youngsters are not exposed to the knowledge and skills they will be tested on (Smith et al., 1998).
A separate study, also in Chicago, examined student assignments in writing and mathematics in grades 3, 6, and 8 in 12 schools. The researchers analyzed the assignments and student work against standards for intellectual quality. These standards emphasize the construction of knowledge, or the ability to apply or extend knowledge to new situations; the use of disciplined inquiry, or the ability to build on prior knowledge, strive for in-depth understanding, and communicate their understanding; and the value beyond school, or the extent to which student learning has an impact on others besides the demonstration of competence.
The study found that the majority of assignments at all grade levels represented no challenge or minimal challenge. And they found that students who were assigned more challenging work were better able to perform at higher levels. They conclude that, although the unchallenging and minimally challenging assignments may enable students to learn basic facts and procedures, they do not equip them to do the kind of tasks they might be expected to perform as workers and citizens outside school (Newmann et al., 1998).
Just as students' achievement is related to what they are taught, teachers, too, are able to transform their instructional practice when they have had opportunities for sustained learning in new instructional approaches. As David notes in her study of teachers' responses to new forms of assessment, teacher learning represented the difference between imitation and improvement. She writes (David, 1997, p. 12):
Teachers who described changes in their practices, beyond introducing a new lesson or activity here or there, usually point to a combination of experiences leading to these changes. These include extensive and repeated opportunities for learning that (a) cause teachers to think about and know content differently; and (b) provide a range of teaching strategies and curriculum ideas. The most influential of these opportunities usually combine one week or longer summer institutes over successive years in which teachers are learning new content in a particular subject area (e.g., literacy or mathematics) in the ways they will be teaching it, coupled with access to help during the school day from staff developers, administrators, and colleagues.