Stop Talking About Student Achievement

Mar 3, 2019 by

Peter Greene – If I told you that my student had achieved great things in school this year, what would you imagine I meant?

Maybe she started reading longer books with heavier vocabulary and deeper themes. Maybe she not only read them, but spent time thinking about the ideas they contained. Maybe she improved her technical facility and musicality when playing her flute. Maybe she conducted an impressively complex and ambitious physics experiment. Maybe she created a beautiful and useful website. Maybe she progressed to more complex problems in algebra. Maybe she completed some impressive in-depth research on a particular historical period. Maybe she passed welding certification tests. Or maybe she packed away some chunks of learning that won’t really come to life for her until years from now.

But we have a problem in current education policy discussions; when we say “student achievement,” we usually don’t mean any of those things.

One of the great central challenges of education in general and teaching in particular is that we cannot read minds. We cannot see inside a student’s head and see what has taken root and what has taken flight.

So part of the gentle art of teaching involves the creation and deployment of performance tasks designed to get us at least a peek inside the student brain to see if they have in fact mastered what we tried to get them to master. It is an ever-evolving challenge, made complex by the many types of students and the many levels of learning, further complicated by the fact that the best assessment is never as accurate as it was the first time you used it (unless you believe that students never talk to each other).

Some pieces of learning are easy to measure (does the student know her times table) and some are much more challenging (does the student have nuanced insights into the psychological aspects of Hamlet).

So to measure student achievement, we depend on various proxies. Once we start doing that, we are in danger or mistaking the proxy, the symbol, for the actual thing. If we’re using high-quality assessments for low-complexity learning, there’s not much danger of inaccuracy in confusing the two; if Pat scored 100% on the times table quiz, it’s probably safe to say that Pat really knows the times tables.


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