How Can America’s Schools Better Assess Students’ Learning?


By Ronald W. Holmes, Ph.D.

(TEWire) – While on a recent trip to South Africa to understand its educational system, I became very enthralled by the level of knowledge and training required for the job of safari field guides and animal trackers. The tracker assists the field guide in hunting animals such as elephants, rhinoceros, leopards, buffalos and lions which I observed first hand.  According to the safari lodge owner, the tracker must complete extensive training and certify his depth of knowledge of African flora, fauna, natural history and ecology. He must demonstrate sufficient knowledge about the animals in the game park, efficiently track the animals based on various signs, expressions, and characteristics of the animals’ culture and ensure safety to the tourists and himself while approaching the animals. While the animal tracker’s job appeared to be just as important as a doctor in a hospital, a lawyer in a courtroom or a teacher in a classroom, there was no tolerance for mediocrity. The tourists relied on the tracker’s educational training and testing requirements to effectively fulfill his role and maintain a safe environment.

While the tracker’s coursework and testing preparation played a significant part in the South Africa’s workforce and tourists‘ satisfaction of his job, could some other measures have been used to ensure the same outcome of the tracker’s competence? Could a performance portfolio of the tracker’s learning, for example, be another alternative to measure his mastery of the job? As America’s schools employ effective strategies to reform education, some critics have complained about the inappropriate use of testing data in schools and how it has been used to weaken the curriculum and punish schools instead of acknowledge their progress and growth. The question to be asked is, how can schools better assess students’ learning in lieu of the No Child Left Behind Act?

According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law created incentives for states to lower standards and measure students’ skills by using low-quality bubble tests. The law focused on punitive measures when students didn’t reach an absolute standard, yet failed to acknowledge growth and progress. The law also prescribed a pass-fail, one-size-fits-all series of interventions for schools that miss their goals.”

Under President Obama’s Blueprint for Reform (BFR) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, educators will be empowered through respecting teachers as the professionals they are, broadening the curriculum, using data the right way, empowering teachers and schools and making a bold case for reform, said Duncan.

For example, President Obama’s BFR is encouraging school leaders to “respect teachers as the professionals they are” by providing professional development opportunities to teachers, evaluating teachers using multiple measures, giving teachers relevant feedback, acknowledging their successes and rewarding them for exemplary performance and extra responsibility through programs such as the Race to the Top and the Federal Teacher Incentive Funds.

Second, the BFR is encouraging state education agencies and schools to “broaden the curriculum” in schools by providing students a well-rounded education including subjects such as the Arts and history that have been diminished due to the yearly testing mandates of Adequate Yearly Progress. The reform is also encouraging educational leaders to create better assessments whereby students’ learning could be assessed by multiple measures including performance portfolios and projects designed to ensure that students are prepared for the real world.  In support of this, the U.S. Department of Education is investing $350 million for state education agencies in addition to the Race to the Top funds.

Third, the BFR is encouraging state education agencies and schools to “use data the right way” by recognizing schools for the growth and progress they accomplished from one year to another instead of stigmatizing or labeling them as failing schools based on one source of measurement such as test scores. If a reading teacher, for instance, helps a student to improve his or her reading proficiency from first grade to third grade, the teacher should be recognized as a model for other teachers to follow rather than a failure.

Fourth, the BFR is encouraging state education agencies to adopt rigorous goals for student achievement and provide rewards and incentives to schools for accomplishing those goals rather than punishing, labeling, and closing schools if they do not perform well on a single measure such as a standardized test. This is being supported through the current schools’ level of funding and additional funding of programs such Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation, and Promise Neighborhoods.

Fifth, the BFR is encouraging state education agencies and schools to “make a bold case for reform” by providing students a world-class education through a transformation of the curriculum for equal access to a quality of education for all students in an effort to prepare them for college and careers and enable them to compete in a global marketplace, said Duncan.

As a partner in President Obama’s Education Reform Program, Florida, for example, demonstrated in an application process how it plans to adopt standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workforce; build data systems that measure student growth and success; inform teachers and principals how to improve instruction; recruit, develop, reward, and retain effective teachers and principals; and turn around its lowest-performing schools. Thereafter, Florida was named winner of the Race to the Top Phase Two Competition totaling $700 million and has selected volunteers from a wide range of professions to serve on eight Implementation Committees to create its plan. Other states such as Georgia, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee and the District of Columbia have become recipients of the Race to the Top Program to transform their school systems as well.

Realizing some critics have complained about the inappropriate use of testing data such as weakening the curriculum and stigmatizing schools, in my view, the Blueprint for Reform provides a sound approach for State Education Agencies and schools to better assess students’ learning in their respective schools through multiple measures.

The ultimate goal is for students to be prepared for the real world. While the animal tracker’s job appeared to be just as important as a doctor, lawyer and teacher, it was evident that he had gained the necessary skills needed to fulfill his job without any risk to the tourists and himself. For this scenario, the educational training was applicable but may not be applicable to other professions. With this in mind, a test should not be the primary measure for a school’s success. Other measures should be used to show a school’s progress and growth annually. As this happen, communities will regain their confidence in school.

Dr. Ronald W. Holmes is a former teacher, school administrator and superintendent; he has a track record of transforming schools and can be reached

Karen McRae

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