In light of education reform
Revisiting Assessment in Workplace Education
by Johan Uvin
Massachusetts Department of Education
In Volume One of Adventures in Assessment,
I wrote about evaluation for workplace education programs. At that
time I was working as a Workplace ESOL (English to Speakers of Other
Languages) teacher in the workplace education program at the South
Cove Manor Nursing Home in Bostons Chinatown. The article
documented my efforts to demonstrate the effectiveness of the program
by developing an evaluation plan that involved all stakeholders
actively, with learner assessment as an integral but challenging
part of that work.
The 1991 article identified the demands for accountability articulated
by supervisors, managers, and funders as one of many challenges.
I maintained that a collaborative approach to planning and evaluation
has the potential to strike a balance between what learners and
teachers demand as evidence of progress and the demands expressed
by individuals who are not directly engaged in the teaching and
In this article I revisit the assessment of learners in workplace
education. Two developments make revisiting the issue timely: recent
changes in the national policy landscape and efforts to systemically
reform education at the state level. The key question I am concerned
with in this article relates to the impact these developments may
have on how workplace education teachers approach the assessment
of learners. Most of the article is devoted to discussing the challenges
these developments create for teachers.
At first sight these challenges appear to add more pressures to
teachers. I conclude, however, that the opportunities education
reform efforts provide can enable teachers to 1) further strengthen
the use of program-based authentic assessment where assessment is
closely tied to the classroom instruction and 2) separate authentic
program-based assessment from statewide assessment for accountability
Workplace Education Is Changing
In all aspects of society, the demand for accountability is increasing.
It is time to deliver, has become a standard phrase
in legislative debates and the media. Positive outcomes and deliverables
are the key factors in deciding whether services will continue to
receive support. Government is reduced. Health, education and human
services programs are rescinded, if not eliminated, in an apparently
unstoppable urge to make the nations ends meet. Reform is
introduced to radically change systems, consolidate programs and
reinvent government to increase effectiveness of the services left.
Few stones remain unturned and workplace education is not one of
Workplace education is changing. Governmental support (e.g. in
the form of categorical funds) for workplace education is under
threat. Rescissions of workplace education funds will result in
the elimination of the largest (federal) program that supports workplace
education in Massachusetts, the National Workplace Literacy Program,
in November 1997.
A similar scenario is unfolding for discretionary resources for
workplace education currently available under the Job Training Partnership
Act (8% JTPA). The Massachusetts Labor Shortage Initiative that
supported workplace education and training of staff in acute care
hospitals has been phased out.
Block grant legislation is expected to consolidate some of these
discretionary funding sources but does not earmark portions of block
grants for workplace education. As a result, workplace education
must make a strong case to get some of these block grant funds.
The private sector both business and labor will experience
pressure to step up to the plate to increase its investment in workplace
education. Assuming the private sector will somewhat expand its
responsibility for supporting programs, demands for accountability
may shift. Teachers may find themselves increasingly working for
businesses instead of education agencies and will witness first-hand
how old public funder demands for accountability are disappearing
and are replaced by demands defined by private funders who to varying
degrees may value other learning gains than those connected directly
and exclusively to the productivity of the organization.
National and state education reform efforts (e.g. Goals 2000: Educate
America Act and the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993)
bring about an additional wave of systemic change that will touch
learners and teachers in workplace education programs. High expectations
for students, teachers, counselors, administrators, and schools
(including adult learning centers) are introduced to ensure that
all residents of this nation are well-prepared for their present
and the future, and increasingly demanding roles as parents, workers
The Massachusetts Common Core of Learning captures the essence
of the educational foundation children and adults are expected to
have acquired at the end of high school or its adult secondary education
equivalent. Curriculum frameworks have been developed for K-12,
and the development of supplemental adult basic education curriculum
frameworks has begun.
Based on the content standards embedded in the frameworks, a two-pronged
assessment system is being developed. These prongs consist of a
statewide standardized but performance-based assessment
at the 4th, 8th and 10th grade levels for statewide accountability
purposes, and a local school-based component of portfolio assessment.
(A long-term plan for assessment in adult basic education will be
developed to assess the feasibility of the 10th grade assessment
and to explore program-based portfolio assessment.)
The Adult Education Committee established by the Education Reform
Act of 1993 (Sections 29 and 75) has defined the level of need/demand
for and sup-ply of adult basic education services in the Commonwealth.
It has prepared recommendations for the administration and the Legislature
for the key elements and funding levels of a coordinated adult basic
education service delivery system. Industry skills standards are
being developed and used in the implementation of School to Work
initiatives and in local workplace education curriculum development
This list reflects only a part of the reform initiatives that are
underway but demonstrates clearly that education reform is comprehensive.
For workplace education teachers, education reform begs the questions:
What does it all mean ? Should we pay attention to these additional
directions we feel pulled into or should we continue doing what
we have been doing for years and hope education reform will go away
? Is there a role for us in making this change and bringing
it to life in our classrooms, in the way we teach and assess learners?
Challenges and Opportunities
Education reform is here to stay at least for the foreseeable future,
and will have an impact on workplace education including, but not
limited to, learner assessment. Education reform for adult basic
education including workplace education, however, will take time
and its ultimate success will depend on the outcomes of the changes
that teachers have brought about in their classrooms. Their ability
to reconcile the skills, needs, interests and goals of adult learners,
the needs of their employers and unions and the high expectations
established in the Common Core of Learning and fleshed out in the
curriculum frameworks will be critical.
Workplace education teachers will not have to do away with the
way they teach, develop curricula or assess learners. On the contrary,
their teaching methodology, their success stories, their skills
in developing highly-customized and contextualized curricula and
materials, and their ability to design and implement performance-based
assessments provide an outstanding starting point for reviewing
the adult basic education supplemental curriculum frameworks from
the perspective of the adult worker and his/her employer and union.
Once developed, the frameworks will provide all who have an interest
in providing workplace education services both in the private
and public sectors with content standards and guidelines
for developing local curricula that use the actual contexts of the
workplace and the experiences of workers to teach the skills implied
in the high expectations of the Common Core.
Assessment of learners in workplace education has always been challenging.
An important reason is that no standardized tests are available
that measure the learning gains at which workplace education programs
aim. This has challenged and enabled workplace education programs
to demonstrate accountability towards their goals that goes beyond
the standardized tests. Current standardized tests fail to capture
the specific goals of programs and instruction which in most instances
are driven by the needs of the local workplace (i.e. employer and
employee). Standardized assessments also assume that there is an
agreement on content standards across programs. To date, that consensus
has been lacking.
As a result, workplace education teachers have developed alternative
ways of assessing the impact of instruction on student learning.
While reliability and validity have been concerns in these efforts,
teachers have been able in a considerable number of cases to generate
reliable information on the impact of instruction using performance-driven
instruments where learners in real work situations demonstrate gains
by applying what they have learned. The use of classroom-based job
simulations, or the analyses of video recordings of learners at
different points in time using English in work-related interactions
are just two examples of authentic assessment instruments teachers
have developed and used successfully.
Education reform does not take away the challenge of developing
appropriate assessment instruments but provides promising ways of
looking at assessment from both a program and system accountability
point of view. Once adult basic education supplemental frameworks
are available, there will be agreement on content standards that
then gets reflected in local or industry-based curricula, instruction
and assessment. Assuming that the 10th grade statewide standardized
assessment is designed so that it is developmentally and culturally-appropriate
for use with adult learners, this performance-based assessment could
then be used for statewide accountability purposes.
The content standards embedded in the adult basic education supplemental
curriculum frameworks, however, may not all be addressed in local
or industry-based curricula. Neither must they be. The program goals
and design (e.g. duration of instruction) will define which standards
are addressed. The use of a program-based portfolio assessment approach
creates opportunities for learners to self-select writings, readings,
project reports, video and audio recordings, courses taken, test
results and other assessments taken for inclusion in their portfolio.
Reviews of portfolios by learners and teachers at several points
in time would then reveal which specific learning goals were achieved
through instruction and how students are progressing over time towards
acquiring the high expectations the Commonwealth has for all students.
Revisiting assessment in workplace education in light of education
reform has enabled me to articulate a possible but broadly-defined
way that workplace education teachers can connect meaningfully with
and substantially inform education reform through participation
in the development of adult basic education supplemental frameworks.
These frameworks can then be used by workplace education teachers
to develop local or industry-specific curricula and program-based
authentic assessments based on the specific needs of adult workers
and their workplaces.
During the Winter of 1995 and the Spring of 1996, 16 study groups
in Massachusetts will begin developing supplemental adult basic
education frameworks. Between January and June of 1996, additional
specialty groups will provide input from the perspective of the
population they are serving. One of these specialty groups will
be for workplace education. It will minimally consist of teachers
currently involved in the curriculum working group of the Massachusetts
Workplace Literacy Consortium. They will review curriculum frameworks
from the perspective of the adult worker.
For further information, please contact Adult and Community
Learning Services at the Department of Education at (617) 388-3300
at extension 349.
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment,
Volume 8 (Winter 1995),
SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 1997.
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.