Not everything that can be counted counts is a phrase often used in the conversation about standardised tests. Whether originally stated by Dr. Stephen Ross or by Albert Einstein, human beings have long sought “fair” ways to determine which students are high achievers and which student are likely to be successful in university. The logic goes something like this: If we give every student the same test under the same conditions, those who know more will pick more correct answers and earn higher numerical marks.
We can’t quantitatively definitively define “success” by testing unless we reduce it to a number. So we define academic success by numbers on a test or letters on a report card and we define lifetime success based on income or leadership level within organisations.
I was interested to hear from Alan Boyle, an author from OnlineEducation.net, about a recent article on how top universities seek to measure noncognitive skills as predictors of future academic success. The article made me think back to all the applications I didn’t fill out because my SAT scores, used at the time as the most accurate predictor of university success, didn’t hit the magic numbers. I remember feeling cheated that I couldn’t tick the box “Top 10% of graduating class” because my 3.98 GPA made me third in a graduating class of 23 students. Had I chosen to drop Physics, I would have been able to tick the necessary box on the application. I wished for a way to communicate to admissions officers my drive to achieve whatever was required of me – and my willingness to stick with a subject even if it compromised my numerical standing in the rank of graduates.
Standards-Based Continuums Bring Out the Noncognitive Dispositions
My love for curriculum stems from the way curriculum is written. Curriculum scope and sequence documents comprise statements of what students should know and be able to do – information the “me” from High school wished to communicate to universities with highly competitive admission requirements.
The executive team at my current school is leading teachers in an effort to put the Australian Curriculum (AC) standards onto continuums. As students move from Prep to Year 12, common assessments determine student movement through the continuum of results statements for each subject. In history, for example, a student might demonstrate a Year 9 level of historical knowledge and demonstrate a Year 6 level of historical research skills.
The standards-based continuum is transparent. Assuming common assessments are valid and scored reliably, both parents and students know students’ specific strengths and areas for growth in each subject.
My hope is that, through the transparent standards-based marking process, noncognitive areas for growth will emerge. If, as Alan suggests, one can improve important noncognitive skills by taking on challenges, pushing through difficult situations, setting measurable goals, and becoming a decent person, then a transparent set of standards gives students a continuous set of challenging goals through which they navigate.
More specifically, through a transparent, standards-based continuum based on valid, reliable assessments, students
- understand the next level of expectation in each subject
- set measurable, personal goals in each subject each term and follow through with those goals
- demonstrate the grit to push through the cognitive and emotional challenges associated with achievement of subsequent standards
Decreasing the Weight of Standardised Tests
If we can create a valid, reliable way of measuring student outcomes, then standardised tests become one of the ways rather than the way of determining student “success” in school.
Such a continuum does not make students exempt from standardised tests. Australian students encounter the NAPLAN in grades, 3, 5, 7, and 9. While results are not linked to school funding as they are in the American outcomes of NCLB, school NAPLAN results are published and accessed easily by parents.
But if we can report to students, parents, and universities that a particular student under regular life conditions is able to set high academic goals and achieve those goals, families and universities might more accurately predict that the same student would set and achieve future goals.
More Clearly Describing Success
We can label students as successful because they receive a particular number on a particular test on a particular day. Alternately, we can describe what “success” looks like in each subject area and help students celebrate continued growth and eventual mastery. Under which conditions will students learn more?
if students work toward descriptors rather than numbers, the common assessments become a measure of academic achievement and indicate growth of the noncognitive measures such as grit, stamina, and resilience. Learning extends beyond the academic.
So what if we stop counting and start describing? Not everything that can be counted counts. But things we describe and to which you can aspire count.
If you like what you read, please sign up for Expat Educator updates by email. Your address will never be shared with outside parties.