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The Promise and Peril of Turning Student Learning Into a Number

Students can set goals for themselves, and teachers can focus on growth when students celebrate their results.
—Justin Minkel
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I got an email from a former student yesterday that filled me with both joy and doubt.

Ava is an English-learner who lives in poverty, works incredibly hard, and loves school. She’s in 6th grade now, and her family of three sisters has swelled to five sisters with the births of little Magdalena and Yesica.

Ava was part of a home library project I did with my students in 2nd and 3rd grade, and she wrote to congratulate me on receiving a \$100,000 grant this month to take the project to scale with 1,800 students. Here is what she wrote:

Hi, Mr. Minkel,

I wanted to ask you a question and that question is how did you start the home library project? That is a very good project and thanks to that project I am a very good reader. In my MAP test at the end of 5th grade my score was 232 and I went above my goal by 11 points. I still remember that in the beginning of 2nd grade my DRA level was 16 and at the end of 3rd grade I was in DRA 50. You know I re-read The BFG and took the journey with Sophie and The BFG again. Well bye and remember I miss you.

It was reassuring to hear that Ava has thrived well beyond her two years in my class, and that her home library played a part in her success. She is still having imagined adventures, still excelling in school, still working hard, and enjoying the work.

What troubles me is her focus on the numbers. A friend teaching at a middle school in New York recently overheard two 5th graders talking as they left the building.

“Are you a 2 or a 3?”

“I’m a 2. What are you?”

The child didn’t say, “I got a 2 on a rubric for this test prep prompt we did today.” He said, “I’m a 2.” This student’s identity has become fused with a test score.

When students see themselves and their learning as numbers, what have we given them? What have we taken away?

The Promise

Kids can undoubtedly benefit from setting their own measurable goals. If a student’s goal is just “to become a better reader,” it’s hard to know when or if she achieves her goal because it’s so vague.

For kids living in poverty, who often begin kindergarten below grade level, measurable goals matter even more. It’s not enough for my students to make growth. They need to make enough growth to reach and surpass grade-level expectations.

Most of my 1st graders were exhilarated this morning when they reached or surpassed their goal on the computerized math MAP test. Gizelle, whose score increased 17 points from September to December, jumped up and down and kept saying, “Oh, thank you, Mr. Minkel. Thank you!”

Vanessa, who was bummed last week that she only moved up one point on last week’s reading test, was thrilled that this time she grew 22 points. She grinned and said, “It’s because I know math more than reading.”

Going into the test, the kids had an individual goal that was ambitious but attainable. As a result, they were more focused—not only as they took the test, but in the weeks leading up to it.

They could see how much progress they made in just a few months, and they experienced personal proof of the concept of malleable intelligence. This idea lies at the heart of Carol Dweck’s work:

“In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence.”

The kids who didn’t make as much growth realized that to get where they want to be, they may need to work harder for the rest of the year—start paying more attention at the rug during math talks, or reading more often at home.

So what’s the problem? What are the risks of involving children in quantifying their learning?

The Peril

The danger is simple but deep: It’s so easy to confuse the path with the goal.

Ava, reading Roald Dahl's The BFG
—Justin Minkel

Getting a good score on a MAP test or state benchmark exam is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Good grades and test scores may be necessary to go to the college you want, or to pursue a career that will make you happy, but those grades and scores don’t mean anything in and of themselves.

At a time when adults often forget that simple truth, the distinction can become murky for kids, too. When many legislators and superintendents have lost sight of the true purpose of education, what chance do kindergartners have?

So I worry about Ava. Does she understand that those developmental reading assessment scores and MAP results don’t define her as a student? Does she understand that they are a means to the life she wants to live, not the end goal of education in themselves?

Dodging the Danger

Given the benefits and costs of involving students in quantifying their learning, what guiding principles do we need to follow as teachers? These three have been critical for the kids I teach:

1. Measure growth.

Students who live in poverty and speak limited English are just as smart and capable as more affluent students who grow up speaking English, but they have a steeper road to proficiency. Many kids in our school don’t reach grade-level in reading, writing, or math in a single year. But almost every student we teach gets there by 5th grade.

Focusing only on the cutoff score for grade-level achievement is going to mark too little growth for our advanced kids—a group that includes many high-poverty children who excel early despite the barriers in their lives. At the same time, that middle line marks an unrealistic increase for students who begin kindergarten desperately far below grade-level.

Early this month, we set individual and class goals based on growth. Students marked their September score on a number line, along with their goal for December, and we focused on growth when we celebrated the results.

Many of the kids who made the most growth are still below grade-level. But they’re on a trajectory to catch up by the end of this year or in 2nd grade, and they feel the same confidence and pride in their achievements as the kids already designated “proficient” or “advanced.”

2. Use multiple assessments.

Kids need to know that an act as complex as reading, writing, or mathematical reasoning can’t be captured by a single number. In reading, my 1st graders set goals based on the MAP test, but they also set goals with other measures like the Developmental Reading Assessment and Fountas & Pinnell’s Benchmark Reading Assessment.

They set goals that don’t just involve numbers, too, like “Describe the setting in my stories” or “Get better at using strategies when I don’t know a word in the book.”

We have all seen the policy failures that result when administrators, politicians, or policy wonks try to reduce the art and science of teaching to a single measure. Good teachers end up looking bad, bad teachers look good, and nobody gets better.

Those failures are just as inevitable if we measure student learning with a single metric.

3. Talk with kids about their dreams, not just their test scores.

This year our school amended our mission statement to add the phrase, “supporting students’ journeys to live the lives they dream.” The journey matters as much as the destination, and that destination needs to be far more than a standardized test score.

My students know they have my unconditional respect and support, no matter how they do on a given test. We talk about what they want to do someday—what they’d like to study in college, whether they might want to become an architect, a scientist, a doctor—and the role grades and tests will play in that dream.

I remind the kids—and myself—that the purpose of school is not test scores, anymore than the purpose of your life can be captured by your weight, height, or salary.

Numbers can give my students useful information about their learning. But in the end, I want the same thing for the six-year-olds I teach that I want for my own six-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. I want them to be happy, and I want them to be good people.

All else is a means to that end.

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