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Lesson 9.1

Measures of Success:
For Kids and For Schools

Report cards aren’t enough, because…

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When your child heads off to his first day of kindergarten, as a parent you wonder how his educational journey will turn out. Will he love school or hate it? Will he fit in with his classmates? Will he be “at the top of the class” with straight A’s, distinguish himself through other activities… or get lost in the shuffle? Will he graduate with a transcript Stanford would love? Or will he chafe at “book-learning” and instead show a genius for mechanics? What paths will be open to him when high school is over?

How we tell if our kids are succeeding

As children progress through school, parents look for meaningful and accurate ways to measure their success. Report cards matter a great deal. Most parents use the grades a teacher gives as a primary yardstick of how well their children are doing.

Most parents use report cards as a primary yardstick of how well their children are doing. But most parents also know that it’s not really that simple.

But most parents also know that it’s not really that simple. A report card leaves many questions unanswered. After all, an individual teacher may be a particularly easy or hard grader, and the grade is usually based on a lot of factors besides academic performance. That “A” in 7th grade math may indicate that every homework assignment was turned in but not whether Junior should take algebra next year. A report card cannot tell you how well your child is doing compared to the state’s expectations, to students elsewhere, or even in relation to his own aspirations.

Standardized tests provide objective feedback that parents should not ignore. If a student does poorly on an individual test, there can be many explanations. But few students make it to college with a pattern of low test scores.

Those kinds of doubts - combined with plenty of evidence that expectations differ wildly from one classroom and school to another - have concerned policymakers. As keepers of the public trust, they have tried to set clear, measurable expectations for what students should learn.

How we tell if schools are working as they should

As explained in Lesson 6.1, the standards movement came out of those concerns. To a large degree both state and federal school accountability systems have been all about connecting the dots between student learning and school performance.

It all starts with a not-so-simple question. How can we tell if students are learning and use that information to make sure our schools are working well? Answering that question involves several steps.

Step one: agree on some important things we want every student to know and be able to do. (That includes the standards, but it can also include benchmarks like high school graduation.) Then find a consistent, reliable method for measuring each student’s progress - usually with tests. A caveat here is that some of the most important aspects of student learning - critical thinking for example - are really hard to measure and often get left out. (See Lesson 9.2.)

Step two: combine data for individual students and you can get an indicator of “student performance” for a school or district. We now should have a “score” for each school (and by combining schools, a score for each district).

Step three: analyze the results to determine how well our schools are doing at helping students learn. Here’s where things get complicated. Let’s start by thinking about some of the questions we need and want to answer:

  • Which schools are performing well and not so well? How can we make meaningful comparisons among California’s more than 10,000 public schools?
  • Are there challenges or advantages at a school that “explain” some of its performance? (For example, a school with a high proportion of English learners could be expected to have lower aggregate test scores. A school in a community with highly-educated parents, on the other hand, might score well regardless of its teachers’ effectiveness.)
  • How is a school’s performance changing over time? If a low-performing school gets a somewhat higher score, is that improvement enough to consider it successful? If a high-performing school maintains its performance, is that good enough?

This chapter explores measures of individual success that matter to students, parents and educators. It also relates those measures to the methods that school officials and policymakers use to decide if our public education system as a whole is working the way we collectively think it should. After all, systemic "success" is meaningless unless it based on individual successes.

Of course, it’s all complicated by the extent to which we as Californians define success differently - which we invariably do!


If you want to know whether your child is academically "on-track" toward college, generally speaking, which ONE of the following resources is most likely to give you an accurate indicator?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp January 9, 2017 at 1:53 pm
Data systems for education try to provide transparency, but ALL data need to be handled with inquisitiveness. Sometimes even good news can masquerade as bad news. Here's a good example:
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 30, 2016 at 11:23 pm
Measuring success in a complex endeavor like education is not easy. Donald Campbell, an American social psychologist, studied the ways that systems respond to measurement. Campbell is particularly noted for his insights about unintended responses, such as cheating or hyperfocus on narrow definitions of success. (The tendency for evaluation to influence unintended consequences is sometimes called "Campbell's Law.) Campbell was not an opponent of measurement, but an advocate for good program design. For example, he advocated for the use of multiple measures of success and for varying the evaluation methodology.
user avatar
sherryeschnell May 10, 2016 at 8:39 pm
I would like to know how many students graduate from my neighborhood school with A's and B's, get accepted into a good college and then have to take remedial classes. That would be a good indicator of a quality or non-quality neighborhood school.
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