Improving Student Achievement by Measuring Ability, Not Content

With students spending more classroom time preparing for and participating in high-stakes tests, no one knows more about the increasing demand for student assessment than today’s teachers. Federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind ties funding directly to student assessment, while similar demands are being made on schools at the state and local levels. Parents are becoming increasingly savvy about student assessment, but often the percentile or other number for their child which school leaders share with them is just that - a number. There is no connection to future learning or ways to improve a student’s abilities.

Although significant federal funds are tied to student assessment, public education in this country is the responsibility of individual states. Subsequently, it seems as if we have as many approaches to measuring student ability and achievement as we have states. Some states such as Texas and North Carolina have developed their own assessments, while others such as Florida and California use commercially available assessments. There are still other states that have worked with commercial assessment companies to develop their own customized tests.

We now live in an increasingly mobile society in which today’s families move from state to state - often for economic reasons. Therefore, when a student crosses state lines and enrolls at a new school, he or she will likely face a new measure of ability and achievement.

In fact, a 1998 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, titled “Status of Education Reform in Public Elementary and Second Schools: Principals’ Perspectives,” cited high student mobility as one of the top obstacles in applying high standards to all students. Other barriers included teaching students who are at different levels, and relying on assessments that do not measure what students can do. We can begin to address many of these issues with the development and adoption of unified measures of student ability.

Measuring a student’s reading ability can be compared to measuring other constructs such as time and weight. Like the unification of time, the unification of measures of student ability is driven by the recognition that the underlying “scales” are important, not the variety of instruments. Societal changes, and the ways that measures of student abilities are used, force this need for unification.

A consistent scale for measurement of student ability allows school administrators to build longitudinal growth profiles for individual students. Assessment of student ability and achievement is an important part of our education system. When done well, it provides a critical tool for monitoring and encouraging individual student progress. By developing and adopting common scales for measuring core student abilities such as reading and math, we can use assessments in a meaningful way that will help students of all abilities learn and achieve in schools throughout the country.

SIDEBAR: Developing a Standardized Measure for Reading Ability

When thinking about the difference a standardized measure for reading ability means for a student, consider the following scenario:

Katherine starts school in an eastern state where her scores on state assessment tests meet or exceed the standards for her grade level. Then in the sixth grade, Katherine moves to another state across the country where she takes a different assessment test and measures in a lower percentile than she did in the fourth grade. Is this because of the trauma of moving? Or is it because topics that were part of the eastern state’s curriculum in sixth grade are part of her new state’s curriculum in fourth grade, so Katherine is being measured on content that she has not yet learned?

With a standard measure for reading ability, Katherine can move from state to state, taking whatever assessment test is mapped to the state’s curriculum, and still receive a standard measure for her reading ability that can be mapped to the materials she uses in school and at home. She may not have learned all of the content that the state curriculum requires at a specific grade level, but her teachers and parents will know her reading ability is continuing to increase, or, if it has decreased, know that it has been measured by a common scale based on her ability and not on content.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.