How Can We Be Sure We’re Measuring What Matters?

Let me make an assumption. Because you are reading this blog, you like to learn. I hope you’re nodding because if that is the case, we have a lot in common!

At our many professional learning meetings it’s not unusual for someone to ask me how I have time to read as much as I do, and how I “know so much about education.”

Well, a confession is in order. While I do read a lot, I’ve learned to be strategic in the process by going to reliable and timely sources. And one of my top sources is ASCD and its many publications. (Long ago, ASCD started out as an association for education “supervisors” and curriculum developers. Today it has evolved into a dynamic international organization focused on best classroom practices and the education of the “whole child.”)

Earlier this week, the February 2018 issue of Educational Leadership landed in my inbox. Not surprisingly, the theme of the issue is timely and compelling: Measuring What Matters. As a result, it didn’t take long for me to pick it up and start reading. This issue I read cover-to-cover in one afternoon (a rare treat!).

As I read, I began to ponder about which articles, which points, and which big ideas I would highlight in this blog…because the issue is so full of insights and “ahas!”

It wasn’t easy winnowing the ideas into a blog that wouldn’t rival War and Peace! I’ve chosen four articles to feature here – but trust me: You can’t go wrong searching out this assessment-focused issue in your school/district or simply buying it online.

As it typical for monthly issues of Educational Leadership, some articles are “unlocked” and some are members-only (including great articles by Rick Stiggins and Tom Guskey). I’ve included a link to the unlocked articles. You can see the entire table of contents here.

Are We Measuring the Right Things? (unlocked)

Jay McTighe, noted for his work with the late Grant Wiggins on backward lesson planning and UbD (Understanding by Design), authors the lead article. In “3 Key Questions on Measuring Learning, “ McTighe poses a provocative question: Are we currently assessing everything that matters, or only those things that are easiest to test and grade? (p. 16).

McTighe partially answers his question, with an implied “No”:

With respect to large-scale, standardized assessments, the answer is fairly obvious. For example, virtually all current standards in English language arts include listening and speaking skills, which are generally acknowledged as the foundations of literacy. Yet those skills are rarely, if ever, assessed on standardized tests (p. 16)

Accompanying this question is a sidebar featuring the results from a 2016 survey of business conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers of what they seek in employees. Skills like teamwork, written and verbal communication skills, and problem-solving skills topped the list.

Clearly, there is a misalignment in standardized testing between what we expect students to know and be able to do and what we currently measure. And, this misalignment troubles and challenges both educators and policymakers who want to get it right.

A possible solution, advocated by many of the articles in this issue, involves the greater use of performance assessments that allow students to apply their learning and explain their thinking. Of course, these types of measurement don’t preclude the use of formative assessments and checks for understanding that effective teachers use regularly in their classrooms.

To augment effective measures of student progress, McTighe suggests teachers can create their own measurements using what he calls a “photo album approach.” Using this scenario, students create an assessment portfolio by selecting, self-assessing and reflecting on their own work samples. McTighe also includes a helpful sidebar on Assessment Practices That Enhance Learning.

Using a Goal Attainment Strategy (unlocked)

Lee Ann Yung suggests an alternative to “fixed methods of assessment” through the use of “goal attainment scaling.” She explains what sounds like a complicated process in easy-to-understand terms.

Goal attainment scaling offers educators a way to communicate clearly both what is expected and at what level a student is performing on any learning or behavior goal. For example, if a student and her teachers wanted to see an increase in reading comprehension skills, they would outline specifically how the student’s comprehension looks now, how they want it to look at the end of the year, and then clearly define the steps in between (p. 24)

That sounds a lot like beginning with a learning target, providing success criteria, and helping the student become a leader of his or her own learning. The added bonus of this process is that it strengthens students’ ability to assess and lead their own learning. And, it can be a very useful tool for students with an IEP.

Developing Assessment-Capable Learners (locked)

John Hattie teams up with Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey in this article, which relies on Hattie’s Visible Learning research on determining the effectiveness of various student learning strategies. This article reminds readers that the most useful form of measuring progress is conducted by classroom teachers who, not only provide timely feedback to their students, but also use that feedback to adjust their instruction.

To develop assessment-capable students, educators “need to reduce the emphasis on telling them what they need to know, and in turn increase the time students have to reflect on their progress and engage with peers and their teachers on how to learn—not just what to learn” (p. 48).

The Moral Imperative: Deciding What Matters Most (unlocked)

And, the last word comes from Carol Ann Tomlinson’s column. She suggests that before we begin to discuss what to measure, we need to first decide what matters most in learning.

Tomlinson paints a beautiful tapestry of her vision of what matters most that ranges from students “engaged deeply with ideas” to students listening “to understand and to learn” and to “practice caring, empathy, kindness and generosity” (p. 90).

She continues, “I think it’s important for learners to see knowledge as the story of all the people who came before them and to find knowledge in their own story. I hope they would come to see themselves as innovators, problem solvers, and people who can contribute to untying the Gordian Knots that surround them.”

Keeping Abreast Strategically

Education Leadership is one of the best tools I know of to inform, challenge, and inspire me. And, this issue did not disappoint. If you’re not an ASCD member, this might be a good time to invest in your own growth by joining. And, maybe you’ll become as excited as I am when EL and other informative publications (ASCD Express, ASCD Update) appear each month.