Accountability Opinion

Educators Should Measure More, Not Less

By Craig D. Hochbein — October 29, 2013 5 min read

The grading, judging, and ranking of schools has spiraled out of control. On multiple occasions, the systems involved have demonstrated their susceptibility to manipulation, as well as corruption.

At the same time, systematic rankings of schools have not established their ability to cause or sustain school improvement, let alone enhanced teaching and learning.

Despite these shortfalls, ideologues and policymakers continue to lobby for and implement school grading systems. These systems, which their supporters view as sophisticated, nonetheless shortchange schools with their narrow focus on what is to be considered in judging a school’s quality.

In reality, the logic behind grading schools is rather simple. Identify, measure, judge, and report on a core set of critical outcomes, such as literacy, numeracy, graduation rate, and college or career readiness. These public judgments are supposed to prevent the development of inequalities, funnel assistance to the appropriate locations, and uncover the secrets of schools that are beating the odds.

But what happens to this logic if we simply change what we measure?


Consider a ranking system for school quality built around the performance of sports teams. Yes, most people would say athletic performance pales in importance compared with the number of children proficient in reading comprehension or algebra. An extensive amount of research, however, finds a positive association between academic achievement and participation in extracurricular activities. Furthermore, such participation might not only increase constructive interactions with caring adults and time spent in safe environments, but also provide lessons in character, teamwork, resiliency, nutrition, and other desirable outcomes not measured directly on standardized subject tests.

Still, many people would say that sports-related rankings would be subject to unfair influences and manipulation. How could judgment of an entire school rely on only a subset of the student population, they might ask, while others would question the slate of sports included in the evaluation and the inequitable opportunities for students to practice, participate, and succeed. Would including lacrosse inherently bias rankings against inner-city schools? And what about the ability and performance of individual athletes and coaches? How would they influence the rankings?

Maybe athletic ranking systems would have to provide testing against recognized standards, such as score against par or timed miles or laps in a pool. But setting and reaching such standards raises additional questions about familial and school influences, as well as the composition of a school and the appropriateness of such assessments for all students.

Using a system based on athletics to grade schools seems ridiculous, right? Yet many of the objections to grading schools on academic performance are equally valid.

To avoid issues with estimating differences in ability and performance, like those inherent both in academic and theoretical athletic rankings, an alternative system might consider the population of the school or district. Using state, regional, or national averages, schools and districts could then be ranked based on the composition of their school populations. In some ways, reporting of student-subgroup performance already accomplishes this task. But, rather than punishing schools for poor performance, this system would reward schools that educated populations with greater concentrations of at-risk students.

Current measurement and grading of academic performance only provides information about a single facet of the operation of a school. ”

Even accounting for this factor, however, geographic location, economic circumstances, and housing policies would likely play major parts in the ranking. How could anyone expect a district, school, principal, or teacher to improve an overall grade?

Ironically, the solution to the school grading problem is more measurement, not less.

Current measurement and grading of academic performance only provides information about a single facet of the operation of a school. This singular focus not only facilitates manipulation, but also ignores inherent differences in schools and devalues the multitude of expectations demanded from schools.

Unfortunately, discussing grading alternatives these days provides fodder for fanatics on both sides of the school accountability debate. Potentially most concerning to me are those who proclaim any measurement of schools is ill-advised.

Assessing educational organizations, educators, and students is not inherently an absurd endeavor. Measurements help educators diagnose student and school difficulties; identify promising talents and programs; and develop more effective, safe, and stimulating learning environments. Nevertheless, in the development of systems that value measurements lies the opportunity for the influence of perverse educational outcomes. In other words, corruption and exploitation arise from a poor system of rankings, rewards, and sanctions, not the act of measuring.

So, how do we improve things? If school constituents value an activity, I’d recommend that they find ways to measure it.

For instance, how many students visited the city museum for the first time in their lives? What was the attendance at fine arts performances? How many hours do teachers spend beyond contract requirements? How many backpacks were sent home full of food?

Then, value these measured activities by reporting results to important stakeholders.

Beyond presentations of data to teachers, boards of education, and parents, search for and manufacture occasions to celebrate successes and describe challenges.

Present data to local clubs and organizations about school opportunities and needs. Invite real estate agents to visit the school, and provide them with information that supplements the school report card. Similarly, use the measurements to recruit talented faculty members and volunteers.

A single grade cannot accurately reflect the multitude of activities and challenges undertaken by and expected of schools. Yet, grading continues to wield incredible influence on public perception, as well as school operation. With livelihoods, funding, and enrollments at stake, focusing efforts to maximize the grade of a school becomes understandable.

Mark Twain once advised: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest.” As educators continue to do right, they need to simultaneously measure their performance—but measure carefully and well. Their data might not gratify some people, but it will astonish the rest.

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as To Be Fair, Educators Should Start Measuring More, Not Less


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Accountability Opinion Absenteeism Is the Wrong Student Engagement Metric to Use Right Now
In a post-pandemic era for school accountability, let’s focus on measuring what matters.
Sara Johnson, Annette Anderson & Ruth R. Faden
4 min read
Figure being erased.
Accountability Biden Education Team Squashes States' Push to Nix All Tests but Approves Other Flexibility
The department has telegraphed its decision to deny states' requests to cancel federally mandated tests for weeks.
3 min read
A first-grader learns keyboarding skills at Bayview Elementary School in San Pablo, Calif on March 12, 2015. Schools around the country are teaching students as young as 6 years old, basic typing and other keyboarding skills. The Common Core education standards adopted by a majority of states call for students to be able to use technology to research, write and give oral presentations, but the imperative for educators arrived with the introduction of standardized tests that are taken on computers instead of with paper and pencils.
The U.S. Department of Education denied some states' requests to cancel standardized tests this year. Others are seeking flexibility from some testing requirements, rather than skipping the assessments altogether.
Eric Risberg/AP
Accountability Explainer Will There Be Standardized Tests This Year? 8 Questions Answered
Educators want to know: Will the exams happen? If so, what will they look like, and how will the results be used?
12 min read
Students testing.
Accountability Opinion What Should School Accountability Look Like in a Time of COVID-19?
Remote learning is not like in person, and after nine months of it, data are revealing how harmful COVID-19 has been to children's learning.
6 min read
Image shows a speech bubble divided into 4 overlapping, connecting parts.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty and Laura Baker/Education Week