3 Strategies to Know if You’re Measuring What Matters

Contributed By

H. L.

Assistant Principal

3 Strategies to Know if You’re Measuring What Matters

Posted in Pro Tips | December 10, 2020

What Matters? 

Mike Schmoker warned us more than a decade ago that data-driven decision making was a potentially double-edged sword. In the article, Measuring What Matters, Schmoker pointed out that the combination of data-driven decision making and the No Child Left Behind legislation of the early 2000s brought much-needed attention to vulnerable subgroups of students. One potential consequence of the movement was that “in many schools, it has morphed into an unintended obstacle to both effective instruction and an intellectually rich, forward-looking education.” More than a decade later, that may unfortunately still be true. 

So, what matters?  

Schmoker would have said “21st-century teaching and learning” matters and that we took our eye off the ball when we started focusing on numbers more than 21st-century skills. Among educational leadership, this has led to situations where we can still see achievement gains on our state report cards but no real improvement in the things that actually matter to students and society at large.  

Let’s discuss how we should measure what matters and how we can do better for our students. Here are three strategies you can use to that end: 

Test Prep as a Natural Outgrowth, Not the Major Focus 

Schmoker (and many others) raised the alarm about test-prep activities dominating the curriculum, thus increasing achievement scores on state-level metrics but not improving the quality of instruction. So how can you avoid this trap? 

In both formal observations and informal walkthroughs, what do you see taking place in the classroom? Are lesson plans and instruction centered on standards and 21st-century skills, or are they focused on test-taking skills or the state exam attached to the class being observed? In other words, what can you observe that would indicate the instructional practices that are dominant in your building? Are you collecting and storing this information somewhere, like your school’s learning management system (LMS), for future discussion as a PLC? 

Early in my career, I found myself responsible for all of the “regular” sophomore U.S. History classes. I loved it, not only because I love the content at that level but also because I loved prioritizing the content and thinking skills over the test prep that I knew would be a part of how my teaching was ultimately measured. My philosophy was simple: always try to push students to think critically about history and make reasoned arguments, not just memorize a sequence of events. Then, at the end of the unit, take a short amount of time (I don’t recall ever taking an entire class period) to say to the class, “Ok, here is what this content might look like on the state test associated with this course” and then work through a couple of sample problems. I always wanted the test prep to be a secondary component of our work in the course—a natural outgrowth rather than the main focus. 

Change the Way Your School Does Summative Assessment 

You can learn a lot about what your school is measuring by systematically examining the type and quality of summative assessments students are taking. Are you measuring what matters if the vast majority of your students are still taking multiple-choice exams? If your school is still running a traditional final exam week? How do you know that a primarily multiple-choice exam measures mastery of knowledge or tells you that students know, understand, and can do what you want them to do? 

Fortunately, there are ways to combat this. What if, for example, instead of a traditional semester or year-long multiple-choice final exam, your 10th-grade social studies students selected a big picture research question then developed a year-long, in-depth research paper? For example, the New York Performance Standards Consortium has published inspiring 21st century standards that can inform a rubric for such a year-long research paper. A student can still prepare for standardized tests while working all year on their response to the prompt: “On balance, has the United States of America lived up to the principles of its founding documents?”

The right approach would require students to demonstrate mastery of their prior knowledge from the colonial era, link that to the beginning of most high school U.S. History courses (Reconstruction to as-far-as-you-can-get-usually-Vietnam-but-maybe-more!), and take into account current events. Students would then aggressively defend their position with proper evidence. These skills and knowledge go above and beyond the standardized test to 21st-century research and argumentation skills that matter for the success of today’s students. 

And remember, it doesn’t have to be a research paper. Project-based summative assessments—portfolios, unit and course projects, and more—are also effective ways to create meaningful summative experiences that measure what really matters. 

Demand Better Short-Cycle, Common, Formative Assessment 

Don’t just focus all your effort on summative assessment. Because traditional summative assessment can encourage tactics like cramming, ISTE recommended the use of cumulative mini-quizzes and technology to encourage more process-oriented learning. Spread out the lessons and assessment opportunities, then provide frequent, meaningful feedback throughout, and you’ll be amazed at how you can transform the way your teachers and students view assessment. 

I knew a teacher who decided to eliminate almost all summative assessments from his 9th-grade science classes, electing instead to quiz the class more frequently and for no more than five or ten points at a time. Then, when returning each quiz, the teacher used the LMS to provide feedback and opportunities for improvement for individual students. Grades and overall motivation improved dramatically in his classes. 

Your LMS is built for this. Learning management system technology allows you to quickly issue short-cycle formative assessments and collect and house the data for immediate use. You’ll get a much clearer picture of what students have mastered as opposed to summative assessments that encourage them to memorize, cram, and regurgitate on a one-shot exam. 

Knowing What Matters, Matters 

Many high-performing schools may demonstrate consistently high state test scores but stagnate where learning really matters: authentic, meaningful experiences that reflect what students need to know to succeed in the 21st century. Knowing what really matters, matters!  

By spending time in classrooms, looking at the type of formative and summative assessment that is taking place, you reveal what is actually going on and can spur a conversation to change it. We owe it to this generation of learners to stop teaching to the test and start teaching beyond it to the knowledge and skills they really need. 

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