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Measuring What Matters in Student Learning

Justin Minkel

The best advice a king has ever given me came from King Charles II in the film "The Libertine": "Anyone can oppose. It's fun to be against things. But there comes a time when you have to start being for things as well."

In the decade-old revolt against the harm inherent in No Child Left Behind, our profession has stated clearly what we're against: multiple choice tests that measure what matters least. But what are we for?

Atlanta teacher Darnell Fine stated it eloquently in his first post in this forum: "Assessments must allow students to apply their knowledge to real-world contexts, to not only identify the "what" but to analyze the "why," to evaluate the biases in the information they are receiving, and to construct new ways of seeing the world."

Most of us believe there is a place for external accountability. There is value in knowing how well teachers, schools, districts, and states are serving their students. The problem is that we're measuring the wrong things.

Harvard education scholar Tony Wagner was quoted in a recent op-ed piece by Thomas Friedman on what we should be measuring instead: "Because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate—the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life—and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge."

Can we measure these things that matter? I think we can. It's harder to measure critical thinking and innovation than it is to measure basic skills. Harder but not impossible.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has found a way to get at those elusive abilities that matter most for effective teaching—complex skills like building rapport with students, creating a rich learning environment, and differentiating instruction to meet students' needs. The National Board measures these abilities through rubrics, used to assess videos of instruction and samples of student work. These complex snapshots of teaching take a long time to grade, and sometimes even highly trained assessors might disagree over whether an entry should receive a score of 2.5 or 2.75. But when you look at enough authentic data, an accurate picture of an educator's teaching does emerge.

I would rather see an approximate measure of student skills that truly matter—critical thinking, problem-solving, innovation—than a precise measure of pick-the-right-bubble skills you could teach a monkey to do.

There are models for this, including Finland's educational system. And ss Kristoffer Kohl of the Center for Teaching Quality writes, Finland finds innovative ideas in a place you might not expect: pockets of excellence right here in America. Finnish education leaders and policymakers just spend more time thinking through implementation than we do, then take the best ideas to scale.

Tony Wagner said of the Finnish system, "Finland is the only country where students leave high school 'innovation-ready.' They learn concepts and creativity more than facts, and have a choice of many electives—all with a shorter school day, little homework, and almost no testing."

For starters, we need to make sure that tests students take meets three basic criteria:

1. They must measure individual student growth.

2. Questions must be differentiated, so the test captures what students below and above grade-level know and still need to learn.

3. The tests must measures what matters: critical thinking, ingenuity, collaboration, and real-world problem-solving.

Winston Churchill supposedly said, "The Americans will always do the right thing...once they have exhausted all other options." We have spent the last decade getting accountability wrong. Let's spend the next decade getting it right.

Justin Minkel, the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, teaches 2nd and 3rd grade at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark. He is currently writing a book on Common Core-aligned instruction at the elementary level.

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