How Are K-12 Learning Outcomes Established and Measured?

A simple question from a friend and colleague about how independent school K-12 learning outcomes are established and measured led me down a road less traveled.

I am very familiar with higher education’s learning goals and measurements. When I was leading APUS through its initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission, criteria related to implementing and evaluating learning outcomes were major components of the self-study process.

At APUS, we initially implemented end of program testing for our graduates, requiring all of them to complete the ETS Proficiency Profile assessment. Those enrolled in programs like Criminal Justice were required to complete the ETS Major Field Test assessment for their program(s).

In our ongoing evaluation of our institutional and programmatic outcomes, we realized that we needed to embed an assessment and outcomes framework throughout our academic programs. Our provost and deans chose the Degree Qualifications Profile.

As part of the process of implementing a framework like the DQP, the institution adopts institutional learning objectives. Once those objectives were adopted, our faculty mapped all our associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees and aligned them to institutional objectives as well as program objectives.

Mapping degree programs allows faculty to determine which assessments/courses are critical to the program learning objectives. When changes in any field of study occur, the mapping allows department chairs and deans to determine where changes in the curriculum and courses need to occur. In our case, a mini review of each program occurred annually. A full review occurred every three years.

I knew that my experiences with learning outcomes in higher education were not comparable for implementing and measuring learning outcomes at the K-12 level. After all, college students have completed their K-12 education. The expected learning outcomes vary tremendously across the 13 years of kindergarten through 12th grade. Independent schools are governed differently than public schools.

As many of us do, I began searching online for academic papers or book chapters that addressed independent school K-12 learning outcomes. I found several articles that referenced K-12 STEM courses, music courses, art courses, and government and ethics courses. None addressed the bigger picture and almost all were related to public schools.

Like the contestants in the television show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, I figured my next step would be to “phone a friend” or in this case, a few friends. I want to thank Natasha Jankowski, Jennifer Helm, and Christina Dryden for their guidance. I’ll try to summarize their comments and provide a few links to sources.

Each of them noted that the K-12 sector does not have a national assessment organization like higher ed. As a result, there are some differences in terms between K-12 and higher ed. K-12 generally refers to student outcomes data such as retention, grade movement, and results on standardized tests.

Most of the learning outcomes materials are state specific. I was directed to a KnowledgeWorks resource page that summarizes activities occurring at the state level as of November 8, 2021.

I was reminded that the Common Core Standards were developed in 2009 as a state-led effort to standardize what students should be able to demonstrate at a given grade level. It was noted that the Common Core Standards are akin to the Degree Qualifications Profile established by Lumina for colleges.

Some states like Pennsylvania adopted the Common Core Standards and added their own standards. Other states like Virginia did not adopt the Common Core Standards, choosing to develop their own standards.

In the case of Virginia, the state’s Department of Education developed/develops the standards with teachers from across the state and then asks stakeholders including teachers, administrators, and community members through the state to provide feedback.

Tools and guides have been developed to help K-12 teachers craft learning “objectives” that align to the standards for their specific classes. Lesson plans are aligned with learning objectives that connect to the standards.

While all the resources that I was directed to are useful, none pertain to independent schools. Another friend of mine wrote “few independent schools have ever tracked their impact reliably because we are unregulated.” That doesn’t mean that curriculum isn’t built with great learning objectives, just that it is not regularly tracked. I was directed to a charter school, Building 21 near Philadelphia, that built a competency framework that it shares on its website.

However, with independent school tuitions in many states exceeding $30,000 per year, I suspect that more than a few of them are contemplating the measurement of learning outcomes in ways that will provide their families with assurances of the value of an independent school education. If any of my readers can point me to a school or two that has already implemented outcome measurements, I would appreciate it.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence