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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue C ::: September 1999

Standards at the State Level

Washington grapples with implementing a standards-based approach to ABE

by Barbara Garner
What happens when a state decides to implement a standards-based educational system? Focus on Basics talked to Brian Kanes, staff member at Washington State's Department of Education and former state director of adult basic education in Minnesota, to find out.

For many years, Kanes explains, adult basic education (ABE) programs in Washington State were using a system based on Washington State Basic Skills Competencies and Competency Indicators. As with many competency-based systems, however, standards and criteria were not clearly defined. And, although representatives from welfare, job training, corrections, business, industry, and labor had participated in developing the competencies, these same folks did not understand what it meant when a student completed, for example, Intermediate ABE or Beginning English as a Second Language (ESOL). Because of the variation from class to class and program to program, students and teachers and the general public didn't either. Some employers and job trainers voiced dissatisfaction with former basic skills students who had passed math tests but weren't adept at applying those skills, for instance, using a tape measure to accurately record sizes of production materials. Other employers explained they were trying to hire people who were responsible and reliable, who could team up with their co-workers to solve problems, and who could communicate effectively on the job. They were interested in work-related, rather than academic, skills.

Kanes continues, "Welfare reform, encouraging public assistance recipients to find and keep jobs, was also pushing us toward standards. Our state's version of the federal Personal Responsibility Act now allows adults with low basic skill levels to participate in an ABE or ESL or GED preparation program instead of immediately seeking a job, if the basic skills provider can demonstrate that learners are making progress toward basic skill standards needed to find and keep a job and needed for wage and skill progression."
They needed a system that would measure that movement.

And, for the past few years, a majority of Washington State's adult learners with employability related goals have been staying in basic skills programs only for about 10 weeks. As has been documented throughout the country, many other students, especially single parents and racial and ethnic minorities, also persisted for short periods of time. Are they "project learners," pursuing short-term learning projects to address a short-term need that is very context-specific, who left when they determined they got what they needed? Or are programs not helping them address their real-life issues? The Department of Education wanted a data-based system that would provide them with the information to answer these questions.

The State Adult Education Advisory Council developed, Kanes explains, and the State Workforce Board and State Board for Community and Technical Colleges approved, a long-range plan for a statewide assessment system. That plan describes initial screening and placement tools and the procedures for developing and implementing diagnostic, on-going progress, completion, and impact assessments. It calls for developing basic skill standards within the Equipped for the Future framework.

Why EFF?
Kanes explains, "The state department of corrections, the state workforce board, the state Department of Employment Security, the representatives of business and industry, all the state agencies and most of the private people who have something to do with adult literacy, all worked together. They said they wanted to define the federal functional levels in educational terms and in student real life terms." State Director Israel Mendoza, who is on the national board for EFF, brought EFF to the attention of the advisory council, which recognized it as an approach that met their needs. In addition, he says, "there are certain things that many adult educators think that we know about effective adult basic skills learning and teaching. We, in Washington State, were looking for an approach to standards and accountability that reflected those beliefs. We believe EFF does the job."

Adult basic education programs in Washington State that receive any state or federal Adult Education and Family Literacy funds come under the administrative purview of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC). Community and technical colleges, under the same State Board, are leading the skill standards development efforts in Washington State. Skills standards specify the knowledge and competence required to successfully perform in a given occupation or field. Unlike most competency-based programs, skill standards also define the levels of performance that are required. Since the Washington Office of Adult Literacy has "in-house" experts - their colleagues at community and technical colleges – to help with the process, coupling a skill standards approach with EFF to make sense. The State's track record with skills standards is well-regarded by policymakers and business, industry, and labor, so any standards system developed in partnership with the skills standards efforts will receive recognition by employers around the state.

Putting It All Together
Although Washington State adult educators have been reading about and discussing authentic assessment and EFF and Skills Standards for several years, in the spring of 1999 the state held its first hands-on, what-might-this-mean-for-ABE-ESL-GED "practicum." About 300 Washington adult educators experienced preparing and using rubrics at six regional workshops. Rubrics are standard protocols for scoring a learner's demonstration of or performance on a task. The participants prepared and tested rubrics, and tried out the draft ABE and ESL writing assessment rubrics that a smaller group of their peers had developed earlier in the year. Participants graded actual student work samples, determining whether the sample qualified as a "level completion." They then worked in groups to grade the rubrics themselves, both for their adherence to competency standards and criteria, and for their usefulness with a diverse population of learners.

Workshop participants took the rubrics back to their programs to share with their colleagues and to collect better student work samples to use as "anchors" for each achievement level within each competency level. A State Board for Community and Technical Colleges staff person collected the comments and work samples to further refine the draft writing rubrics.

In the summer of 1999, another team of Washington adult educators began a year-long process of rewriting the Washington State Competencies to reflect the newly announced federal competency (functional) levels, and to develop rubrics for the other academic and functional skill areas. They will involve basic skills staff from local programs in reviewing the competency statements and rubrics as they are developed, and to help create "authentic" procedures through which to put the rubrics into use. At the same time, family literacy programs throughout the state will be piloting methodologies for integrating EFF more fully into the standards development and assessment process.

Washington state is determined to keep the needs of the learners in the forefront of any performance assessment system it develops. "If you set up an assessment system and it limits how you can perform, behave, act by its very structure," Kane explains, "that's sending the wrong message. If we define the outcomes in such a way that it focuses all attention on something that is easy to measure rather than than something important to the learners, then we've structured it all wrong." But Kane is not aware of many concrete examples of how to measure, observe, rate performance. That challenge lies ahead. They hope to draw on the work EFF is doing in that arena.

The structure of the ABE system in the state presents another challenge. Most adult educators in Washington, as in most other states, work part-time. "Many part-time instructors do not get paid unless they are teaching students," says Kane, "For our system to change, the part-time instructors need to be involved. How do we get them to participate? How do we get them into a feedback loop so they not only talk to their co-workers, but report back to us so we can send the information to our workgroups and use it to improve the process?"

"We face other challenges as well. For example, some rubrics workshop participants thought that having a 'toolbox' of approved assessment procedures and activities, tied to rubric standards and criteria they could share with learners, would enable them to plan learning options and assess performance in ways that would encourage, not discourage, the 'most-in-need' students. Some of the participants, however, worried that performance standards would discourage participation in basic skills programs because 'effort expended' would not be valued as much as 'reaching the bar.' And some adult educators viewed developing standards and standard rubrics for assessing them as lack of confidence in them as teachers or tutors. We know most practitioners think a lot about how to make sure teaching and learning focus on meaningful learner goals, and we at the state need to do a better job of recognizing that fact publicly."

Despite the challenges, Kanes says, "Many basic skills teachers and tutors are warming to EFF and Skills Standards, because its mapping of generative skills across adult life roles and activities, will enable them to do what learners want and what funders require, often at the same time."

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL