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February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

Looking at the Learning Record

Multiple-choice tests tap students' inert knowledge. Far better are dynamic assessments that show students where they have been and where they are headed.

I'll never forget the expression on the principal's face when I told him that the district's standardized tests could not help me know what the students in my English classes needed to learn. He looked at me with surprise, then with anger. A responsible educator, he believed that standardized testing was a way to improve teaching and learning. That my peers and I saw these multiple-choice, on-demand exams as lightweight indicators of achievement meant to him that we failed to grasp the big picture of school reform.
This incident happened in the 1970s, at a new high school dubbed "experimental" by a district eager to surf yet another of the big waves of school reform that wash over public education. Far from defying my principal, I wanted him to understand that these tests (a) perpetuated a narrow and prejudicial view of what was important to know and (b) served only to sort and rank students, not to help them. And analyzing the results of having students match words with their dictionary meanings out of context and demonstrate their knowledge of reductive and rigid rules about language usage without attention to the rhetorical situation was, to my mind then and now, antithetical to good teaching.
Teachers at our school were aiming higher than the transmission of inert knowledge tapped by multiple-choice testing. We envisioned a school with a rigorous, engaging curriculum and pedagogies attuned to the learner. We planned for mixed-ability classes, small-group dialogue about significant topics, and blocks of time for ongoing projects.
Innovations like ours, modest as they were, have been introduced and put aside without wide implementation in each reform period. In the 1970s and 1980s, small-group discussion, differentiated instruction, modular scheduling, collaborative learning, inclusive classes, language learning across the curriculum, and the writing process affected teaching practices in some schools but were ignored by most. Now, at the end of the standards decade, the same destiny awaits projects and portfolios, hands-on activities, and student-generated and Internet-based studies. Instead of learning from innovations, school districts typically react to understandable criticism about anything new by leaping backward to tracking, textbook-bound and packaged curriculums, lectures from the podium, and direct instruction with scripts for teachers.
Today, shrill demands call for schools to show gains in education's bottom line: student achievement. But this time, the public equates improving student achievement with raising standardized-test scores. States, despite decades of lessons from past reforms, are again opting for prescribed teaching methods and multiple-choice testing of fragmented learning. Added this time are grade retention for students and the public shaming of teachers and administrators at schools with below-the-norm student scores.
Is the appeal of a wider, more rigorously thoughtful curriculum doomed? Will teacher judgment once more be bypassed in favor of machine scoring? Are we back to the future with yesterday's schooling revisited?

One Answer Now in Progress

The biggest single impediment to improving teaching and learning is the way we evaluate student achievement. Evaluation should inform and be informed by teacher judgment, enlist parental involvement, and honor the experiences that students bring to school. With colleagues, I determined in 1987 that an approach originating in England as the Primary Language Record held promise for broadening student assessment beyond testing (Barrs, Ellis, Hester, & Thomas, 1989). So began an ongoing collaboration with its authors at the Centre for Language in Primary Education in London.
With funding from the California Department of Education from 1988 to 1994, we adapted the Primary Language Record to U.S. classrooms with the help and permission of the Centre, and we piloted the literacy portion of this classroom-based assessment throughout the state, calling it the California Learning Record. We extended the approach from kindergarten through high school, wrote teacher handbooks (Barr, Craig, Fisette, & Syverson, 1999; Barr & Syverson, 1999), started the Learning Record Web site (Krimsly & Barr, 1993), and computerized the record keeping. Peg Syverson, at the University of Texas, extended the concept further by creating the Online Learning Record for university students (Syverson, 1992). We also developed what we called the moderation process—after the British model—so that schools could use teachers' judgments about student accomplishment for accountability purposes.
In 1994, I established the nonprofit Center for Language in Learning to expand what had become a system of assessment within and beyond California. Twenty schools and districts across eight states now use the renamed Learning Record (LR) Assessment System for student assessment and other school reform initiatives, such as increased parent involvement and professional development.
The Learning Record approach emerged from the collaborative efforts of practicing teacher-leaders throughout California who were influenced by James Britton (1970, rev. 1993) and Louise Rosenblatt (1968), among others. We studied Royce Sadler's work (1987) as we looked for ways to make what happens in classrooms known and respected. Because informed teacher judgment is essential to improving student achievement, we put together a dynamic system that not only helps teachers examine student work across classrooms and grade levels but also provides external feedback and validation to attest to the rigor and fairness of their judgments.

The Learning Record System

Learning Records are cumulative accounts of progress as well as launch pads for next endeavors. Students can see where they have been and where they are headed because the Records affirm what they can do as well as what they are ready to do. For ease in reviewing Records across classrooms, teachers use a standard format to collect evidence of the nature and extent of student progress throughout the year. Three times a year, teachers, along with students and their parents, weigh the quality of finished products and works in progress. They use the common language of the LR's performance scales in reading, writing, and mathematics (fig. 1) and evidence from student portfolios and from documented observations.
Figure 1. Excerpt from the Learning Record Assessment System Developmental Scale

Grades 9–12: Becoming Accomplished as a Reader

Looking at the Learning Record - table






Ready for accomplishmentModerately AccomplishedExceptionally Accomplished
Able to derive meaning from a variety of texts. Usually inexperienced in challenging the writer's claims, evidence, or ideas or critiquing a text for style, logic, organization. Sees most text as unrelated to life outside of school. May express frustration with density of course texts. Frequently abandons the reading of books, even those he or she has ostensibly chosen... May define himself or herself as one who does not read.Has some favorite kinds of reading. With preparation and support, can read aloud expressively from course texts. Knows the characteristics of a few genre... Can explain the way some texts are organized to help the reader derive meaning... Learning to share text interpretations with others. Developing skills in course texts and outside reading as resources in class discussions and assignments.Reads avidly. Travels back and forth easily across the continuum of reading purposes... Is able to weigh and compare relative strength and weakness, style, structure, credibility, or aesthetics of given and self-selected texts. Can explain, orally and/or in writing, the significance of the social, cultural, or political history of a text. Reads aloud fluently, with appropriate expression.
Student ___________________________________
Placement __________________ Date __________
Note: The full developmental scale, which includes descriptions of five levels, is available on the Web site of the Center for Language in Learning at www.learning.org/lrorg .
Near the end of the year, teachers summarize the evidence and make summative placements on the scales. Parents and students also describe the progress that they have witnessed. For example, Ned's teacher included what Ned and his father said about the progress that the kindergartner had made (Barr, Craig, Fisette, & Syverson, 1999, p. 54): Father: Ned wants to tell everyone at home all about his activities at school. He has begun wanting to draw pictures on the back of his homework and then explain them at school. He asks us to print words for him so he can copy them. Ned: I can read now. I can write, too, and I have my own journal. I like to read to, the other kids when we get our library books on the rug. My favorite books are The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Very Busy Spider. I color better now than I used to and my letters are better, too. I can write my first name and my last name, too.
The aim is to make assessment understandable and accessible so that all stakeholders can work together to improve student achievement. It honors what teachers know, too. As one teacher recently stated, "This assessment values the student as a learner, the classroom curriculum, and the professionalism of the teacher." With these values in place, students are more apt to meet the high standards set by the world outside the classroom in ways that respect their families as well as their personal experiences and aspirations.
Teachers use the Learning Record's performance scales in reading, writing, and mathematics to assess how students meet standards. As teachers come to agree on what and how students need to learn, they can provide relevant texts and activities. For example, a child might need help in reading for many reasons (Barr, Craig, Fisette, & Syverson, 1999, p. 38): It may be that some children need more knowledge of letter sounds or perhaps they lack the confidence to risk error. Maybe a student can read a story but not a math problem. It may be that the male student sees reading as effeminate or considers the texts offered in school profane or too "white" or babyish. Maybe the child is learning English as a second language and needs something to read in the home language.
The Learning Record helps teachers pinpoint their instruction to meet the specific need, because they come to know their students well. To make instructional choices, teachers observe students at work in the classroom as often as they lecture to them; they listen to students discuss ideas generated by texts and by their own questions. The LR, with its flexible but systematic approach, helps teachers help students provide evidence of meeting standards in nonstandardized ways.

The Learning Record and State Tests

Because standardized tests appraise such a narrow band of what students know, it is no surprise that they do not measure performance on many state standards, such as reading well and widely, composing in ways appropriate for different purposes, and using subject-matter knowledge and skills to identify and solve problems in multiple ways. These abilities require students to engage in lively, extensive, and extended learning activities across the curriculum. None can be measured by single answer, on-demand testing, and none is the sole concern of a single discipline. The Learning Record complements state-mandated tests and allows schools to go beyond lip service to teaching for thinking.
  • becoming confident and independent mathematicians, readers, and writers;
  • using their prior experience, including their cultural and linguistic experience, to become broadly and deeply literate;
  • applying skills, strategies, content, and understandings in all subjects; and
  • developing the ability to reflect on what they have learned and on themselves as learners.
These dimensions, embedded in the Learning Record's performance scales descriptors, underlie classroom observations and documentation of what and how students are learning. For example, Ned's ability to reflect not only on what and how he likes to read but also on how far he's come indicates that he is taking over his own learning. His father's reflections reinforce and illustrate this confidence. Knowing things for himself will serve Ned's drive to do and know more. The teacher has only to follow his lead.
  • performance scales
  • grade-level exemplars for calibrating classroom judgments of achievement
  • technological resources to ease data collection
  • on-site staff development by certified LR teacher-leaders
  • site or district and cross-school moderations
  • annual reports of student and school performance

The Moderation Process

The moderation process is unique to the Learning Record model of assessment. Moderation readings have several purposes: to ensure the quality, consistency, equity, and reliability of teacher judgments about student progress; to share best practices and inform instruction; to provide quantitative information for large-scale analysis; and to support professional development. The term moderation signals a departure from arbitrary responses to the complexities of literacy and mathematics learning, turning instead to reasoning born of experience in the classroom. The process is public. Parents, administrators, and school board members are welcome as representative observers.
Teachers submit a random sample of their Records at the end of the third quarter for other teachers at the same school and grade to read. At each registered school, the site's Learning Record coach conducts the first round of moderation readings. To help calibrate their interpretations of the scales, participants review several Learning Record exemplars and discuss their scale placements.
Participants then read, in pairs, the Records submitted for moderation, with the student's name and the originating teacher's evaluation masked. The two readers reach an agreement about the student's level of achievement indicated by the teacher's summaries of student performance, which are corroborated by documented observations, interpretations, and samples of student work. The pair determines each student's placement and records it, along with comments to the classroom teacher. This process is repeated at an intersite moderation, which a team from the LR Core Development Group conducts.

The Benefits of Multiple Evaluations

Three evaluations of student progress are made: the original evaluation by the teacher, the evaluation by a pair of readers at the school site, and the evaluation by a pair of readers at a central intersite moderation. Multiple matches validate teacher judgments. At the intersite, the placements made by the originating teacher, the site teachers, and intersite teachers are compared. On the rare occasions when two of the three scores don't match, an experienced reader reviews the evidence in the Learning Record and makes a final determination.
The moderation process is revolutionary because it directly involves the professionals closest to the learning situation and affords them the opportunity for peer response to their work as teachers. Further, as Krimsly and Barr (1999) note in a report on student achievement, This approach strips the mask from the "impartial," "distanced," and "objective" judgment of student (and teacher) performance claimed for standardized testing and situates assessment in a productive conversation among students, parents, and teachers about how to directly improve instruction and student achievement. It reduces the increasingly baroque apparatus of assessment to the minimum intrusion on learning situations, yet manages to provide much richer answers to the real questions at the heart of assessment, "What are students learning?" "What are they able to do?" and "Are we providing equitable opportunities for learning?"

A Prediction

Although states, at present, seem determined to meet demands for school improvement through top-down, one-size-fits-all programs and measures, my experience tells me that the trend is about to reverse. This time, the rubber-band snap that keeps taking us back to the same "basics" is fueled exclusively by results on standardized tests—those deceptively cheap and easy measures of student achievement. Protests and litigation are the natural and inevitable consequences of using these narrow measures to make high-stakes decisions about students' lives.
But also natural and inevitable are the events that are sure to follow the challenges to testing's dominance. The idea that assessment should emphasize "envisioned potential" rather than merely report static norms (Thomas & Oldfather, 1997) is beginning to make sense to the general public. At the same time, the twin energies of new technologies and increasing diversity in student backgrounds are unlikely to be contained within industrial model schools. We need trustworthy and flexible assessments such as the Learning Record to accommodate the inescapable differences among students, their teachers, and their parents in ways that permit true and comprehensive school reform.

Barr, M. A., Craig, D. A., Fisette, D., & Syverson, M. A. (1999).Assessing literacy with the Learning Record: A handbook for teachers, grades K–6. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Barr, M. A., & Syverson, M. A. (1999). Assessing literacy with the Learning Record: A handbook for teachers, grades 6–12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Barrs, M., Ellis, S., Hester, H., & Thomas, A. (1989). The Primary Language Record: A handbook for teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Britton, J. (1993). Language and learning. (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton-Cook. (Original work published 1970)

Krimsly, S., & Barr, M. A. (1993). The Learning Record [On-line]. Available: http://www.learningrecord.org/lrorg

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1968). Literature as exploration (Rev. ed.). New York: Appleton Century. (Original work published 1938)

Sadler, D. R. (1987). Specifying and promulgating achievement standards.Oxford Review of Education, 13(2), 191–209.

Syverson, M. A. (1992). The online Learning Record [On-line]. Available: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/~syverson/olr

Thomas, S., & Oldfather, P. (1997). Intrinsic motivations, literacy, and assessment practices: "That's my grade. That's me." Educational Psychologist, 32(2), 107-123.

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