How should we measure success in schools?

When I arrived at my current school as principal, one of the first ideas we implemented was a schoolwide writing assessment. At that time, writing was taught once a week as part of a life skill block. My thinking was, if we assess it more formally, then student writing will improve because teachers will see it as a priority and start to teach it more frequently.

And at first, the approach seemed to work. Shortly after announcing the schoolwide writing assessment, one teacher came up to me and asked, “So writing is a focus for the building now?” I was noncommittal in my response but I did not exactly correct her thinking.

The heightened sense of writing as a priority eventually gave way to reality. Specifically, while writing instruction was happening more frequently in classrooms due in part to dedicated professional development, the actual assessment results did not reveal a lot of helpful information. Our leadership spent a whole day in the fall and in the spring calibrating the rubric with samples, assessing writing pieces with partners, and then adding students’ scores to the spreadsheet. For all of this work, we couldn’t make heads or tails if students were collectively growing as writers.

This experience has led me to ask some hard questions. Why is it so hard to measure student success in complex tasks such as writing? Related, why are we as teachers often the only ones who should be making a determination of success? If students should be a part of the assessment process, can the task itself be used for more than just measurement, such as motivating students to learn? 

Defining Success

The dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose”. So knowing what the aim is along with the purpose for our work seems important for students and teachers. Mindless assessment practices should be called into question, but not without a clear understanding of success in the broader sense of the word.

In their article “What Do We Measure and Why? Questions About the Uses of Measurement“, Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers address the general culture of organizations and our infatuation with numbers. They note a disconnect between what is being measured and what the goals are of the group, along with how people move the organization toward these goals. 

“The desire to be good managers has compelled many people to become earnest students of management. But are measures and numbers the right pursuit? Do the right measures make for better managers? Do they make for a stellar organization?”

For our challenge, it felt (to me at least) that we were scoring our students’ writing in order to have a valid and reliable way of measuring their abilities. The result was a collective effort that was misaligned with greater goals.

  • There was misalignment between who was scoring the writing and who wrote it. For me, there was little context as I read and responded to each piece. For example, were they excited about the topic? If not, why not? Could the kids also present their work for an authentic audience? I wanted to pull each student aside to ask him or her more questions about their process that led them to what they produced.
  • There was misalignment between what was being taught and what was being assessed. Just because we had a common rubric did not mean the success criteria were clear for everyone in the school. Part of this issue is with rubrics themselves; they are lengthy and often too generic to use as a teaching tool. 
  • There was misalignment between our school’s mission and vision and how we were trying to realize these big goals.We were using simple instruments to give us information about complex work. Yes, kids had to respond to a task that had the potential to encourage students to write. But writing is more than words on paper. There is research involved, peer feedback and revision, and time to simply think, activities not a part of a writing assessment. 

Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers have also observed cognitive dissonance between the necessary actions people should take to realize an organization’s vision and how leaders choose to evaluate success due to a group’s actions.

“We believe that these behaviors are never produced by measurement. They are performance capabilities that emerge as people feel connected to their work and to each other. They are capacities that emerge as colleagues develop a shared sense of what they hope to create together, and as they operate in an environment where everyone feels welcome to contribute to that shared hope. Each of these qualities and behaviors-commitment, focus, teamwork, learning, quality–is a choice that people make. Depending on how connected they feel to the organization or team, they choose to pay attention, to take responsibility, to innovate, to learn and share their learnings. People can’t be punished or paid into these behaviors. Either they are contributed or withheld by individuals as they choose whether and how they will work with us.”

Described in this way, assessment is framed as an essential part of the learning journey toward success. The qualities of a community of learners should be embedded in the mission and vision of a school. Pulling these qualities out so they are understandable by all requires a description of success along with more authentic approaches for developing assessments that allow students to make their learning and thinking visible to all.

Engaging in this work is not necessarily more difficult. As Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers note about organizations that make assessment work for them, “their process was creative, experimental, and the measures they developed were often non-traditional.” It may instead require a shift in how we view success for all students, especially from their points of view. Maybe the word “measure” is itself too basic a label for what we are trying to really do: help students see themselves as genuinely successful and know how they arrived at this point.