In 2009, Salem City Schools embarked on an Assessment FOR Learning journey based on research indicating that teachers could accelerate student academic progress and growth by consistently and thoughtfully providing descriptive feedback.  The research further indicated that the benefits of Assessment FOR Learning practices are magnified when students use the information to inform their own learning and teachers use the data to inform instructional practice.

The journey has resulted in the development of new approaches to our work and required that we research and develop new tools for measuring and reporting student progress.  It has required us to shift from an emphasis on grading to an emphasis on learning.  Along the way, our School Board has supported our efforts with tweaks and updates to Board policy and by authorizing the use of alternative grading programs.

Our AFL Journey has been challenging at times, but it has fulfilled the two biggest questions all people and organizations ask when contemplating change:

Can I do it?

Is it worth it?

“Can I do it?” is generally easy for us to answer, as our history of success and innovation proves that we can do almost anything.  But, for the same reason, the second question is more difficult, as success can lead to complacency.  Thankfully, one of the cornerstones of “The Salem Way” involves acknowledging that while we are pretty darn good, we are always working hard to get ever better!

Our Core Business: Teaching and Learning

Our Focus: Continuous Improvement

Our Commitment: Children First: Every Child – Every Day

Still, as we have traveled this sometimes bumpy Assessment FOR Learning road, how did we answer, “Is it worth it?”?  There have been many parts to the answer, but I contend that all of these point toward two fundamental truths about teaching and learning in schools:

  1. All parents of all students ranging from those identified as gifted to those with special needs want to know if their child is learning and growing; and
  2. Teachers long to celebrate not just a point in time grade or test score, but how far individual children have progressed in their classroom thanks to the love they show, the engagement they facilitate, and the inspiration they instill.

On our AFL Journey, we have encountered headwinds, detours, and obstacles.  Some of the challenges faced were rooted in human nature (resistance to change), some were leadership missteps as we walked an uncharted path (the AFL Fair), and some were seemingly out of our control (Federal Law, the Code of Virginia, and Board of Education Regulations).

I am profoundly thankful that the Salem City School Board supported and encouraged our work even when it appeared NCLB and the Virginia Assessment and Accountability System were insurmountable obstacles, even challenging me during my annual evaluation a year ago to make SCS more active and engaged at the state-level.

Now, thanks to the Board’s vision, the support of our community, and years of very hard and very intentional work by all who serve in SCS, we are in a very good place. In December, NCLB was replaced with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that returns authority usurped by NCLB back to the states.  Virginia is leading the way by rethinking standardized testing and accountability through the SOL Innovation Committee, recognizing that assessments must inform teaching and learning…essentially embarking on a state-wide AFL Journey.

As evidence, I encourage you to read this Washington Post article from Wednesday (2/17/16), where you will note that the Administration and the General Assembly, Republicans and Democrats, are working across branches of government and in a bipartisan manner to make teaching and learning in Virginia more AFL-like!

Va.’s governor wants to remake high school education

While this article focuses on “remaking high school” and bodes extremely well for the work Salem High School is doing with its High School Program Innovation Planning Grant, it also makes clear that Virginia’s entire Pre-K-12 system is being realigned.  How fortunate are we that, thanks to work on the Innovation Grant and the Board’s desire to see more middle school students earn high school credit, ALMS and SHS are collaborating more than ever?  How fortunate are we that, thanks to the locally developed alternative assessment work, ALMS and our elementary schools are collaborating more than ever?

These are obviously rhetorical questions, but there is no doubt that collaboration between and among our schools is better than at any time in my 25 years serving in SCS…proving that we are indeed one school system and not a system of schools.  With Assessment FOR Learning (AFL) as a journey, Standards-based Learning (SBL) as a practice, and our ongoing Digital Conversion as the vehicle for personalizing the educational experience for all children, we have compelling evidence that Salem City Schools, and all who serve in them, are student-centered innovators and pioneers!

As I have shared before, I enjoy hiking in general and backpacking in particular.  In steep climbs up mountains, I usually bring up the rear of the group because I am not fast and my asthmatic airway literally causes me to “huff and puff,” but I just keep chugging along…one small step at a time.  On flatter surfaces, however, I occasionally get to lead the group, because I have a reasonably long stride and can help set a pace that can cover more distance in less time.  While flatter ground is easier for me and I do not look forward to steep climbs, my favorite part of these trips is cresting the hill.  Reaching the summit, taking in the views, shedding the backpack for a time to enjoy a snack and to rest a bit, are all made more special by the personal and communal satisfaction of having made it to the top of the current mountain.

I have used this metaphor before, and as you know, the journeys continue…there are more trails to hike and mountains to climb, but as we prepare to gather and share on our March 4 (or March 5) Professional Development Day, I want all who serve in Salem City Schools to know that we are in a very good place and we should all enjoy the view and share a sense of satisfaction.  Our journey is not complete, in fact by acknowledging that we are good but always working hard to get better, we know that our journey toward excellence will never end.   However, from time to time we do have an opportunity to enjoy the view, reflect on our journey and to hit our stride…to refine and leverage the mindsets and practices we have adopted and to expand our use of the tools we have tested along the way.

On the Professional Development Day, we will be viewing the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed.  It is a film that began as an effort to examine and document innovation in a number of schools, but ultimately focused on the story of a few students and their families who attend High Tech High in San Diego, California.  Yes, High Tech High is a charter school, but in California at the time, charters were the only way to get the flexibility that Virginia is preparing to make available to schools in general and to High School Program Innovation Planning Grant recipients in particular.  I have personally visited High Tech High (and its neighboring middle school) and can assure you that the schools represent the socio-economic diversity of an urban area.

Please let me be clear about why we are showing this documentary.  We are showing it as an affirmation for all who serve in Salem City Schools that our AFL Journey has been entirely worthwhile and as evidence that we have our bearings and that our entire division is heading in the right direction.  We are showing this film to illustrate that our mission to Love, Engage, and Inspire the children we serve provides the essential elements of our future work together.  We are NOT showing this film to signal the start a new journey, but to provide energy and encouragement for the one that we are already on.

After the film, we continue our Professional Development tradition of learning from one another.  Breakout Sessions will share the best practices and highlight the best tools as our AFL Journey leads us to personalize the educational experience for every child.

Thanks to each and every one of you for being a part of this journey!

Best regards to all,


Alan Seibert