Measuring Success in the Classroom Published 2006-04-01

Listening to discussions about "our failing educational system", I have heard a wide range of statistics quoted by pundits to support the argument that we need educational reform. Many offer poor scores on standardized reading and math exams, others point to the number of students dropping out of school. Still others (including myself) see our current educational system not reflecting changes in our society nor meeting the needs of an increasingly global economy.

Whatever reason we give for the need for educational reform, or whether we even need reform, we must ask ourselves how are we going to measure success. This is an important question as the way we measure success affects the way we teach. The following is from futurelab, a UK non-profit group doing research into learning in the 21st century:

High-stakes assessments exemplify curriculum ambitions, define what is worth knowing, and drive classroom practices. It is essential to develop systems for assessment which reflect our core educational goals, and which reward students for developing skills and attributes which will be of long-term benefit to them and to society. There is good research evidence to show that well designed assessment systems lead to improved student performance. In contrast, the USA provides some spectacular examples of systems where narrowly focused high-stakes assessment systems produce illusory student gains; this ‘friendly fire’ results at best in lost opportunities, and at worst in damaged students, teachers and communities. [1]

I was in a conference session on digital storytelling recently speaking to a teacher who was using digital storytelling in his classroom. He was very excited with the results - his students became engaged, active learners who were challenged, a far cry from his days of "teaching from the book". The concern was how well his students were going to do on a required standardized test. Other teachers in his district had been preparing their students for the test since the beginning of the school year. In other words, they were teaching to the test.

Now, I cannot predict which group of students will do better on the test, but I would not be surprised if kids in the digital storytelling teacher's class scored below those students who had been preparing for the test all year. I would, regardless of the test results, characterize their course a success. They participated in a learning environment that got them excited and challenged them. They produced work in which they could take ownership as well as pride. None of these qualities can be measured in a standardized test.

I have done much more research on assessment in the last few years than I have ever done in my career, but my feelings on how to improve student learning remain unchanged. Students need to be active learners, faced with real work that matters, and directed by constant informal assessment (by both teacher and peers). In fancy terms, this means more "authentic" and "formative" assessment.

I believe that NCTM is on the right direction when they warn that high-stakes tests should only be used as a component in measuring student success. In their position statement on high-stakes test, NCTM recognizes that these large-scale tests can only represent a sampling of the overall goals of the curriculum and often "focus disproportionately on simple mathematical outcomes".

... "The most challenging standards and objectives are the ones that are undersampled or omitted entirely … [and those] that call for high-level reasoning are often omitted in favor of much simpler cognitive processes." [2]

This statement best summarizes my fears as we struggle with pressures to teach to the test. Whether it be nationally (unfunded) mandates or pressure to do well on AP exams, there are forces undermining the efficacy of your teaching. You need to take responsibility for measuring success in your classroom and you should not rely on simple high-stakes assessment or else you will be missing the best part.

So how are you measuring success in your classroom?