Clarifying a School’s Aims and Standards: An Interactive Exercise

California’s Center for School Restructuring is working on an “accountability, learning, and support” system to help the state’s demonstration schools that have received special funding for restructuring. The long-range goals of the demonstration schools and districts are to “provide powerful learning outcomes for all students” and to invent “an authentic system of accountability.” To help schools give an honest accounting of their restructuring work, the Center has devised a “School Change Portfolio” that would contain documents, artifacts, student and adult work, videotapes, and other materials that represent changes in student learning.

The first step in the process, California education officials say, is for schools to “translate their vision of successful students into measurable, holistic outcomes which capture what matters most-what knowledge, skills, capacities, habits, and attitudes ought to reside in every student as a result of their experience in public schools.” These “holistic learning outcomes” then become a tool for guiding the restructuring efforts. As they follow the formal protocol for together examining their own student works, schools say, it becomes a powerful way to discover whether their restructuring innovations are having an impact on student learning.

What follows is a 50-minute exercise that takes place early in that process, in which school people begin the discussion of their school’s aims and standards for student performance. It is included in the materials schools receive under the title “Assessment: The Trojan Horse of Restructuring.”

Introduction (5 minutes):

Assessment specialist Grant Wiggins refers to assessment as the Trojan Horse of restructuring. Wiggins believes that assessment should be the opening gambit and driving force shaping school and district restructuring efforts. Assessment must be reconceived as not only measuring, but evoking quality student work. This is a major shift in the traditional role of assessment in education.

Rethinking assessment along these lines means developing clarity about aims. Clarity does not come from mission statements, but rather from elaboration of (1) the essential areas of skill, knowledge, and capacity we want from all our students; and (2) the level of performance we want at these capacities. Restructuring is simply building the school around the Trojan Horse that is, around essential tasks done well.

The following interactive exercise is a START at building the Trojan Horse namely, building clarity about the aims of education and the standards for student performance.

1. Individuals (5 minutes):

List three things you would like all kids to know or be able to do before leaving high school. What are the three most crucial skills or areas of knowledge? Write these three down.

2. Small Groups (10 minutes):

Share your three items with members of your group. Discuss, argue, and come to consensus as a group about three discrete skills, capacities, or areas of knowledge you all feel are crucial for all students before they leave high school.

3. Large Group (10-15 minutes):

a. Elicit from the group a list (to be projected overhead or written on the board). Add only new items.

b. Which of these are covered by current standardized tests, grades, or traditional methods of assessment? (mark with a check.)

c. Which are not covered by traditional assessment methods? (mark with an arrow.)

4. Small Groups (10 minutes):

a. Select from the main list one item that has an arrow by it.

b. How would you convince students and adults in your community who are interested-teachers, parents, board members, business leaders, and so on-that students do in fact know and are able to do the crucial item you picked. What would students need to do to prove they have reached that

5. Table Groups (10 minutes):

Join with two other groups (three groups in all) and share the assessments you designed.

Closing (2 minutes):

The crucial aims aims of schooling-and the performance standards we require-must drive the design of school structures. Restructuring means designing curricula, pedagogy, and formative assessments that prepare students to meet clear and challenging exit-level requirements. Further, restructuring requires focusing decisions about deployment of resources- staff, time, student grouping patterns, budget priorities, decision- making patterns, and so forth on creating the conditions that elicit quality student work.