27 March 2014

A Well-Measured Diet

One of the things I like about the ASCD annual conference is that it's a smorgasbord of topics. I've had a varied career---taught science, worked in an elementary, was a district curriculum specialist, done state assessment work, and so on. I like that I can catch up on these elements and reflect on how the pieces fit together.

The last session I attended at this year's conference was called "Measuring What Matters" and was presented by Giselle Martin-Kniep of Learner-Centered Initiatives. The premise for the session was that when we consider what we want most for our students, teachers, and administrators, those outcomes are either left unmeasured by the system or are present but distorted. Therefore, we should make systemic changes to our evaluations so that we align our practices with our values. In particular we should focus on performace-based measures.

This was a 30,000 foot level discussion. I don't think anyone disagreed with the premise. It speaks to the kind of system we'd all like to see. The 30 foot view...even the 3 foot view...are much different and we didn't get to that part. So, if you can set aside the "This would never work because..." side of your brain for a moment, read on.

Martin-Kniep's first point was that we are working in a system "where reliability trumps validity." In other words, we value information that confirms the same thing over and over as opposed to whether or not the information is true. Call it what you like---confirmation bias, echo chamber---we like to surround ourselves with the familiar. Somehow, we need to find ways to reach out of our comfort zone.

Maybe that's like going to a new-to-you restaurant with types of food. Martin-Kniep stated that "Our measurement diet is extremely poor." She expanded the analogy to advocate for performance assessments that are nutrient (data) rich. I really liked this idea. A well-balanced diet has different components---we can't, or shouldn't, subsist on junk food alone. You can be vegetarian, but you have to find different ways to include protein. A well-measured evaluation system must also be diverse and rich with opportunity to gain the data we want.

Finally, Martin-Kniep advocated for us to remember that it is "important to look at student work not just for learning gaps, but also whether it is respectful of what we value." Whether or not you are able to translate the ideals presented during this session into action in your school, this last point is a commitment we can make. I won't claim that it is easy, but taking a moment to reflect on the tasks we provide students and the tools we use to evaluate teachers and principals is important. Do they measure what they should? (Are they valid?) Do they measure what we want them to? (Are they aligned?) Do they measure what we value (e.g. creative thinking, citizenship, problem-solving, collaboration)?

It's "testing season" in most places. Schools are focused on state tests---or even giving the new national tests a try. Martin-Kniep's session was a good reminder for me of the importance of making sure that we continue to push for multiple ways for students to show what they know...to keep pushing for the well-measured diet of assessment strategies.

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