Cassandra Erkens is a presenter, facilitator, coach, trainer of trainers, keynote speaker, author, and above all, a teacher. She presents nationally and internationally on assessment, instruction, school improvement, and professional learning communities.

Achievement – High Expectations for All

Post 2 of 4 on Using Assessment to Improve Achievement

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them

As noted in my first post of this series regarding using assessment to support achievement, the primary mission of schools is to help kids learn. Schools write mission statements toward that same end:  all students will be successful. But, have those mission statements become routine and somewhat cliché?  Have educators truly embraced the notion that all students can learn at high levels? Schools that espouse all students will be successful yet maintain a system filled with a range of learning tracks send a mixed message to their community and then spend time and energy engaging in practices that undercut their own core values.

When we don’t believe all students can learn at high levels, we create tracks.  Unfortunately, once a learner is placed in a low track he or she is often doomed to remain in that track. Like the expression the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, tracking widens the divide. According to educational researcher John Hattie (2009), high track learners have access to intellectual challenges that stimulate curiosity, optimize enthusiasm, and foster growth mindsets. On the other hand, low track learners suffer social alienation, minimal academic engagement or challenge, and repeated doses of low expectations that ultimately foster fixed mindsets. They are forced to focus on bits and particulars via the all too often un-engaging worksheet that takes learning out of context and causes boredom and frustration. For over 30 years, educational experts (Oakes, 1985; Shanker, 1993; Green, 2005; Buffum, Mattos, and Weber, 2008; and Hattie, 2009) have highlighted the ineffectiveness and, worse, the inequality of tracking.

Education is the great equalizer. It is the most universal and strategic way to reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The statistics (life expectancy, annual income, job satisfaction, incarceration rates, etc.) for those who do not make it successfully through their school careers are abysmal. And, those statistics impact everyone, not just the poor and disenfranchised. The lifelong quality of a person’s life should never be determined by choices he/she may have made during childhood years. All learners require and deserve a robust curriculum filled with intrigue, challenges, support, and highly engaging activities.

As challenging as it can be to work with a range of abilities and interests in a single classroom, it is necessary to maintain high expectations for each learner. The author of Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov (2010) states, “One consistent finding of academic research is that high expectations are the most reliable driver of high student achievement, even in students who do not have a history of successful achievement” (p. 1). We must set our ‘most reliable driver’—our expectations—high in order to guide our own beliefs about learners as well as to inform the learners’ beliefs about themselves.

Hattie (2009) affirms Lemov’s assertion: “What matters … [is] teachers having expectations that all students can progress, that achievement for all is changeable (and not fixed), and that progress for all is understood and articulated.” (p. 35). And Rhona Weinstein, a school psychologist and the author of Reaching Higher: The Power of Expectations in Schooling (2002), adds that we must believe in every child and then work to bring about improvements in his/her mastery of the skills. Weinstein notes, “when high expectations are framed in ways that always value the child, support reachable goals on the way to cherished dreams, and provide children with strategies that help overcome obstacles in their path, such expectations can inspire children to grow” (p. 297). High levels of learning are possible for everyone. What are we willing to do to achieve that?

As Einstein noted, yesterday’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems. We cannot close the achievement gap with our current practices of ability grouping and tracking. We must try new things. To get started, consider any of the following options:

In the classroom

  • Use strong formative pathways and engage learners in monitoring their progress during the learning so learners can make quality instructional choices.
  • Engage learners in understanding strong/weak samples of learning and consensus based scoring so everyone is clear on expectations.
  • Use quality indicators of learning and not simply points earned on assessments to continue supporting clarity on expectations.
  • Provide data based on target attainment, not overall assessment results. This helps learners zero in on growth areas while highlighting their successes along the way.
  • Give feedback that supports struggling learners in identifying types of errors and provide them with strategies for tackling specific types of errors.
  • Engage in flexible grouping, by target, by student so that all learners experience both enrichment and intervention strategies.
  • Hold learners accountable to mastering expectations by re-assessing until mastery is achieved. Use re-engagement teaching strategies that value the learners and use savvy re-assessment systems that truly measure learning (e.g. not using the exact same test, making re-testing optional, and so on).

In the school

  • Get rid of tracks. Allow learners to opt in to high-level courses and then require them to maintain good grades to remain in; making sure staff is engaged in supporting the learners’ success in surviving the course.
  • Create responsive pyramids of intervention that are not optional. Build systems into the school day that do not remove learners from getting exposure to on-grade level material.
  • Refine school-wide responses over time and using results and feedback from learners. Constantly check to assure responses are systematic and timely.
  • Celebrate success by focusing on how many learners are mastering rigorous content.
  • Support teachers with strategies and resources to address the needs of struggling learners.
  • Engage the staff in articulating indicators for success that extend beyond points on assessments and on-time completion rates.

Starting with one practical option can lead to fast wins and the resulting desire to take next steps.  When we hold high expectations for all learners, we must hold high expectations of ourselves. Change is never easy, but we have the power and the obligation to alter the paradigm that has put a stranglehold on learning our schools. Together, we can hold high expectations for all of our learners. They deserve no less.


Buffum, A., Mattos, M., and Weber, C. (2008).  Pyramid response to intervention:  RTI, professional learning communities, and how to respond when kids don’t learn.  Bloomington, IN:  Solution Tree Press.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work: New insights for improving schools. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Green, R. L. (2005).  Expectations: How teacher expectations can increase student achievement and assist in closing the achievement gap.  Columbus, OH: SRA/McGraw-Hill.

Hattie, J.  (2009).  Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.  NY: Routledge.

Lemov, D., (2010).  Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Oakes, J. (1985).  Keeping track: How schools structure inequality.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Shanker, A. (1993).  Public vs. private schools.  National Forum.  Phi Kappa Phi Journal, 73(4)., pp. 14 – 17.

Weinstein, R., (2002).  Reaching higher:  The power of expectations in schooling.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

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