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. 

Time to Think

matthew-henry-130381-unsplash.jpg
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

My wife and I are still at the stage in our lives where, if one of our kids is sick, one of us is staying home. Today was my turn. I planned to be back at school tomorrow, assuming my son only had a virus and not strep throat.

There always seems to be a twinge of guilt educators feel in these circumstances. It’s not like the work goes away. The students show up regardless of our situation. Will the guest teacher deliver the lessons like we prefer? or Who will step in if a student is struggling behaviorally? are typical questions that arise.

Once we get over this guilt, I start to see these occasions not as time off but more as time away. A change when time allows to reflect on my experiences and to let the mind wander a bit. Maybe an opportunity to read and learn from others online. More so, being at home or away from school gives me the mental space to look at my practice from a distance and be a little more objective about it (in between medical visits and meeting my child’s needs, of course).

When I come back to school after a short break, I often feel a sense of renewal. Sure, there are the tasks left on my desk or in my email that only I could take care of. But the larger projects are ongoing, progressing day-by-day in the classrooms.

Margaret Wheatley, writer and leadership consultant, offers answers to why our perspective and appreciation for our work improves after time away. In a 2001 article titled “Can We Reclaim Time to Think?“, she describes the current professional situation as it is today for many leaders.

In this turbo speed culture, we’ve begun to equate productivity with speed. If it can be done faster, we assume it’s more productive.

This calls to mind current discussions about assessments we might decide to administer for literacy. Conversations are often focused on attributes such as “time”, “reliability”, and “proficiency”. These attributes translate to alternative terms: speed, consistency, and being right. Now when you read these terms, does this call to mind engaging and effective literacy instruction?

Not for me. As I read Wheatley’s article today, I recalled a few memorable reading and writing experiences from my K-12 educational career.

  • Our elementary school librarian reading aloud George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl, and the anticipation that built as George dumped one toxic ingredient after another into a mixture that would eventually be administered to his abusive grandmother.
  • A high school English teacher engaging us in a shared read aloud of Lord of the Flies by William Golding, rereading a passage of dialogue while explaining how what the main characters were saying revealed their personalities and potential future actions.

What these examples reveal is two teachers’ willingness to take the time to expose their students to authentic literature, not with the intent of scoring well on a test but to become immersed in the story itself. We read and “take up residence” in these stories, as far-fetched as some might be. To be able to empathize with a character and their situation requires the time to think about the story, sometimes after we have read a passage or even the entire book.

Wheatley offers a rationale for building in these opportunities to think about our experiences, fictional and real.

Thinking is the place where intelligent actions begin. We pause long enough to look more carefully at a situation, to see more of its character, to think about why it’s happening, to notice how it’s affecting us and others.

Reading what Wheatley shares, how does this philosophy comport with the current world of teaching and learning? For many of us: poorly. We are driven to meet standards and make sure students are “college and career” ready. Time spent thinking and reflecting does not involve any type of visible action, and therefore leads people to assume that learning is not happening. Our respective missions and visions describe the ideal, and yet our practices more likely than not represent our reality.

Too often, the largest obstacles in our way are the professionals we consider colleagues. The more traditional mindset tries to pull down our ambitions of academic innovation and student independence. Moving toward more promising practices calls attention not only to our growth but also to the lagging skills in which our more satisfied colleagues might be so desperate to hide.

Again, Wheatley recognizes the challenge of carving out time for ourselves to reflect and renew in a larger educational culture that has a default of busy.

Don’t expect anybody to give you this time. You will have to claim it for yourself. No one will give it to you because thinking is always dangerous to the status quo. Those benefiting from the present system have no interest in your new ideas. In fact, your thinking is a threat to them. The moment you start thinking, you’ll want to change something.


My son’s strep test came back: negative. “Do I have to go back to school?” The physician smiled, silently deferring to me. My first thought was: Is he trying to avoid school? And then I paused and asked myself, Is he looking for time to think? Maybe, maybe not. But I can empathize with him, trying to navigate his own educational world that rarely offers the opportunity to step back and appreciate our experiences.