The Learning Record


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Joy to the World

Roses, grasses, chicks, and children

An Open Assessment Manifesto

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Frequently-asked questions


Minimal Marking

Small multiples for tracking work

Sample grading criteria


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Fair Test: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing

What Is the Learning Record?

Mary Barr and M. A. Syverson

The LRO developed from the Learning Record/Primary Language Record, a simple, yet powerful model for accounting for learning in complex systems. It is based on humane but rigorous and responsible principles. Its method of investigation and inquiry about learning follows sound practices that have grounded research across many disciplines, from biology to economics to anthropology:

The Learning Record model integrates evaluation and assessment from the micro level (the development and achievements of an individual student) to the macro level (the performance of schools and districts statewide). The Learning Record is based on an eight-page document which provides a convenient format for gathering information about the student's development in reading and writing from diverse sources over the course of the school year. (Schematic diagram and timetable) These sources include interviews with parents or caregivers, interviews with the student, observations and interpretations of the student in ongoing classroom activities by the teacher, and samples of student work that provide evidence of literacy development. The format does not dictate the kinds of classroom, reading, or writing activities or products to be included. Instead, teachers and students may include a wide variety of different kinds of materials, observations, and interpretations. The Learning Record is a public document: it is made available to students, parents, resource teachers, administrators and anyone who has an interest in the student's literacy development.

The only "rule" for using the Record is that teachers must focus their observations and interpretations on what students demonstrate they know and can do, rather than reporting their assumptions about the students' deficits. The rule comes from an obvious fact of observation: we cannot observe what isn't there, only what is there. When we talk about what students don't know or can't do, we are speculating, not observing. The Learning Record model is based on students' development, not their presumed deficits. This simple rule has had the effect of qualitatively and globally changing the ecology of instruction and evaluation in ways that support student learning.

How is it possible to interpret or assess student literacy development on the basis of such diverse activities and materials? The key lies in the use of scales which describe activities we typically see as students move through stages in their development as readers and writers. These scales are not rubrics, which describe some mythical ideal at the high end and progressively greater deficits as the scale descends. Rather, they describe observable features of development in which each stage represents positive growth based on five interdependent dimensions of learning: confidence and independence; mastery of skills and strategies; use of prior and emerging experience; knowledge of content matter; and reflection or "metacognition." The materials gathered in the Learning Record provide evidence in support of the teacher's assessment of the student's placement on these developmental scales.

The Learning Record is an open record of achievement, accessible to students and parents, maintained and monitored by the teacher for signs that students are moving toward agreed upon goals and standards. It provides a system of assessment within the classroom which can also be sampled at increasingly broader and more public levels of accountability. (examples)

Parents or other adult mentors and students themselves contribute to the Record at both the beginning and the end of the year. During the first quarter of the year, they describe the learner's interests and talents as they are seen outside the school for Part A of the Record; then, at the end of the year, they comment on the progress made in regard to those interests and talents over the course of the year, in Part C. Teachers record this information, which they collect in conferences held face-to-face, by letter or survey, or over the phone.

Throughout the course of the year, the teacher and student record brief observations of the student in a variety of reading, writing, and speaking or listening activities: alone, with one or two other students, with a large group, with the teacher. The data collection part of the Learning Record form organizes dated notes about what students demonstrate they know and understand in group discussions or oral presentations, in their responses to text, or in other aspects of their writing. The learning can be about subject matter concepts or the effective use of language, or both, depending on the aims of the course. For students fluent in other languages, teachers also observe and record evidence of growth in the studentÍs other language literacies. These observations form the basis for the interpretive summaries in Part B of the record.

For example, one teacher observed Roberto, a twelfth grader whose first language is Spanish, as he demonstrated his ability in speaking English not only to supply evidence for his interpretation of a poem but also to acknowledge interpretations made by others. She wrote:

Roberto is animated in his poetry group discussion. As group leader today for the poem, "anyone lived in a pretty how town," he responded to the three prior group reports in surprising detail....[In response to an idea from one of these groups] Roberto remarked that his group hadn't thought about the passage of time in the repeated lines of"sun, moon, stars, rain."...

Observations such as this one are not possible under test-taking conditions, yet they reveal much about student knowledge and interest on which full literacy depends.

Part B of the Record provides summary interpretations of the student's literacy development and achievement based on the observations from the data collection form and evidence from student portfolios of work. These interpretations demonstrate the student's stage of literacy learning reflected in the developmental scales. All together, then, Parts A, B, and C plus the Data Collection Form and samples of each of the readings and writing commented on in Part B make up the complete Learning Record.

Teachers using the LR say it helps students develop and use criteria by which to judge the quality of their work. They share the scales with students, discussing them in light of grade level expectations, and help them construct rubrics for specific kinds of writing. State performance standards, district rubrics for essays, commercial and local tests all contribute to the evolving picture of student achievement of commonly agreed upon goals. The goals, set and interpreted locally, are assessed both locally and regionally, and, because they represent what the students and their parents believe are important to achieve, they are taken seriously. Student Records each year show the extent to which the student has progressed, what is next to be learned, and how the student has shown he or she learns best.

Because it joins classroom practice to the actual evidence of learning that students produce, the Learning Record system of assessment provides authentic representation of student learning. Teachers moderate their judgments of student work annually in order to assure equity and fairness in the system and also to gauge the effectiveness of the school program. They do these things as part of their own professional development, with appraisal of student work, both finished and in progress, as their professional responsibility.

The Learning Record helps teachers in individual classrooms and schoolwide manage this complex task in these ways:

  1. It integrates assessment with curriculum and instruction so all three are philosophically congruent, thereby avoiding time spent on separate test preparation. The fragmented, narrowly focused nature of current assessment practice has confused school priorities, especially in schools with large populations of poor and language-minority students. Low test scores in these schools have led to an emphasis on test-taking instead of on the acquisition of the abilities of all students to become verbally and mathematically powerful.
  2. It encourages interdisciplinary connections so that, for instance, what students write in science can be a part of the overall profile of student progress. Language and literacy performance and subject matter concept mastery can both be entered into student Records as evidence of learning across the curriculum.
  3. It encourages the view that the home or primary language and culture are bases for academic learning with second language learning considered an asset, not a deficit. The Learning Record model encourages students to use the language closest to them as they confront new concepts in order to consolidate them with those they already hold.
  4. Teachers observe students' strengths along scales of performance, confirming what students show they can do in authentic situations. Students, their parents, and their peers complement teachers' observations because they all can measure progress as defined by the Learning Record scales of performance.
  5. It involves both teacher and student in interpreting and applying information collected in portfolios of student work. The grades, points or scores on tests become evidence of what has been learned that can lead to further knowledge, independence, and skill. As apprentices in this enterprise, students are expected to take on increasing responsibility for the amount and quality of their progress. Learning Record teachers tell us that as they look for signs of progress, they begin to see ways to help students meet course standards without the pop quizzes and the unit testsˇthrough observation of students engaged in a project, entries in journals, reflections about particular concepts.
  6. It supports teachers in restructuring classrooms, in reshaping school reporting procedures and in reflecting on their own practices. Typically, at the end of the first year of using the Learning Record, teachers rearrange their classrooms to accommodate more group work, more student independence, more diverse learning opportunities and more long term projects. With the removal of such constraints as the Chapter 1 requirement for norm referenced testing and district regulations for charter schools, more schools can begin to use standards-referenced assessments like the CLR because they comport with the changes they have been making to improve schooling.
    And the time required to make such a comprehensive change seems worth it to the teachers with whom we work. Observing learners at work, documenting what they demonstrate they can do, and providing opportunities for them to proceed toward common standards have proved far more fulfilling tasks than the assign-test-score cycle familiar to all of us. Teachers, who may at first see only added work, soon come to recognize that the observations, the documentation and the learning opportunities can improve student achievement. As one secondary teacher puts it, "You trade time. You don't have to give up any time. You give up old practices and replace them with different ones. Instead of grading papers, you get out your observation tools."
In summary, then, the Learning Record model is a system of assessment which documents what students demonstrate they know and can do in natural classroom settings throughout the year. It focuses attention on the linguistic base of learning, that is, it assesses student learning as it is revealed in student talk, writing and reading, in the primary language as well as any second language. As a classroom assessment tool, its recordkeeping format permits students and their teachers to note learning as it happens and to establish patterns of progress on which to build further learning activities. The classroom teacher, the student and other adults familiar with the student's academic history--the parent, if possible--contribute their perspectives about the learning to the Record. Teachers collect and evaluate evidence of the quality of student work, some of which they observe as students work on classroom tasks and some of which students collect in their portfolios. As students generate, collect and reflect on completed work and work in progress throughout the year, teachers document signs that students are increasingly able to take on increasingly complex course tasks.

The evidence of learning as a natural part of classroom work culminates in an annual Record of achievement for students. The teacher analyzes and summarizes the evidence to complete the Record, which both describes and evaluates student progress in terms of performance scales in reading and writing (with mathematics in development). For validation of the classroom assessment across classrooms and schools, selections from student portfolios of work are attached to the Record to substantiate teacher observations and judgments at site and regional moderation sessions.

As we have argued, the Learning Record model seems to address many, if not most, of the problems about assessing student performance, whether in the classroom or in large scale assessment. Certainly, it departs from traditional assessment in its support for non-standardized ways to meet performance standards. Whether or not our argument wins adherents, however, we hope it raises a fundamental question about any changes in assessment to be made at a school site or in a district: What do we need a new system for? We believe we need a system like the Learning Record because the complexities inherent in diverse student backgrounds and multilingual capabilities as well as the demands and opportunities of new technologies require a more thoughtful and comprehensive look at the ways assessment affects student performance.

I believe the Learning Record model demonstrates the conceptual work that is necessary to implement a theory of composing situations as ecological systems. It also demonstrates that it is possible to achieve revolutionary changes in entrenched institutions without razing them and starting over. The entire educational project has been reconceived via the PLR/CLR, yet the transformational effects have not been achieved by destroying existing social and institutional structures, nor by top-down mandate, but through local, situated practices in everyday classrooms, in both rich and poor schools. Educational administrators have been very responsive to the CLR model, and state departments of education have not only expressed interest, but have lobbied for the CLR as an alternative to standardized reading and writing assessments.

The conceptual work indicated by this model involves rethinking our whole approach to literacy education, requiring, in this case, close observation of naturally occurring activities, a regular practice of recording observations, summary interpretations of the meaning of the observations in terms of literacy development, and open sharing of those interpretations with the participants in the situation, who also contribute their perspectives. If this sounds like good ethnomethodology, thatÍs what it most closely resembles. But it also, for the first time, seamlessly integrates literacy research, pedagogy, and assessment on a common theoretical foundation and grounds it in situated practice. Instead of setting arbitrary standards for achievement, it attempts to help the development of students toward their goals of coordination with the social and physical structures in their environments.


The Learning Record | © 1995-2014 M. A. Syverson

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