Glass Half Full: How can we assess student growth? |

Glass Half Full: How can we assess student growth?

Every June, as the school year draws to a close, teachers across the country are asked to assess the growth of their students. What tools best to use? Test scores? Observation? Day-to-day production and class participation?

The challenge of measuring and defining what constitutes appropriate development is – and always will be – a huge challenge, containing with it numerous bits of conundrum.

Measuring the growth of children in academic/social/emotional areas is so much more difficult than simply standing them against the wall with a book on their heads, drawing a line, and comparing to last year’s mark.

We tend to take comfort in quantifiable measurements, appropriately or not. If I grew faster than my sister, did that make me better than she?

If I stopped growing, and she continued, was the reverse true? How much of our individual growth, not to mention our limitations, was a function of genes? Nutrition? Our unique DNA?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, the same way that teachers can’t always determine precisely why one student seems to absorb lessons at a high rate, while another moves more slowly.

Add to the confusion that, sometimes, the former ends of retaining less than the latter. How do we quantify that kind of progress?

As an educator, I embrace a wide range of assessment tools and techniques. I use standardized testing to help determine the general strengths of a class, of each individual relative to others in that class, and as a lens through which to examine our curriculum.

Testing can provide helpful and appropriate insight in those respects. I am quite sure that standardized testing not only does not provide a complete picture, however, but that it frequently doesn’t ask the right questions or provide the right answers.

The problem is, standardized testing provides data. We are a society and culture that values data; sometimes, in my opinion, more than we should.

There are times an excited child describes to me in great detail a book she has just read, and the depth of her understanding boggles my mind.

Were I to look at her test scores, I might well be surprised to discover that they weren’t very impressive. I prefer what I experience in interacting with children over what some electronic processing system decides it knows about them.

I put a great deal more faith in what I learn from watching children interact on the playground or in a classroom than I do from the lines they complete in a workbook.

Ultimately, in assessing both the progress of our children and the effectiveness of our teaching, our questions should be, “What are the most meaningful things our students have learned this year?

What are the real-world experiences we have provided that have helped prepare our youngsters for the next stage in their lives? How has their confidence grown under our tutelage?”

Let’s not just line them up against the wall and mark their heights.

Ruth Glass is headmaster at Lake Tahoe School. She can be reached for comment through her blog at

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