Tuesday, October 12, 2010

From Cynthia Killingsworth, Accounting Instructor

I enrolled in Sylvia and Shirlee’s assessments class last spring with a narrow objective of improving testing in my accounting courses. This class ended up being a major teaching style alignment and I learned to appreciate the unavoidable bottom-line of the assessment movement. We talk a lot about measuring student performance, but it is really a matter of facing our own teaching effectiveness head-on. The harsh line “It’s the teaching, stupid!” comes to mind from a 2006 article about retooling math education. Here are some of my thoughts from this experience:

Do I understand what should be assessed? I discovered that I was assessing concepts easiest to measure, such as preparing a financial statement in proper format, but may have failed to fully consider those concepts harder to measure, but equally relevant for student success, such as interpreting financial information. This led to a rapid detour away from testing as my focus and towards reconsidering what I was teaching.

Do I understand what is most relevant for course content? In this detour I had to invest some time finding actual research in my discipline regarding the concepts or skills important for accounting student success. Ironically, the PCC assessment focus last year was critical thinking and problem solving, and when I researched my discipline, I rediscovered that the Accounting Education Change Commission had completed an extensive study in the 1990’s determining that critical thinking skills were being ignored in college accounting education. Accounting educators’ subsequent response was to include one mildly unstructured critical thinking problem at the end of each accounting textbook chapter, still preceded by dozens of highly structured procedural questions. Guided by this inference of relevance, it is not surprising that most accounting instructors still lean towards procedural content and not much has changed.

I learned that it pays to reexamine our discipline to determine if our focus is supported by research. I found that this might not be true in accounting education. Another interesting irony of the Accounting Education Change Commission study is that many of the commission’s recommendations aligned perfectly with the PCC core outcomes. I now have even more confidence in the wearability of PCC’s overall vision!

Do I understand the level of my students’ academic development? I reviewed the research subsequent to the Accounting Education Change Commission’s findings and learned more about student cognitive development. After this report was released, some college professors started introducing complex financial analysis projects at all levels of accounting courses. The problem with this quick fix was that most students cannot handle complex financial analysis until their senior year or graduate level studies. A tiered approach of first introducing students to concepts involving uncertainty, followed by increasing analytical tasks, was found to be more effective.

Do students need to know about all this? Students are the most significant stakeholders in the assessment movement, so it makes sense that they should be aware of what is happening. I was teaching a non-accounting general education (Introduction to Nonprofits) class at the same time I was taking the assessments class and spent some time discussing these concepts with my students. I was pleased and relieved to find that students were very interested in PCC’s core outcomes and wanted to understand meaningful ways to measure the quality and progress of their education. This desire confirmed a key assessments’ concept discussed in Sylvia and Shirlee’s class. Letter grades may stay around, but more of our effort needs to be focused on an assessment system that gives feedback and advice to students throughout the term. It should be just as much of a learning tool as their textbooks.

I have to admit that the above experiences unsettled my relatively peaceful teaching bubble, but my perspective has been broadened along with my courage to face the inevitable changes on the horizon. I remember when the Accounting Education Change Commission’s report was released about the poor quality of accounting education. I had just graduated from college and was facing the reality of paying my student loans. The thought occurred to me that I deserved a refund! As I face the future ramifications of “value-added” education, I hope I never forget my perspective as a primary stakeholder in education from 20 years ago.


  1. It is important to have clear learning targets and to learn the many assessment methods. Good for you, Cynthia! So much is changing.
    I did my Master's in Ed. on teacher leadership. Research shows that test scores have a variability of up to 33% depending upon the students in a teacher's class in the public schools. 60% of a students success in school depends upon their zip code. Personally, with a potential 33% variation from year to year, I would take assessment seriously, but not want to have my wages associated with my student's test results. I teach in a low income elementary school. Last year 100% of my students passed their state reading exam. However, 4 students moved. Those 4 students had health and social problems, including one who rarely went to school in 3rd grade, and another who had brain damage from a stroke which he had at age 4. These disabilities would have had a negative impact on the possibility of passing any state test.

    So, this year, I have a more challenging class. I am a National Board candidate, and am putting all my efforts into clear targets and formative assessments. But I would not want to have my teaching effectiveness be rated by a number, as "value added" proponents suggest. What about social and emotional learning? What about art? Teaching to the test narrows the curriculum. I think that the work by educational consultant Diane Ravitch pretty much sums my feelings as a public school teacher. When a school in a low income community is deemed "failing" because it missed ONE out of 37 subcategories (this is true with "adequate yearly progress") schools are being set up to fail. Why? Well, it seems to me that something is wrong, indeed.

  2. music_educe, Thanks for the response! I recently read an interesting article about an Oregon City charter school in a similar situation: http://www.oregonlive.com/oregon-city/index.ssf/2010/09/federal_grant_gives_oregon_city_service_learning_academy_new_laptops_new_expectations.html. I loved the courage of Allison, the language arts teacher, as she faces this same challenge.

    I do have a question about this. While test scores could be a factor in rating a school and/or teachers in K-12, are they ever being used as the only factor? Cynthia