Better metrics needed to measure student success


The results from Michigan’s new, more rigorous standardized test were released recently. The results showed low proficiency rates across the board, which led to a renewed debate between those in favor of more rigorous tests and those in favor of less rigorous tests.

Several years ago, I would have been one of those urging the state to stay the course. I have long been an advocate for using more rigorous standardized tests as the prime way to evaluate K-12 schools. No more.

The appeal of standardized tests is they move us away from measuring schools based on inputs (funding per pupil, student to teacher ratios, etc.) to measuring student outcomes. Student outcomes are the right way to measure school performance.

Standardized tests also were believed to be predictive of student success, largely based on the evidence of the predictive value of the SAT and ACT. The evidence now is clear standardized test scores are not a good predictor of the outcome we all claim we want: college and career success.

GPA is far more predictive of college success — see the book “Crossing The Finish Line” — and employers hire for attributes, such as the Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s four Cs (critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity), far more than what is on the test.

To be clear, my reason for deemphasizing standardized tests is not to lower standards. In fact, it is the opposite. I strongly believe the bar for student achievement in Michigan is too low. We need to hold school management accountable for metrics far better aligned with the broader and more rigorous skills that predict college and career success.

Getting the assessments right matters a lot, because not only are we not holding schools accountable for what matters most in college and career success, but by measuring a too narrow set of skills, we are driving out a lot of what matters from most schools. Those skills include:

  • Right brain skills (see the book “A Whole New Mind”)
  • The ability to communicate thinking in writing
  • Arts and music
  • Noncognitive skill development (see the book “How Children Succeed”)
  • The four Cs
  • Extracurriculars  (see the book “Our Kids”)
  • College counseling and matching

Standardized tests also are not the best way to measure teacher effectiveness. Paul Tough, in his must-read new book “Helping Children Succeed” and in an Atlantic article entitled “How Kids Learn Resilience,” writes about research on teacher effectiveness by Northwestern University economist C. Kirabo Jackson.

Tough writes, Jackson “created a proxy measure for students’ noncognitive ability, using just four pieces of existing administrative data: attendance, suspensions, on-time grade progression and overall GPA. Jackson’s new index measured, in a fairly crude way, how engaged students were in school — whether they showed up, whether they misbehaved and how hard they worked in their classes. Jackson found that this simple noncognitive proxy was, remarkably, a better predictor than students’ test scores of whether the students would go on to attend college, a better predictor of adult wages and a better predictor of future arrests.

Jackson found that some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ standardized test scores year after year. These are the teachers, in every teacher evaluation system in the country, who are the most valued and most rewarded. But he also found that there was another distinct cohort of teachers who were reliably able to raise their students’ performance on his noncognitive measure. If you were assigned to the class of a teacher in this cohort, you were more likely to show up to school, more likely to avoid suspension, more likely to move on to the next grade. And your overall GPA went up — not just your grades in that particular teacher’s class, but your grades in your other classes, too.

“Jackson found that these two groups of successful teachers did not necessarily overlap much; in every school, it seemed, there were certain teachers who were especially good at developing cognitive skills in their students and other teachers who excelled at developing noncognitive skills. But the teachers in the second cohort were not being rewarded for their success with their students — indeed, it seemed likely that no one but Jackson even realized that they were successful. And yet, those teachers, according to Jackson’s calculations, were doing more to get their students to college and raise their future wages than were the much-celebrated teachers who boosted students’ test scores.”

If we are serious about college and 40-year career success (not a first job), we had better get right what we are holding schools and educators accountable for. What we need is an assessment system that actually predicts college and career success. If we don’t, we are not serving well our kids or employers.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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