Impact beyond the tests: adult education that makes a real difference

Chanell Butler-Morello
Catawba Valley Community College





 The Adult Basic Education (ABE) programme at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, North Carolina is a two-year programme that educates and empowers adults with disabilities to live more independently, improve academic skills, and gain employment. These groups of students are unique because they show only modest gains on standardised tests but enormous gains in quality of life. This article examines the success of these students that tests simply cannot measure.

Standardised tests are the typical expectation for measuring success in students in many parts of the world. However, adults with disabilities are just one example of a population that is not best served through the use of standardised testing. At one programme of Adult Basic Education (ABE) in Hickory, North Carolina, these adult students with special needs have demonstrated tremendous growth and have a wide range of success stories to tell, in spite of difficulties proving such gains through written exams.

The ABE Academy is a two-year programme that runs four days a week. Typical students have physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities, autism, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, paralysis, etc. One thing they all share is a desire to learn, grow, make new friends, and find a sense of purpose. These students attend in the hopes of improving their academic skills, gaining greater independence and obtaining employment or furthering their education. Instructors break up the large classroom of approximately 40 students into four groups according to their academic levels. Many students bring one-on-one aid workers to assist them.

Learning by doing

The curriculum is contextualised to real-life situations such as daily interactions in the outside world, applying for jobs, being a good local citizen, etc. The instruction is highly engaging, and is customised for individual learning needs and goals. There are not a lot of textbooks utilised in this classroom. Activities are hands-on, interactive and fun. For example, students learn how to grow their own garden with fresh fruits and vegetables, read recipes and cook healthy meals, and they actually cook the food together in the kitchen located near the classroom.

ABE Academy students at Catawba Valley Community College participate in Operation Clean Sweep, a volunteer initiative to clean up litter from the roadways in Alexander County, North Carolina. This allows the students to give back to the community while also preparing for a possible career in Waste Management and/or Environmental Services, © Linda Graham

“Activities are hands-on, interactiveand fun.”

The curriculum also has weekly themes in the programme that correlate to specific career fields that are in demand in the local area. This way students can learn which types of jobs are interesting to them, possibly jobs they have never even considered or heard of in the past. There are also guest speakers from all over the community, visiting and sharing information about different professions. Local businesses and clubs donate materials and supplies to the classroom because they believe in what the school is doing. What we have found is a recipe for success.

High standards

The school emphasises to the students that they are expected to comply with the attendance policy, arrive on time, actively participate, and meet high standards of behaviour. While standardised tests are given, and they are tied to performance funding for the programme, there is a strong belief that they do not record the vast majority of successes that these students achieve.

Some examples of successes the students have achieved that cannot be measured in a standardised test include:

  • improved self-confidence and self-worth
  • the ability to communicate better verbally and express wants and needs to others
  • interacting in a socially-acceptable manner and making friends (for possibly the first time)
  • creating resumes, interviewing for jobs and obtaining employment
  • gaining acceptance to new educational programmes within our college or at university
  • developing the “soft skills” that allow them to succeed
  • in the workplace or on the College campus
  • the ability to grow and cook their own healthy meals
  • discovering a career they can enjoy
  • achieving greater independence and less reliance on ­relatives for daily care
  • a deeper sense of happiness, purpose and fulfilment

From violence to self-discovery

One success story that truly stands out is that of our student Staci*. Staci was a student who had various forms of both physical and intellectual disabilities. Due to her very limited communication skills, she was very explosive and nearly violent at home and on campus (i.e. throwing tables and chairs, screaming, slamming doors). She attended class very sporadically, and therefore was unable to make any improvement. It was evident from the beginning that she didn’t really believe in herself and therefore wouldn’t bother making an effort to learn, as she already expected to fail before she even began. However, when the ABE Academy opened and offered a structured environment with a mandatory attendance policy, Staci decided she would give it a try. She immediately blossomed in a way that, frankly, none of us expected. She very quickly demonstrated a sense of pride in her regular attendance, completion of class activities, and ongoing participation in the programme. She began to communicate more effectively and was able to make friends for the first time on campus. She dramatically improved her social interaction skills, and started smiling for the first time whenever she arrived at school. While Staci demonstrated only modest gains on standardised testing, her increased self-confidence and newly-developing skills were very impressive. She caught the attention of faculty, staff, and Vocational Rehabilitation counsellors. Staci was offered a job at a local restaurant, and left our programme to work for the first time in her life. We were truly thrilled for her.

One young man Jeffrey* was completely uninterested in finding a job when he entered our ABE Academy. He wanted to improve his academic skills, but felt adamantly opposed to ever working. However, as his social and academic skills blossomed, so did the idea that maybe a career was possible. Through the strong community connections that the programme fosters, Jeffrey was eventually offered a full-time position at a local high-end furniture factory, and is now successfully employed for 40 hours a week. He has a new level of independence and a great sense of pride in being able to support himself.

In summary, if one were to judge the performance of the school by the data collected from standardised tests alone, it would seem that these adults are not learning very much. However, daily observations and various other measures of success have demonstrated that these adult students with disabilities are in fact making enormous strides in their quality of life, and are learning in ways that empower them to achieve a new sense of purpose and to contribute positively to their local community.

About the author

Chanell Butler-Morello is the Executive ­Director of the Learning & Personal Enrichment Innovation Center (Adult Education) at Catawba Valley Community College in Hickory, North Carolina. She has years of experience teaching and leading in the field of adult education.


Important notice: If you click on this link, you will leave the websites of DVV International. DVV International is not responsible for the content of third party websites that can be accessed through links. DVV International has no influence as to which personal data of yours is accessed and/or processed on those sites. For more information, please review the privacy policy of the external website provider.