In the last five to ten years, there has been an increased emphasis on establishing expected student outcomes (ESOs) and using them throughout the school. Accreditation protocols at all levels require these student learning outcomes and colleges have used these as the basis for program and institutional effectiveness measures. Is this just a case of adopting some educational jargon, or is there an actual benefit behind this increased emphasis? In other words, are ESOs a help to schools in fulfilling their missions, or are they more educational hype?
About 20 years ago, the president of ACSI wrote about the concept in Christian School Comment (Smitherman n.d.):
Those engaged in leading and providing Christian education spend a great amount of time and energy thinking through and seeking God’s guidance in developing the expected student outcomes they want to achieve through the formal and informal curricular programs of their schools. These men and women are painting a target—clearly articulating what a Christian school education should accomplish and then putting in place the strategies and programs aimed at that target—simultaneously helping you train up your child in the way that he or she should go (Proverbs 22:6).
For many, this was the first time they had heard the phrase. Some Christian educators reacted negatively because they associated it with outcomes-based education, which was seen as rather reductionist in nature. Some feared who might be in control of determining the outcomes.
However, that is not how President Smitherman was using the concept. He was reacting to a great many schools that did not have well-defined targets regarding what they were trying to accomplish in the lives of students. Many had adopted certain Christian textbooks and were using the contents of those texts in place of a well-thought-out, school-developed curriculum. Others were using secular textbooks and just assuming that Christian teachers were making the connections for students to a biblical worldview, even though they had not identified specific goals—other than hoping they would perform one to two grade levels ahead of their public school counterparts on standardized tests.
By way of contrast, those who seemed to be doing the best job of a truly Christian education had identified schoolwide goals and objectives, or Christian distinctives, that they wanted to accomplish in the lives of their students—regardless of what subject they were teaching or instructional activities and materials they were using. In fact, it was those “outcomes” that were the driving force for choosing and designing the strategies and programs. In many cases, faculty hiring, budget allocations, and program development also hinged on the accomplishment of those goals and objectives. Those outcomes were so important, they characterized the school. New families knew the school would do everything in its power, with the resources entrusted to it, to accomplish those outcomes in the lives of their children.
ESOs Help Christian Schools Achieve Their Mission
In a recent article in Christian School Education, Steve Dill, Senior Vice President for ACSI, sums up the value of ESOs:
If you aim for nothing, you will hit it every time. To develop meaningful student outcomes, we must prioritize both process and content … schools must strive to have regularly reviewed, well-written student outcomes as well as faculty who will commit to the outcomes, develop ongoing assessments of student progress, and use assessment results to drive decisions about curriculum, programs, and school culture. Written outcomes are not a box to be checked—they are meaningful statements of student expectations that drive the decisions of an exemplary school.
ESOs and Schoolwide Outcomes
With the conceptual value of ESOs established, we can ask the question, Does research support the importance of schoolwide outcomes as an integrative element? While there is not a lot of research strictly on ESOs, the work in some related areas certainly supports the idea. For example, the concept of Understanding by Design, by Wiggins and McTighe (1998), helps explain why this is so important. Also related is the research on the effect of posting instructional objectives, which underscores the importance of knowing where you are going so that you can focus and coordinate efforts regarding instruction and materials. Communicating these goals is critical so that students have increased knowledge of what it is they are learning and why (Jackson n.d.), and as a result, they become more actively engaged and more reflective on their learning. Researchers on assessment recognize that our over-focus on standardized achievement leaves us out of balance on emphasizing the outcomes that really matter; many of them call for us to be clear on our desired outcomes and develop other types of assessments because otherwise, we “reinforce the incorrect impression that we can reflect the very complex student characteristics we seek to develop in a single set of paper-and-pencil test items yielding a single score” (Stiggins 1985).
Well-Developed ESOs Create Clear Focus
In my own research, I found that many ACSI schools had ESOs but they were not mature in their assessments of them (Wilcox 2011). Those that had well-developed ESOs were more clearly focused on what educators often call the “intangibles” of a Christian education. As a result, teachers were more likely to include specific activities targeting the desired traits in their teaching. The ESOs were included more intentionally in lesson plans and in class discussions. I found that, increasingly, schools are looking for ways to assess these so that they know they are being accomplished.
After reading through studies referencing ESOs and observing schools that have used them as a guiding and integrative document throughout the school, I found that a common theme surfaced. Schools and colleges benefit from identifying what their specific mission is, and more precisely, what that means in the lives of the students. In some cases, schools find that they try to do too much, and establishing their ESOs has helped them set or limit priorities. In other situations, schools had not identified what they were good at or could hope to achieve with their students and were at a loss when trying to communicate the value of their education to prospective students or parents. Identifying their distinctive goals, or ESOs, helped them in marketing who they are.
Overall, schools with clearly identified ESOs have a guiding set of priorities or clear distinctives for their program that they communicate and use for decision making, and which can be used in curriculum and instructional planning. It seems to be this intentional, shared focus on a set of priorities and following that up with assessment and accountability that gives schoolwide outcomes the best chance of being accomplished.
ESOs Are Unique to Each School
As schools work toward a good set of ESOs, some want to know if there is an approved ACSI set that they should consider. The answer is no. ESOs are unique to each school, though there are good examples to look at (see Christian Academy in Japan, Colorado Springs Christian Schools, and California Crosspoint Academy). An individual school’s ESOs should reflect the character values, spiritual aspirations, cultural norms, academic goals, and other particular characteristics of the school. In fact, part of the benefit of developing them is the collaboration of faculty, staff, administration and possibly parents and students in order to define their distinctives. ESOs can be thought of as statements that operationalize the mission, core values, and the ends of the governing body in a way that will translate into instructional activities, strategies, curriculum, and even decisions that affect hiring, resources, and training. Good examples include character traits that are more general as well as competencies that are measurable so that teachers can determine how to work them into lessons and assessments.
Understanding What You Want Your Students to Gain
Too often there has been a disconnect between rhetoric and reality, or between the school’s foundational statements and the daily grind of lesson plans, assessments, and operational decisions. The value of ESOs is understanding what you want your students to come out of your school knowing, believing, and doing—and connecting that understanding to everyday practice in the school. If well-articulated, ESOs will effectively guide your decisions and provide a clear focus on the results that are most important to your school community.
- The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment offers examples of student learning outcomes and suggestions on how to write effective outcomes.
- Brigham Young University gives tips for professors and students on how to use student learning outcomes effectively.
- There are 15 instances in the current ACSI REACH accreditation protocol where ESOs are referred to, either in the indicator itself or in the rubrics associated with the indicator. These are detailed on page 3 of an ACSI resource entitled The Value of Expected Student Outcomes. The chart on that page may be helpful for ACSI-accredited schools to review.
Dill, S. 2016. Student learning: The big picture. Christian School Education 19, no. 3.
Jackson, R. R. n.d. Never work harder than your students and other principles of great teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Smitherman, K. n.d. Asking the Important Question, Christian School Comment 37, no. 1.
Stiggins, R. 1985. Improving assessment where it means the most: In the classroom. Educational Leadership 43 no. 2.
Wiggins, G. and J. McTighe. 1998. Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Wilcox, E. 2011. How schools assess expected student outcomes: A descriptive and exploratory study. EdD diss., Bethel University, St. Paul, MN.
Note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and reposted in May 2022.
About the Author
Dr. Erin Wilcox is the Assistant Vice President for Academic Services at ACSI, where she is responsible for accreditation, certification, and international student programs. Before coming to ACSI, she served as the Associate Superintendent at Colorado Springs Christian Schools, where she oversaw the instructional program at four campuses as well as developed a hybrid program and online courses. She has also taught computers and special education at the Alliance Academy in Quito, Ecuador, as well as the Dalat School in Penang, Malaysia. She holds an EdD in educational administration from Bethel University in St. Paul, an MA in instructional leadership from the University of Alabama, and a BS in special education from Illinois State University. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.