Measuring success in education
Guest Blogger, Dr Deborah Netolicky, Dean of Research and Pedagogy
Measurement is everywhere in life and in education. It offers a way of determining to what extent we are improving, succeeding, or having our intended impact. At Wesley College we are constantly assessing the progress of ourselves and our students. We use a combination of external and internal measures to reflect upon our students’ needs, progress, and achievement.
For student learning, external measures include high stakes external testing such as WACE and NAPLAN. While those like Margaret Wu (2016) have critiqued the accuracy and reliability of NAPLAN data in measuring student achievement, these measures can be useful in tracking the growth of students and informing teaching and learning. Teams of teachers across Wesley College utilise WACE and NAPLAN data to drill down into what they tell us about our learners and to inform how we approach our teaching. Our approach to student learning is constantly refined based on rigorous reflections on external data.
In addition, we use testing internally to generate a deeper understanding of our learners. As part of our implementation of Richard Du Four’s three tiered ‘Response to Intervention’ model from Pre-Kindergarten to Year 5, we use tests including the On-Entry Assessment Program, Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT) in Reading and Maths, the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) Assessment, and the South Australian Spelling Test. We additionally use Academic Assessment Services testing in Years 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8. Other tools include those that deliver measurement and also targeted instructional support for students, such as PM Benchmark, Reading Plus, and Mathletics. These allow teachers and school leaders to conduct thorough analyses of data to inform our practices and help us to have rich, data-driven conversations with students and parents.
Of course our students at Wesley have tests, but we understand that one test score is an indicator primarily of a students’ ability to take that test (Zhao, 2016b); it provides one mark reflecting one type of assessment at one moment in time. We focus much of our attention on what we know has a positive impact on student achievement: effective feedback and formative assessment. We focus on helping students to improve during the instructional process before a summative test, as well as afterwards. Additionally, we engage students in self-reflection and target-setting so that they can be drivers of their own growth. Measurement is not an end in itself but part of a cyclical process of learning.
Measurement in schools can help us gauge how our students or children are being educated, but it can also become a force that eclipses the greater purpose of education. International scholars Pasi Sahlberg (2015) and Gert Biesta (2015) both warn about the negative impacts that a competitive culture of measurement can have on students, schools, and the field of education. Not only, as Stewart Riddle recently pointed out, are school rankings and league tables misleading, but there is much they cannot reveal, including schools’ levels of engagement, respect, relationships, and individual student pathways available.
More alarming, as Warwick Mansell recently wrote in the Times Education Supplement, the immense pressure of external and high stakes measurement in education can lead to schools ‘gaming the system’ for their own benefit, rather than for the benefit of their students. Being driven by testing can lead to teaching to the test at the expense of student learning; focusing on very small parts of the knowledge and skills that students master; assuming that learning is linear and predictable; and a focus on numbers rather than on the causes and complexities of learning (Van der Wateren and Amrein-Beardsley, 2016). A hyper-focus on measurement and academic achievement needs to be tempered with core values, purpose, and a focus on growth rather than performance.
At Wesley College, while we value academic achievement, we work with each child in order to find a pathway best suited to them. As the Deputy Head, Nathan Jessup, explained in a recent newsletter message, excellence is multi-dimensional. We value each individual, their gifts, their aspirations, and their personal trajectories to success. Our mission dares us to think outside the box of a competitive culture of external testing and to carefully consider how we balance helping students to strive for personal best and pursue excellence, with being caring, connected, and self-actualising people.
One way that we demonstrate our commitment to helping students become strong thinkers, purposeful doers, positive connectors, and powerful self-activators is through our evolving Learning Habits. These cross-disciplinary skillsets and transferable mindsets, emerging clearly from our strategic impacts, broaden our understanding of learning. They draw our attention towards those skills and dispositions that will best serve students in their future, across multiple contexts. They provide parents, teachers, and mentors with a lens and common language for holistic success.
As education scholar Yong Zhao (2016a) points out, “what is assessed often becomes what is prioritised … It is, therefore, critical to ensure that we assess what matters” (p.169). That is, what we choose to measure is an indication of what we deem to be important. Any system or school needs to be clear about what matters to them, and allow their underlying principles and values to guide what it is that they measure. As Zhao contends, what is now valuable in education has drastically expanded from what has traditionally been measured. Schools and systems must consider how to measure what really counts in our current world, and in the world into which our students will enter once they leave school.
At Wesley College we are clear about our mandate to create good, capable humans who have been supported and challenged in their academic, extra-curricular, and sporting endeavours. A focus on meaningful feedback to students and developing students’ learning habits helps us to remain committed to our College vision: to be an innovative learning community in which students are empowered to lead purposeful lives.
Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education Research, Development and Policy, 50(1), pp 75-87.
Mansell, W. (2017). The real hero headteachers are those who manage to look beyond league tables. Times Education Supplement.
Riddle. S. (2017). Parents shouldn’t rely on My School data when choosing a school for their child. The Conversation.
Sahlberg, P. (2015). Finnish lessons 2.0. New York, NY. Teachers College.
Van de Wateren, D., and Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2016) Measuring what doesn’t matter. In Evers & Kneyber (Eds.), Flip the system: Changing education from the ground up (pp. 25-38). Abingdon, OX: Routledge.
Wu, M. (2016). What national testing data can tell us. In B. Lingard, G. Thompson, and S. Sellar (Eds.) National testing in schools: An Australian assessment (pp. 18-29). Abingdon, OX: Routledge.
Zhao, Y. (2016a). Shifting the paradigm: Assessing what matters. In Y. Zhao (Ed.), Counting what counts: Reframing education outcomes (pp. 169-178). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Zhao, Y. (2016b). Stop copying others: TIMSS lessons for America