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Why Measure Student Learning?


Bill Farmer
Each day, as students enter my biology classroom, someone will inevitably ask the question, "What are we doing today?" My response always attempts to shift their frame of thought from the instructional exercises that they will be engaging in on that particular day to the objectives that I hope they will be learning by the end of the class period. While tracking student learning has long been an integral component of our professional practice as teachers, it has recently received heightened national attention within the educational policy arena. For politicians and policy makers, learning has been rebranded as student growth.


The discussion of student growth by mainstream media outlets tends to give the impression that this area needs greater emphasis in our public education system. States across the country, fueled by Race to the Top money, have been initiating a strong push towards the systematization of assessment tools for the purpose of efficiently measuring student growth and linking it to teacher accountability through their evaluation.

From the perspective of those of us who reside within the classroom, the purpose envisioned by legislators for measuring student learning seems slightly misguided. As teachers, we monitor learning by applying various diagnostic tools to inform and guide our instruction. Our end goal is developing an understanding of the individualized needs of our students to enable us to make professional judgments that will further their learning.

Measuring learning is an immensely complex objective that likely cannot be accomplished by a single state test or even a well-designed series of traditional standardized assessments. Learning is multifaceted in its composition and is very personalized. Therefore it is extremely difficult to develop a one-size-fits-all approach to measure it.

Learning often also varies by discipline. Science education, for example, is in the midst of a transformation to adjust to the 21st century digital learner. Immediate access to the library of science knowledge enabled by technology has eliminated the need for a curriculum largely centered on the memorization of facts. Instead courses are now focusing on a student's ability to utilize their knowledge to practice science and think critically about scientific issues.

In my biology classroom, multiple and frequent forms of assessment are required to get a comprehensive idea of the learning that is occurring. Essentially every interaction I have with a student can provide informal or formal data that provides valuable information. Several instructional strategies have proven to be particularly useful. Each unit begins with critical thinking questions requiring students to access and apply prior knowledge. Their responses on these pre-assessments provide me with a baseline of their initial understanding. Various informal dip-stick assessments, such as remote clicker responders and opener questions, are utilized to gauge student growth, identify misconceptions, and plan future instruction.

In addition, performance based assessments or inquiry lab reports are effective at providing an in-depth analysis of student learning. By using a consistent detailed rubric for these types of assessments, I am able to provide valuable feedback to the student. I am also able to monitor how their performance on these rubrics improves over time which provides clear evidence of the complex learning that is taking place.

Bill Farmer has been teaching biology and chemistry for nine years at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, IL.

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