Evaluation that Looks at Achievement Realistically
Marie F. Hassett, Ph.D.
Action for Boston CommunityDevelopment (ABCD), Boston, MA
Every teacher tells stories about
the students whose spectacular successes or gut-wrenching defeats
help us to define what we do. Less easy
to articulate are the stories of the students whose experiences
we return to again and again, wondering, What if? or
as we try to figure out how we could have
helped them more.
This is especially true for adult educators. The structure of our
work and the needs of our students force us to focuson the end result:
passing the GED exam, moving into a higher level class, becoming
a U.S. citizen. But as we all know, the dedication and hard work
of students and teachers do not always lead to the achievement of
these goals. Inadequate child care, medical problems, housing crises,
and other real-life challenges can undermine the progress of even
the most determined students, in the classroom of the most supportive
After facing this problem in my own classrooms, I began searching
for a tool that would allow me to deal with the stop-in, stop-out
nature of adult education more productively. I wanted an evaluative
tool that would allow me to quantify the progress made by students
who left before passing the GED exam or increasing their skills
by a grade level; address more specifically the kinds of qualitative
learning that do not appear in an English or a social studies curriculum;
and give students a way to see that they have learned, even if they
have not yet reached their target goals.
In the course of reading and research, I found a framework by Herbert
Kohl. Kohls teaching career began in the Harlem public schools
in 1962; his first book, 36 Children, is an account of his work
with that first class. During his career as a teacher, he has worked
in a wide variety of traditional and non-traditional settings, with
students who range in age from kindergarteners to adults. As a prolific
writer and researcher, Kohl has focused primarily on the ways that
schools sometimes hamper, rather than enhance, the learning process
of many students, and suggests a variety of ways for teachers to
help students who are, in his words, creatively maladjusted
to a system that has been a source of frustration and humiliation.
In his most recent book, The Discipline of Hope: Learning from a
Lifetime of Teaching, Kohl declares that there are at least
six basic skills, which encompass all the trivial mechanical skills
that people want obedient and passive [students] to acquire
and which, if used as a framework for curriculum and evaluation,
respects the intelligence and moral sensibility of students
(1998, 234-35). It is this framework which I have adopted for my
classes, and which I believe has allowed me not only to measure
more accurately the genuine achievements of my students, but has
also helped me to think more carefully about course content and
structure. The rest of this article will outline the six skills
Kohl has identified, the ways that I have used them with my students,
and suggestions for implementation in others classrooms.
Herbert Kohls Six Basic Skills
Skill 1: The ability to use language well and thoughtfully.
This skill has obvious application for teachers whose work focuses
largely on literacy, but it also presents opportunities for re-thinking
our methods and goals. We have all done what we could to help students
use language well, but I think I am not the only teacher whose classes
have been, on occasion, less than thoughtful. But if we think of
literacy skills as encompassing what are often referred to as the
four language artsreading, writing, speaking, and listeningthis
first skill can help us to look at our work more closely.
Some of the questions Ive used for evaluating the development
of language use include:
Has the students vocabulary increased?
Does the student read more willingly, from a wider variety
of materials? Have I helped the student to see reading as a source
of information and pleasure, and not just as another requirement?
Has the students writing become a more accurate
reflection of what he/she intended to say? Has the number of mechanical
errors decreased? Is the student more comfortable as a writer?
Has the students skill in oral discussion/debate
improved? Can he/she construct an argument that relies on logic
more than opinion or volume?
None of the lists of questions presented here are exhaustive or
authoritative; one of the real strengths of Kohls framework
lies in its flexibility. These are the kinds of questions I use
when I evaluate my GED and Basics II classes. An ESOL teacher will
probably come up with different ways of looking at this skill. This
particular way of looking at skills has value only when teachers
tailor it to the strengths and challenges of their individual students
Skill 2: The ability to think through a problem and experiment
This may be one of the most difficult skills for students to master,
and one of the most important. Frequently, students who lack confidence
about their ability become nervous and flustered when problems are
presented in new ways. Because it is impossible to predict the form
of every problem, question, or assignment they will face in their
educational careers, it is important to help them make connections
between diverse problems and let them see that they have the ability
to take on new challenges. This is also the skill that helps students
see the application of various class-based skills in real life situations.
The person who can estimate while working on math problems can estimate
in the grocery store. A person who can write a 200-word essay can
write a cover letter for a job application.
The questions I use for evaluating this skill include:
Has the students tolerance for ambiguity increased?
Can he/she stick with a problem until it becomes clear, or does
he/she give up easily?
Can the student see points of commonality between and
among different things?
Can the student understand the difference between the
problem and the way the problem has been presented?
Can the student judge the relative merit of several different
solutions to the same problem?
Does the student see how context and culture affect our
ideas about what the right answer is to a given question?
This is often the most difficult part of students learning
to assess. Many teachers have been trained, or have received their
own education, in an environment that emphasizes coverage of content
over comprehension of process. Assessing this skill requires teachers
to spend more time listening than talking, more time following students
ideas than presenting information. Class discussions provide an
opportunity for developing this flexibility of thinking, as they
allow exposure to a variety of viewpoints, and may demonstrate more
clearly than any lecture that there is often more than one way to
approach a problem. Students who can be flexible in their approach
to problems are more likely to achieve greater success than their
less-flexible classmates; it is in their best interests that we
all find ways to help them develop this skill.
Skill 3: The ability to understand scientific and technological
ideas and to use tools.
This skill has more, and more vocal, proponents across the educational
spectrum than any other on this list, but again, it is the way that
Kohl has framed the skill that makes it so valuable. We may cover
a variety of scientific/technological topics in class, but we do
not always provide opportunities for experimentation, practice and
reflection. Many students use sophisticated technologies without
a second thoughtVCRs, beepers, cell phones, ATMs, and video
gamesbut few of them have reflected on the ways that those
technologies relate to the kinds of scientific and technological
material we cover in our classes. By linking understanding and use,
Kohl invites teachers to make explicit connections between the classroom
and the real world. It should also lead teachers to reflect on their
own relationships with, and values concerning, science and technology
as they are a part of daily life.
Good questions about this skill might include:
What is the students comfort level with computers?
Does the student understand how technology affects his/her
Can the student understand essays/articles in the popular
press about science and technology issues?
Does the student recognize the ways that science has changed
our ideas about the quality and length of human life?
The questions a teacher chooses for this skill will vary widely
according to the goals and backgrounds of students. Particularly
with respect to medical technology, discussions of these topics
address not only science, but values and ethics. I have found that
pursuing questions like this often creates natural, powerful links
between the different skills and content areas students are trying
to master; these are excellent issues to write and debate about.
Skill 4: The ability to use the imagination.
Using ones imagination is a little addressed but crucial
element of academic success. Students who can use their imaginations
constructively are at a real advantage in their reading, their writing,
and their ability to understand new material. Like the ability to
think through problems and experiment with solutions (Skill 2),
the ability to use ones imagination creates a necessary level
of flexibility. Without it, much of literature, film, science, and
mathematics will be beyond reach. But this is also a skill that
most teachers, consciously or not, attempt to develop in every class.
Each time we begin with Lets suppose, Hypothetically,
or Could you suggest
a situation where . . . we are helping students learn to imagine
in specific and useful ways.
Some of the questions Ive used for this skill are as follows:
Can the student empathize with another person or fictional
Can the student come up with alternate endings to a story?
Does the student believe that he/she has the ability to transcend
Does the student understand the use of metaphor and symbol
in film, fiction, etc.?
Can the student come up with innovative solutions to problems?
Does the student think through potential situations before
they occur, in order to plan how to respond?
Most of us, of course, do all these things without thinking about
them. But making these skills explicit and concrete for students
helps them see how the skills theyve learned in their day-to-day
lives can be of value to them in the classroom, and vice versa.
Skill 5: The ability to understand how people function in groups.
Many students in adult education classes lack formal and informal
experience with structures and institutions that teachers take for
granted. Much of their experience with formal institutions may,
in fact, be negative, whether the institutions in question are schools,
medical facilities, or social service agencies. If they are not
working, and are living alone with children, students may feel isolated,
and rarely have chances outside our classrooms to develop the social
and interpersonal skills that they will need in the workplace or
in higher education. Every time we ask students to follow class
rules, to debate with each other according to certain guidelines,
or open up discussion about social science topics like psychology
or sociology, we are helping students to develop this very important
Questions for evaluating students knowledge/skill in this
area may include:
Does the student understand the difference between group
membership and individual identity? Does he/she see how those
two roles may conflict?
Can the student identify causes of harmony or discord
among groups of people?
Does the student understand the differences that may surface
between group interactions and one-to-one interactions among the
members of a group?
Does the student see how cultures/societies affect the
behavior of different groups (gender groups, religious groups,
Can the student talk comfortably about the difference
between nature and nurture?
Does the student recognize the different ways in which
people may be grouped within a society, and some of the factors
that determine that grouping?
Many teachers will find that these questions can be pursued in
written work, giving students the opportunity to develop new understandings
and insights more effectively than they can in discussion. Good
essay topics that address these issues can be found in many adult
literacy and GED prep materials. It may be especially useful to
have students write about and then discuss these issues in class,
thus combining their new knowledge about the ways that groups function
with opportunities to put that knowledge into practice.
Skill 6: The ability to go about learning something for yourself,
and the skills and confidence to be a learner all your life.
In many ways, this last skill addresses all the others, and brings
me back to the reason I went in search of this kind of assessment.
Many of our students will leave our classes before achieving their
goals, and it may be some time before they are able to return. The
degree to which we are able to build this skill determines, more
than anything else, the value of the time they spend in our classrooms.
As Kohl points out, we need to find ways to help people learn
for themselves so that they can make informed decisions on major
issues that affect their lives rather than shift responsibility
to people who may not have the knowledge to help, or who may not
have students best interests at heart (1998, 151).
Most of us have forgotten the bulk of what we learned in school,
and we would be unrealistic if we expected our adult students to
be any different. As important as the rules of grammar, or the ability
to do long division, is to the ability to continue learning, we
know that a GED diploma does not guarantee success, though it is
a significant achievement. As teachers, we need to see our work
not as getting people over hurdles, but as equipping them to choose
their own hurdles, and clear them under their own power.
Questions for this skill might include:
Does the student know how to use a dictionary? A thesaurus?
Has he/she developed the habit of using them?
Is the student informed about current events that may
affect his/her life? Where does the information come from?
Can the student distinguish between an informed and an
uninformed opinion on a given issue?
Does the student know how to use the Internet? A library
Can the student seek out knowledgeable people in situations
where he/she needs assistance? How does he/she find those people?
Is the student aware of local, state, and national resources
that will help him/her to achieve further goals?
The list of possible questions for this skill is nearly endless,
and depends greatly on the specific needs, abilities, and backgrounds
of individual students. Many students will struggle in their attempts
to become their own best resources; years of difficulty, and/or
school failure, often undermine confidence, and diminish students
willingness to take risks.
Suggestions for Use
No one approach to this framework can be considered best.
Rather, the benefit of using these skills as a model for curriculum
development, course structure, and/or assessment lies in each individual
instructors or programs decisions about what will benefit
students. My own use of these skills as a way of thinking about
student progress has proven beneficial both for my students and
for my teaching, because it has given us a way to look at what should
be considered progress toward educational goals.
The most significant benefit of this approach in my own classroom
has been the degree of holism it allows. Thinking about skills in
terms of students, rather than content areas, leads me to make better,
more integrated choices about how to structure class time, and how
to combine the treatment of various subject areas. Additionally,
when I think in terms of students developing skills, rather than
students collecting knowledge, it becomes easier to see where and
when progress happens. We have not abandoned the traditional goals
of adult education, but have found a richer, more nuanced context
in which to place them.
Genuine education is not a matter of accumulation, but of acculturation.
As we introduce concepts and academic content, we simultaneously
introduce our sense of what should be valued, what counts as knowledge,
and how learning should take place. Student success rests as much,
or more, on their ability to follow the rules, implicit and explicit,
that govern institutions. For adult learners who wish to pursue
higher education, job retraining, and employment, learning accepted
patterns of behavior and classroom practices is critical for success.
Looking at student development in the terms I have outlined allows
me to consider what I need to do to help each individual become
an educated person not necessarily in terms of a transcript or degree,
but as it affects their stance, perspective, and way of approaching
the world. I would suggest that mastery of the skills presented
here can lead to increased academic independence, self-confidence,
and reflectiveness, the qualities we say we want to see in an educated
person. When we pay careful, systematic attention to the habits
of mind that support learning, as Herbert Kohl urges us to do, we
move a long way toward making our students time in our classrooms
valuable, practical, and immediate.
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment,
Volume 11 (Winter 1998),
SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 1998.
Funding support for the publication of this document
on the Web provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource
Center as part of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.