This article can be read in full at Living in Dialogue.


This week a colleague at Teacher Leaders Network raised a provocative pair of questions.

1. In an era where numbers are currency, what alternative set of metrics and numbers (beyond assessment) can we suggest that reformers and policymakers consider when weighing teacher/school effectiveness? (ie: parent/student satisfaction surveys, levels of funding, graduation rate, rate of enrollment in AP classes, rate of employment or enrollment in college after graduation)

2. Given the limits of numerical accountability, what alternatives can we offer to reformers that are open to considering results that cannot be accounted for by a number? What are the softer variables that cannot be easily measured? (ie: student engagement, attitudes towards school, divergent thinking)

I have heard different forms of this conversation several times over the past few weeks. On the one side we have people, largely from the world of business, who have developed what seems to them a perfect way to improve our work. This method amounts to a four step cycle. First, set some measurable goals for ourselves. Then do our best to meet our goals. Then review our outcomes and see where we fell short and where we succeeded. Use this data to guide a revision to our methods so that our outcomes will improve.

This logic, coupled with the accountability mechanisms built into No Child Left Behind, have amounted to an almost irresistible set of pressures on teachers to become “data driven.” Some have succumbed, but many of us still resist, clinging to quaint ideals about the value of the whole child, the need for critical thinking and curiosity, and other things which are difficult to measure on standardized tests. But then we face a challenge, which my colleague has captured in these two questions.

What could possibly be wrong with the improvement model offered above? Lots of things. First of all, the data most readily available for measuring outcomes is usually standardized test scores. This leads us into the test preparation sinkhole most of our high needs schools find themselves, where instruction is continually narrowed to focus on improving those scores – to the detriment of many other learning goals that we value.

So then we get to the next question, which my colleague posed above. If we do not accept the test scores as an adequate marker of our effectiveness, what do we wish to offer in their place, since we must be accountable for student learning in some concrete and measurable way?

I believe that any answer to this must encompass the complexity of learning, and of our goals as educators.

The way I get my mind around this is to think about the ways that I have seen teachers take responsibility for student learning in meaningful ways. I cannot discuss this in the abstract. So here are some real models of authentic assessment.

To read further, go to Anthony Cody’s regular column, Living in Dialogue.