Going for the Gold

Going for Gold - Matt ChapmanMy favorite athlete in this summer’s Olympic Games was Galen Rupp, who won the marathon in the American Olympic trials and went on to become the second American runner in 40 years to earn a medal in that grueling event. I first saw Galen run when he was in high school, and have followed his growth as he moved from leading a state-champion high school cross country team to winning a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics in the 10,000 Meter race. He is an exceptional athlete and also a truly admirable person.

There are many things we can all learn from Galen, including the importance of grit and focus.  And when we consider how Galen assesses his performance and progress, we might think his total focus is on his time at the end of the race. That’s important, of course, but that’s far from the only measure he pays attention to. To win a marathon you have to measure where you are along the way, be aware of and master various points in the race that present obstacles, be sure to sufficiently hydrate as you go, and save enough capacity for that final “sprint” at the end. Further, marathoners must do strength and conditioning exercises, and assess their progress. There is no single measure that tells the whole story of an athlete’s progress, and only a series of coherent measures that interrelate can enable Galen, or any of us, to successfully cross the finish line.

The same is true for students as they proceed on their academic journey. Proficiency by the end of high school is a great goal (although many students can do far more than that), but knowing how a student is doing along the way is essential. And no single measure provides all the evidence needed to understand how to adjust the individual journeys so students achieve their optimal learning paths. Each measure needs to have a purpose that provides evidence for an aspect of the journey, and all of the measures need to work together to tell the whole story in time to change course as needed. Measuring the growth of each student is critical, much as Galen measures his intervals and improvement over time, and it fulfills purposes ranging from setting new goals to measuring progress and projecting future achievement. Meanwhile, knowing which skills a student has mastered enables students, teachers, and parents to focus on gaps and build on achievement. In each case, getting accurate, timely information is essential. Using simple tests that are considered “good enough” cheats students of the evidence they need to focus and excel. Valid tests that serve a specific purpose across the spectrum of student needs are necessary to inform student learning and support their success.

The good news is that every constituency in education supports the use of multiple measures that inform instruction, whether administrators, principals, teachers, students, or parents.  Earlier this year, NWEA released our most recent in a series of studies of national perceptions of K-12 assessment. Conducted with Gallup, our 2016 survey, Make Assessment Work for All Students, not only revealed very strong support for multiple measures that inform instruction, but in what may be a surprising finding given public commentary, a majority of parents and students do not view students as being over-tested.

Clearly, there are instances where students are taking tests that serve no real purpose and waste the student’s time. It’s important to understand that by multiple measures we don’t mean “take more tests.” As we’ve long advocated at NWEA, assessments should have a defined purpose, provide reliable data, and deliver actionable, timely results that support teaching and learning. In more than 40 years of our research, advocacy and educator support, we always start by asking educators to reflect on the principles that underlie a well-designed assessment system, and work from those principles to build and maintain a coherent assessment system.

As a not-for-profit with a mission of partnering to help all kids learn, NWEA also has an obligation to provide the results of our research and experience as a guide to educators generally and our school partners, in particular. To that end we are announcing today the latest guidance from NWEA research – an upcoming webinar and eBook, Multiple Measures Done Right: The 7 Principles of a Coherent Assessment System, designed to provide school and district leaders with the principles and practical tools for designing coherent assessment systems. To improve learning effectively, education stakeholders—especially students and teachers—deserve a coherent system comprised of coordinated and valid measures that provide accurate information for their stated purposes. We believe that without the seven underpinning principles, it’s not possible to create an assessment system that is efficient and valuable to all. Check back here next week for the first in our series of blogs about purpose-driven assessment and how you can set your district up for long-term success.

I don’t know if Galen will be able to move from a bronze medal in 2016 to silver or gold in 2020, but I do know he will push himself to achieve that goal, and I plan to once again watch the results. Meanwhile, I also know that he, like the over 8 million students NWEA serves, will take a full and comprehensive measure of his growth along the way.