NOTE: An updated version of this module of the Self-Study Toolkit can be found in NDTAC's new Assessment Toolkit: Measuring Academic Progress. The new toolkit includes separate sections for State administrators and program managers working at the local and facility levels. Unless you have specific reasons to use this version (e.g., you are trying to compare yourself with other facilities in your State that have used this version), then NDTAC recommends that you use the new expanded version.
Academic Assessment and Curricula
By Angeline Spain and Regina Waugh
This is the third module of NDTAC's Self-Study Toolkit. The Self-Study Toolkit is designed to help facilities measure how they are doing and determine what they can do to improve. Links to modules on other topics, as well as links to other NDTAC toolkits, can be foundon NDTAC's Toolkits Web page.
This article is divided into two parts:
Part I. Introduction
Part II. Student Achievement
Part I discusses why academic assessment is important and provides examples of standardized curricula. Part II is designed to help measure how your facility is doing in terms of providing acadmic assessment and offers suggestions on how to improve assessment practices.
I. Introduction: Why Is Academic Assessment Important?
Schools within juvenile institutions share many of the same characteristics and challenges of underperforming schools throughout the country: a disproportionately low income and minority population, a high proportion of English language learners (ELLs), teachers that are unprepared and ill equipped to serve their students, and low parent involvement. In addition, there are challenges specific to the juvenile justice environment, such as multiple ability levels in a single classroom, a constantly changing classroom population, and an institutional philosophy that often places education second to security. All of these factors can lead to low educational attainment for youth in the juvenile justice system.
Yet, as the language of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has delineated, expectations for achievement of students in the juvenile justice system are very high. What is less clear is how to determine that the education students receive while in detention is equivalent to what their peers receive in the regular school system. The Government Performance Results Act (GPRA) indicators, which are used to evaluate the performance of all Federal programs, focus on academic achievement and provide some additional guidance. The indicators measure the increase in:
- The percentage of students who are N or D obtaining diploma or diploma equivalent
- The average number of high school course credits earned by students who are N or D
- The percentage of students who are N or D who improve academic skills as measured on approved and validated measures
At the same time, the education programs in N or D institutions must also be tailored to best meet the specific needs of students who are N or D, including a high proportion of students with learning disabilities and students who have been out of the classroom for months or years. At the time they are arrested, most youth have already officially dropped out of school, have not attended in months, or have attended school only sporadically over the course of several years. These circumstances seriously impact academic achievement. According to one national study, upon entering the juvenile justice system the typical inmate, age 15.5 years and in the ninth grade, reads at the fourth-grade level. In addition, juvenile correctional education programs must acknowledge that not all students who leave their institutions will continue their education. Therefore, opportunities for students to prepare for the GED exam and/or acquire vocational and life skills as well as academic preparation are important.
Academic assessment is an integral part of any student’s educational experience. Consistently updating the academic achievement levels of students in juvenile justice facilities is especially important. As students leave facilities with little or no notice, it is vital that their educational records are updated frequently, so that the documentation that they bring to their next placement accurately reflects the progress they have made. Targeted academic preparation feeds directly into students’ achievement following their exit from the facility.
What Can I Do?
Assess the students in your facility, not only at intake, but also regularly during the academic year. This will help you to catch small problems before they escalate and help to ensure that your students are actually learning what your teachers are teaching.
Ensure that the curriculum is structured to the circumstance, that is, in small enough units to accommodate a constantly shifting population. This will allow students to earn credits for the work that they do, even if it is only for a short period of time. In addition, make sure that you are aware of the academic standards in your State and that the curriculum in your facility is tailored to meet those standards.
Examples From the Field
In New York, the Office of School Improvement and Community Services requires that all agencies providing mandated educational services to youth describe their assessment procedures.
In California’s Santa Clara and Los Angeles Counties, curricula have been standardized across court and alternative community schools to provide academic continuity to students in spite of transience. By combining regular assessment with a continuous curriculum that teaches to the standards, one Santa Clara teacher reported having seen students making as much as a year’s worth of progress in 60 days on California’s statewide assessments.
Santa Clara County’s curriculum:
Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools:
Proceed to Part II. Student Achievement
 Project READ. (1978). To make a difference. In M. S. Brunner (Ed.), Reduced recidivism and increased employment opportunity through research-based reading instruction (pp. 27). Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (NCJ Publication No. 141324).
 Duncan, T., Van Dyke, N., Pane, N., Burrell, J. & Osher, D. (2003). Review of the literature. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research: Neglected and Delinquent Technical Assistance Center.
Published May 2005