice programs may also encourage students to investigate and address cultural bias in their school or community.
  • Student instruction: The way that educators teach is also changing to accommodate increasing diversity in public schools. For example, students with moderate disabilities and students who are not proficient in English are increasingly being moved into regular classes (rather than being taught in separate classes), where they may receive specialized assistance, but where they learn the same material as their peers. In the classroom, teachers may also employ “culturally responsive” instructional strategies (such as those described above) that reflect the cultural identity of individual students.
  • Learning assessment: Proponents of multicultural education tend to argue that “one-size-fits-all” approaches to assessing student learning could disadvantage students from different cultural backgrounds—e.g., when students are not fluent in the language used on a test, when assessment questions are phrased in a way that could be misinterpreted by students (because the students are unfamiliar with American slang, customs, or cultural references), or when a testing situation does not make sufficient accommodations for students with disabilities. One alternative to standardized tests, for example, is to measure student learning progress using a wider variety of assessment options, such as teacher-created tests, oral presentations, and various demonstrations of learning that give students more opportunities to show what they have learned. Generally speaking, proponents of multicultural education tend to advocate that students from different cultural backgrounds should be held to the same high expectations as other students, but that schools should adopt more flexible and inclusive ways of teaching them and measuring what they have learned. For related discussions, see test accommodations, test bias, and stereotype threat.
  • Teacher education: Multicultural education has also affected the preparation of teachers. Beginning in the 1980s, accrediting organizations and state departments of education started requiring teacher-education programs to include multicultural coursework and training. States such as California, Florida, and Massachusetts undertook ambitious efforts to train teachers in multicultural education and English as a second language.
  • School staffing: Districts and schools are also being more intentional or proactive about hiring educators of color from diverse cultural backgrounds. While proponents of multicultural education would not claim that teachers of color are more skilled than other teachers, they are likely to argue that staffing decisions reflect a school’s fundamental values and that students will benefit from having educators and role models from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds.
  • Legislative and legal issues: The rise of multicultural education has also coincided with a number of legislative and court actions. Laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Equal Educational Opportunity Act of 1974, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1974, among many others, increased the visibility of multicultural education and led to the widespread adoption of more multicultural approaches to education in American public schools. Federal, state, and district policies, in addition to major legal decisions related to desegregation (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), the education of bilingual students (Lau v. Nichols, 1974), and fairness in school finance (San Antonio v. Rodriguez, 1973), for example, have also had a major effect on multicultural education in schools.

Debate

As demographic changes in the United States have significantly increased the cultural diversity of student populations in public schools—many urban districts, for example, are already “majority minority” districts—multicultural policies and practices have become important and sometimes contentious issues.

At the center of many debates about multicultural education is the question of whether such approaches might actually serve to divide rather than unite Americans, and whether certain strategies are fundamentally fair to all students. In the view of some educators, parents, and others, increasing emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism in schools has shifted attention toward economically disadvantaged students of color, and away from white students from wealthier and more educated families. For example, strategies such as “heterogeneous grouping”—the grouping of students with different abilities, backgrounds, and levels of preparation in a single class—often leads to concerns about whether the practice disadvantages higher-performing students who may not be sufficiently challenged in the courses.

While the debates about multicultural education are both numerous and nuanced, many center on differing interpretations of equity—what is fair and just—and equality—what is applied, allocated, or distributed equally (for example, a school might choose to allocate resources—funding, teachers, staff time, etc.—equally among all students). Another source of debate stems from the conception of America as a meritocracy in which anyone, if they work hard enough, can succeed and prosper. Those who believe in and prioritize meritocracy may perceive unequal educational allocations, accommodations, or compensations to be unfair (because some students are being given an unfair advantage, which may diminish opportunities for other, possibly more deserving, students). Others, who don’t perceive America to be a true meritocracy, may argue that the unequal distribution of educational resources is the only fair way to level the playing field and ensure that every student has an equal—or equitable—opportunity to succeed. For a more detailed discussion of these debates, see equity.

The following list describes a few representative examples of multicultural education giving rise to debate:

  • Affirmative action: While affirmative action policies are frequently misunderstood—e.g., they are often misrepresented as quota systems for minorities, for example—the practice of giving certain minority groups preferential treatment in school admissions has been a source of ongoing debate in the United States, and it has led to charges of reverse-bias (some even refer to the practice as “positive discrimination”). While proponents of multicultural education would argue that affirmative action is motivated by the desire to counterbalance a legacy of systemic, institutionalized bias and to expand educational opportunities for all students, critics tend to argue that students should be admitted to schools based solely on academic performance and other objective measures of merit and worthiness.
  • Resource allocation: As states, districts, and schools increase funding for specialized teachers, resources, and accommodations for minority, lower-income, and special-needs students, concerns and debates about fairness often follow. For example, a district and school may decide to hire more teachers with specialized expertise in English as a second language or in special education (often to comply with state or federal requirements) despite budgetary cutbacks and staffing reductions in other teaching areas. Such decisions can be particularly contentious if a school district decides to hire a private school, organization, or business, often at higher cost, to provide these specialized services.
  • Assessment and testing: While there is broad agreement in the education community that all students should be held to the same high academic expectations, practices such as standardized testing and high-stakes testing are common sources of debate. Since all students—regardless of their ability, English proficiency, or cultural background—may be required to take the same test, debates about fairness can arise, particularly in those cases in which students may be at a clear disadvantage when taking the test—e.g., recently arrived immigrant students who are not yet proficient in the English language or in American customs and cultural references. Proponents of multicultural education may argue that students should be assessed using a variety of measures, while critics may contend that using a single test is the only fair and objective way to evaluate learning acquisition and academic progress.
  • Curriculum and instruction: Critics of multicultural education may express concern that some texts and learning materials, for example, overemphasize culturally diverse content while giving insufficient attention to important topics or historical events. Proponents of multicultural education may argue that learning should address multiple cultural viewpoints, and that students from different cultural backgrounds should see their cultural groups represented in the lessons and content taught in public schools. Similar concerns are often expressed about instruction, and some educators and parents may argue that schools are spending too much time and too many resources on some students at the expense of others.

Transition

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In education, the term transition typically refers to the three major transitional points in the public-education system: when students move from elementary school to middle school, from middle school to high school, and from high school to college. While students experience other “transitions” during their educational journey—such as advancing from one grade level to the next—the three “major” transition points are a particular focus of educators and school reformers because transitioning students often experience significant academic, social, emotional, physical, or developmental changes that may adversely affect their educational performance. During these transitions, for example, students may move from a familiar school to an unfamiliar school, where they encounter new teachers, peers, academic expectations, social issues, and school configurations that increase the likelihood they will feel overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated, or insecure.

As more and more school districts and schools consolidate throughout the United States, the likelihood of students experiencing multiple school-to-school transitions has increased—it is now more common for students to spend only a few grade levels in a particular public school before transitioning to another one (in fact, students may even transition multiple times during their elementary years alone).

While the changes that students may experience during a transition are numerous, the following are a few representative examples:

  • School facilities: A new school building may be much larger, located farther from home, or organized in a different way, and students may experience longer commutes or difficulties navigating a new school.
  • Academic expectations: During a transition, students may encounter a significant change or increase in academic expectations, and less-prepared students may struggle to keep up with their coursework, acquire new skills, or learn at a more accelerated pace.
  • Class schedules:  Students may shift from remaining in one room for most of the day (as in elementary school) to changing classrooms multiple times a day for different courses, and they may struggle with disorganization and time management. Variation in school schedules may also require students to change classes more frequently or less frequently, or to attend them for shorter or longer periods of time.
  • Different teachers: In elementary school, students typically remain with one teacher for most of the day, while in middle school and high school they often have different teachers for each subject. In these situations, students must become accustomed to having different teachers throughout the day who may have their own rules, expectations, or teaching style.
  • Increased independence: With each successive transition, students are typically expected to become more self-reliant and assume more responsibility for things such as being organized, planning ahead, or meeting deadlines without assistance or reminders from teachers.
  • Peer groups: When several smaller student populations are combined at the middle school level and then again at the high school level—a common occurrence—the consolidation process brings together larger populations of students who do not know each other, which can significantly affect student friendships, social groups, behaviors, self-confidence, self-perceptions, and feelings of belonging.
  • Family involvement: While parents often volunteer in the classroom or have frequent contact with teachers in elementary schools, parent and guardian involvement in school activities, their communication with teachers, and their awareness of their child’s academic performance often decreases as students grow older and progress in their education.

Reform

During the major transitional periods, typically in the year or two after a student has made the “transition,” schools often see increased behavioral issues and absences, higher dropout rates, and more course failures and academic problems among students. For this reason, many school-improvement strategies are designed to create organizational and instructional conditions that can help students transition more successfully. The following are a few representative examples of common strategies:

  • Early warning systems: Middle schools and high schools may develop “early warning systems” that proactively identify students who may be at greater risk of dropping out or struggling academically, socially, and emotionally. Most early warning systems consist of educators collecting and analyzing student data—e.g., test scores, course grades, failure rates, absences, behavioral incidences—before students make a transition, and then determining the most appropriate programming, services, counseling, instructional strategies, and academic support for identified at-risk students after they transition.
  • Summer bridge programs: Some high schools create transition experiences called “summer bridge programs,” “jump-start programs,” or “kick-start programs” (among other possible names) that are offered to students during the summer before their ninth-grade year. Summer bridge programs are typically a blend of summer school and high school orientation—i.e., they are intensive, often multiweek programs designed to prepare students academically, socially, and practically for ninth grade. In these programs, students will typically receive instruction targeting identified academic deficits and learning gaps; learn practical academic skills, such as how to plan, study, write, or conduct research; receive an orientation to high school life, including guidance on behaviors or situations to avoid; and participate in a variety of confidence-building or team-building activities. Early warning systems may be used to identify students most likely to benefit from such programs.
  • Enhanced orientation programs: Modifying or enhancing orientation experiences is another way that schools can strengthen educational transitions. Instead of providing a single half-day or daylong orientation, for example, schools may create more intensive multiday or weeklong orientations offered during the summer. In addition to providing tours of the school and going over academic options, enhanced orientation programs may employ a variety of strategies intended to prepare students academically, socially, and emotionally. For example, recently arrived immigrant and refugee students may be given a much more intensive introduction to a school, including guidance on the new cultural experiences and expectations they will encounter. In this case, the parents and families of students may also be invited to participate in the orientation, where they may learn how to navigate the school system and make appropriate academic choices for their children.
  • Early college experiences: High schools and collegiate institutions may also create programs or experiences designed to “bridge” high school and collegiate education. While these programs come in a wide variety of forms, they are generally designed to provide students with collegiate-level learning experiences while they are still in high school and possibly give them the opportunity to earn college credit or postsecondary certifications—both of which may improve their chances of enrolling in and completing a postsecondary program. “Early college high schools,” for example, typically allow students to graduate from high school in five years with both a high school diploma and an associate degree. High schools or colleges may also offer students dual-enrollment opportunities, career and technical education centers may help students earn industry certifications in certain trades, or schools may partner with postsecondary institutions in a variety of ways to increase postsecondary aspirations, preparation, and enrollments.
  • Teaming strategies: Middle schools and high schools may use teaming, or the pairing a group of teachers with a group of students for a year or longer (e.g., a group of six or eight teachers may be paired with sixty or eighty students). Such grouping strategies allow teachers to discuss the students they have in common and to establish stronger teacher-student relationships based on an improved understanding of the students and their specific learning needs. Team teachers, for example, may meet to review student-performance data, discuss which teaching methods are working for some students and which are not, plan appropriate support strategies for students, and develop lessons and projects collaboratively. When designed and executed successfully, teaming can also foster greater collaboration among teachers, provide mentoring and a sense of continuity for students, and create a stronger sense of community and belonging among students.
  • Advisory programs: An advisory or advisory period is typically a regularly scheduled period of time during the school day for teachers to meet with small groups of students for the purpose of advising them on academic, social, and future-planning issues. The broad purpose of advisory periods is to ensure that at least one adult in the school is getting to know each student well, making sure their learning needs are met, and encouraging them to make good academic choices and plan for their future. Advisories are designed to foster stronger teacher-student relationships and a stronger sense of community and belonging in students.
  • Mentors and liaisons: In some cases, schools may pair incoming students with peer mentors who meet with the students regularly and help them navigate academic options and social situations. Schools may also have “parent liaisons,”or students, teachers, and staff who are paired with parents and families, such as recently arrived immigrant or refugee families or families who do not speak English, who may need more frequent contact and assistance from the school to acclimate to a new culture and make appropriate choices for their children.
  • Senior-year strategies: During their last year of high school, many twelfth-grade students elect to take a reduced course load or leave school after half a day, which can potentially lead to learning loss and decrease preparation for postsecondary education. If students complete their credit requirements in math during eleventh grade, for example, and they do not elect to take a math class during twelfth grade, they could be at a disadvantage when taking placement tests and math courses during their first year of college. To keep students learning, engaged, and motivated during their senior year, schools may use a variety of strategies, including increased graduation requirements or capstone projects.

 

Norm-Referenced Test

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Norm-referenced refers to standardized tests that are designed to compare and rank test takers in relation to one another. Norm-referenced tests report whether test takers performed better or worse than a hypothetical average student, which is determined by comparing scores against the performance results of a statistically selected group of test takers, typically of the same age or grade level, who have already taken the exam.

Calculating norm-referenced scores is called the “norming process,” and the comparison group is known as the “norming group.” Norming groups typically comprise only a small subset of previous test takers, not all or even most previous test takers. Test developers use a variety of statistical methods to select norming groups, interpret raw scores, and determine performance levels.

Norm-referenced scores are generally reported as a percentage or percentile ranking. For example, a student who scores in the seventieth percentile performed as well or better than seventy percent of other test takers of the same age or grade level, and thirty percent of students performed better (as determined by norming-group scores).

Norm-referenced tests often use a multiple-choice format, though some include open-ended, short-answer questions. They are usually based on some form of national standards, not locally determined standards or curricula. IQ tests are among the most well-known norm-referenced tests, as are developmental-screening tests, which are used to identify learning disabilities in young children or determine eligibility for special-education services. A few major norm-referenced tests include the California Achievement Test, Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Stanford Achievement Test, and TerraNova.

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

  • To determine a young child’s readiness for preschool or kindergarten. These tests may be designed to measure oral-language ability, visual-motor skills, and cognitive and social development.
  • To evaluate basic reading, writing, and math skills. Test results may be used for a wide variety of purposes, such as measuring academic progress, making course assignments, determining readiness for grade promotion, or identifying the need for additional academic support.
  • To identify specific learning disabilities, such as autism, dyslexia, or nonverbal learning disability, or to determine eligibility for special-education services.
  • To make program-eligibility or college-admissions decisions (in these cases, norm-referenced scores are generally evaluated alongside other information about a student). Scores on SAT or ACT exams are a common example.

Norm-Referenced vs. Criterion-Referenced Tests

Norm-referenced tests are specifically 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 well, most performing average, and a small percentage performing poorly. 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 certain material, or acquired specific skills and knowledge. Tests that measure performance against a fixed set of standards or criteria are called criterion-referenced tests.

Criterion-referenced test results are often based on the number of correct answers provided by students, and scores might be expressed as a percentage of the total possible number of correct answers. On a norm-referenced exam, however, the score would reflect how many more or fewer correct answers a student gave in comparison to other students. Hypothetically, if all the students who took a norm-referenced test performed poorly, the least-poor results would rank students in the highest percentile. Similarly, if all students performed extraordinarily well, the least-strong performance would rank students in the lowest percentile.

It should be noted that norm-referenced tests cannot measure the learning achievement or progress of an entire group of students, but only the relative performance of individuals within a group. For this reason, criterion-referenced tests are used to measure whole-group performance.

Reform

Norm-referenced tests have historically been used to make distinctions among students, often for the purposes of course placement, program eligibility, or school admissions. Yet because norm-referenced tests are designed to rank student performance on a relative scale—i.e., in relation to the performance of other students—norm-referenced testing has been abandoned by many schools and states in favor of criterion-referenced tests, which measure student performance in relation to common set of fixed criteria or standards.

It should be noted that norm-referenced tests are typically not the form of standardized test widely used to comply with state or federal policies—such as the No Child Left Behind Act—that are intended to measure school performance, close “achievement gaps,” or hold schools accountable for improving student learning results. In most cases, criterion-referenced tests are used for these purposes because the goal is to determine whether schools are successfully teaching students what they are expected to learn.

Similarly, the assessments being developed to measure student achievement of the Common Core State Standards are also criterion-referenced exams. However, some test developers promote their norm-referenced exams—for example, the TerraNova Common Core—as a way for teachers to “benchmark” learning progress and determine if students are on track to perform well on Common Core–based assessments.

Debate

While norm-referenced tests are not the focus of ongoing national debates about “high-stakes testing,” they are nonetheless the object of much debate. The essential disagreement is between those who view norm-referenced tests as objective, valid, and fair measures of student performance, and those who believe that relying on relative performance results is inaccurate, unhelpful, and unfair, especially when making important educational decisions for students. While part of the debate centers on whether or not it is ethically appropriate, or even educationally useful, to evaluate individual student learning in relation to other students (rather than evaluating individual performance in relation to fixed and known criteria), much of the debate is also focused on whether there is a general overreliance on standardized-test scores in the United States, and whether a single test, no matter what its design, should be used—in exclusion of other measures—to evaluate school or student performance.

It should be noted that perceived performance on a standardized test can potentially be manipulated, regardless of whether a test is norm-referenced or criterion-referenced. For example, if a large number of students are performing poorly on a test, the performance criteria—i.e., the bar for what is considered “passing” or “proficient”—could be lowered to “improve” perceived performance, even if students are not learning more or performing better than past test takers. For example, if a standardized test administered in eleventh grade uses proficiency standards that are considered to be equivalent to eighth-grade learning expectations, it will appear that students are performing well, when in fact the test has not measured learning achievement at a level appropriate to their age or grade. For this reason, it is important to investigate the criteria used to determine “proficiency” on any given test—and particularly when a test is considered “high stakes,” since there is greater motivation to manipulate perceived test performance when results are tied to sanctions, funding reductions, public embarrassment, or other negative consequences.

The following are representative of the kinds of arguments typically made by proponents of norm-referenced testing:

  • Norm-referenced tests are relatively inexpensive to develop, simple to administer, and easy to score. As long as the results are used alongside other measures of performance, they can provide valuable information about student learning.
  • The quality of norm-referenced tests is usually high because they are developed by testing experts, piloted, and revised before they are used with students, and they are dependable and stable for what they are designed to measure.
  • Norm-referenced tests can help differentiate students and identify those who may have specific educational needs or deficits that require specialized assistance or learning environments.
  • The tests are an objective evaluation method that can decrease bias or favoritism when making educational decisions. If there are limited places in a gifted and talented program, for example, one transparent way to make the decision is to give every student the same test and allow the highest-scoring students to gain entry.

The following are representative of the kinds of arguments typically made by critics of norm-referenced testing:

  • Although testing experts and test developers warn that major educational decisions should not be made on the basis of a single test score, norm-referenced scores are often misused in schools when making critical educational decisions, such as grade promotion or retention, which can have potentially harmful consequences for some students and student groups.
  • Norm-referenced tests encourage teachers to view students in terms of a bell curve, which can lead them to lower academic expectations for certain groups of students, particularly special-needs students, English-language learners, or minority groups. And when academic expectations are consistently lowered year after year, students in these groups may never catch up to their peers, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. For a related discussion, see high expectations.
  • Multiple-choice tests—the dominant norm-referenced format—are better suited to measuring remembered facts than more complex forms of thinking. Consequently, norm-referenced tests promote rote learning and memorization in schools over more sophisticated cognitive skills, such as writing, critical reading, analytical thinking, problem solving, or creativity.
  • Overreliance on norm-referenced test results can lead to inadvertent discrimination against minority groups and low-income student populations, both of which tend to face more educational obstacles that non-minority students from higher-income households. For example, many educators have argued that the overuse of norm-referenced testing has resulted in a significant overrepresentation of minority students in special-education programs. On the other hand, using norm-referenced scores to determine placement in gifted and talented programs, or other “enriched” learning opportunities, leads to the underrepresentation of minority and lower-income students in these programs. Similarly, students from higher-income households may have an unfair advantage in the college-admissions process because they can afford expensive test-preparation services.
  • An overreliance on norm-referenced test scores undervalues important achievements, skills, and abilities in favor of the more narrow set of skills measured by the tests.

Block Schedule

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A block schedule is a system for scheduling the middle- or high-school day, typically by replacing a more traditional schedule of six or seven 40–50 minute daily periods with longer class periods that meet fewer times each day and week. For example, a typical block-schedule class might last 90 or 120 minutes and meet every other day instead of daily.

School-by-school variations in block-scheduling systems are numerous, but the most common formulations include:

  • A “4 x 4” block schedule in which students take four 90-minute classes every day and finish a course in one semester rather a full school year.
  • An “A/B” or “alternating-day” block schedule in which students take eight 90-minute classes that meet every other day.
  • A “trimester” schedule in which students take two or three core courses at a time, with each class meeting daily, over three 60-day trimesters.
  • A “75-15-75-15” schedule in which students take four 75-minute classes every day and finish courses in a semester, with each semester followed by an intensive 15-day learning-enrichment course or remedial program. Another variation is the “75-75-30” schedule, which uses only a single 30-day intersession rather than two 15-day intersessions.
  • A “Copernican” schedule in which students have longer classes for core academic subjects during one half of the school day and shorter daily periods for electives such as physical education or music during the second half of the day.

Debate

The following are a few representative arguments that may be made by advocates of longer instructional periods and block scheduling:

  • Fewer class periods and interruptions during a school day reduce the amount of time that teachers spend on routine administrative or classroom-management tasks—such as taking attendance, handing out and collecting materials, or preparing for and wrapping up activities—which increases the total amount of time students are engaged in more meaningful and productive learning activities. Some studies have found that significant amounts of class time are commonly devoted to non-instructional tasks—in some cases, leaving only 15 or 20 minutes (out of 45 or 50) for instruction and learning. In a traditional eight-period school day, students also spend more time in the hallways and moving between classes, which further reduces the total amount of the school day that can be devoted to learning and may also increase disciplinary issues.
  • Teachers are able to utilize more varied or innovative instructional techniques when class periods are longer—they can cover more content with fewer interruptions, provide students with more attention and one-on-one support, and they can engage students in more sustained, in-depth learning activities, including more sophisticated projects, teamwork-based exercises, or other activities that could not be easily completed in 40 or 50 minutes. Also, the more students that teachers have to see each day, the less time and attention they can devote to each student. Consequently, student-teacher relationships may not be as strong, and students, particularly those with significant learning needs or disabilities, may not get the personal attention and support they may need to succeed in a course.
  • Scheduling fewer classes per day reduces burdens on both teachers and students. In a traditional eight-period day, for example, teachers need to prepare for up to eight courses and possibly double the number students. Consequently, teachers may be forced to rush the grading of work, provide less substantive feedback to students, or hastily plan and organize lessons. Students must also prepare for more courses, which can be overwhelming and have an adverse impact on learning. For example, homework assignments may need to be more superficial, since teachers have to take into consideration the time it will take students to complete homework for six or more classes on a given night, rather than four.

Critics of block schedules tend to claim that students (particularly at certain developmental stages) cannot stay focused for longer periods of time, that knowledge retention will be diminished if classes do not meet every day, or that students will fall behind more readily or quickly if they miss a day of school. The “4 x 4 block schedule” has been more heavily criticized since students may end up with a half-year or even yearlong gap between courses. For example, students might take French I during the first semester of their freshman year, but their French II course will not be scheduled until the second semester of their sophomore year, resulting in a twelve-month gap in language instruction. Critics may also question whether teachers actually teach differently when classes are longer or whether teachers have received enough professional development to modify their teaching strategies or lessons in ways that will make the most effective use of longer periods. In some cases, negative perceptions of block schedules stem not from the strategy itself, but from failed attempts to implement such a schedule in a school, or from educators who have had negative experience with a poorly organized or executed block-scheduling strategy. Since block scheduling often requires significant changes in way lessons are structured and taught, teachers may also resist or dislike the system because they feel less confident with the new format or they are emotionally attached to more familiar scheduling systems.

Power Standards

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The term power standards refers to a subset of learning standards that educators have determined to be the highest priority or most important for students to learn. In most cases, power standards are developed or selected at the school level by administrators and teachers. All fifty states have developed or adopted extensive lists of content-area standards that define, in great detail, the knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn in all major subject areas and all grade levels (kindergarten through twelfth grade). But on a practical level, it is often impossible for teachers to cover every academic standard over the course of a school year, given the depth and breadth of state learning standards.

Power standards, therefore, are the prioritized academic expectations that educators determine to be the most critical and essential for students to learn, and—in schools that use power standards—courses and learning experiences are designed to emphasize power-standards content and ensure that, at the very least, students learn the content specified in the power standards. It is important to note that power standards do not preclude the teaching of other standards—they merely determine the highest-priority material. For this reason, power standards may be limited to only a handful of standards, but these standards will typically require students to acquire and demonstrate strong understanding of a complex subject or sophisticated skill. For example, understanding the scientific method and applying it in diverse scientific situations might be an example of a power standard identified by schools.

The educators and authors Larry Ainsworth and Douglas Reeves are widely considered to have coined the term “power standards.” In Ainsworth’s 2003 book, Power Standards: Identifying the Standards that Matter the Most, he defines the concept and outlines a variety of strategies schools could use to select or create power standards. Reeves wrote the foreword. The book proposes three criteria for selecting power standards:

  • Endurance: Standards that focus on knowledge and skills that will be relevant throughout a student’s lifetime (such as learning how to read or how to interpret a map).
  • Leverage: Standards that focus on knowledge and skills used in multiple academic disciplines (such as writing grammatically and persuasively or interpreting and analyzing data).
  • Essentiality: Standards that focus on the knowledge and skills necessary for students to succeed in the next grade level or the next sequential course in an academic subject (such as understanding algebraic functions before taking geometry or calculus, which require the use of algebra).

“While academic standards vary widely in their specificity and clarity, they almost all have one thing in common: there are too many of them,” Reeves wrote in 2005. Some educators have pointed out that many of the countries that perform best on international tests, such as Finland and Singapore, also have more streamlined learning standards.