The Primary Measure of Progress

"Meaningful learning is the primary measure of progress."

How do we know if kids are learning? We have to find things they know and can do at Point B that they couldn't do at a Point A. But what kinds of things are we looking for?

The state tells us what kinds of things these are. But curriculum standards are often difficult to interpret and standardized test scores are difficult to attach to real-world accomplishments.

How can we measure meaningful progress without standards or tests?

First, we have to know what is meaningful to us. Then we have to know what is meaningful to children and their families. Finally, we have to observe progress being made between two points in time, either in student work or through observation of the application of specific knowledge and skills within the context of meaningful work.

We can use standards as a guide but not as a definition. We can use tests as a measure but by no means the only one—or even the most important. Empirical measurement, based on our own assessment of student needs, conducted frequently, and performed ideally in the context of student work, will give us the best and most meaningful of what students are learning.

If we're working in short iterations, and making many observations, increments of progress may be small. But tracking things at this level is part of our commitment to frequent delivery of meaningful learning.

It's amazing how much information about student learning we can gather without giving a test. Formal tests are costly in terms of lost instruction time and teacher processing time. They often don't tell us the most important thing we need to know: what students need to learn next.

Even when kids get perfect scores on tests, how can we be sure they didn't know a lot of the material beforehand? Or that the material was sufficiently challenging for them? Or that they can apply it in more meaningful contexts?

If we commit to the idea that "meaningful learning is the primary measure of progress", we commit to the idea of track


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Steve Peha

Our current systems of testing and standards seem fragmented to me. They would have us look for growth along too many different dimensions, some of which seem insignificant, others of which seem redundant. Often, I find that if kids perform well in one standard, they perform well in many others. Learning isn't artificially divided into neat bundles of skills; it's spread out all across the curriculum.

Here's an interesting question I've thought about my entire career: Have you ever met a kid who was a high-performing writer who wasn't also a pretty good reader and a reasonably clear thinker? I haven't. What's interesting is that the converse is not true. I know many kids who read very well but can't write a lick. And clear thinking seems to elude even some of the brightest students.

What do I take from this? Writing—and not reading and math as our government would have us believe—is the core skill to be mastered and the single best tool for gauging progress. It's also the easiest of the traditional school subject to imbue with meaning. I can grant kids a lot of autonomy about the topics they choose, the ideas they express, and the process they use to express them. Writing, to me, is the perfect way of gauging the progress of meaningful learning.

But meaningful learning is easy to identify in other areas, too—and it doesn't take a state document to do it. Listening to a child read, and having a short conversation, I can usually identify half a dozen meaningful things to work on. But not 106. And yet, that's the level of detail many of our state standards documents go to. The simple truth for me is that if kids can read well, write well, and think well, most of those 106 standards fall into place without being explicitly taught.

Clearly, many parts of the curriculum do require explicit instruction. But most of these—like ability to decode words at a certain level or the ability to write a coherent multi-paragraph essay using standard grammar and mechanics—just aren't terribly complicated to teach or to observe. The key is to be looking for them, regularly, and removing the impediments kids have to learning them.

The notion of "meaningful learning" sounds like something that can't be defined. But when I'm teaching, I can almost always define it—and best of all, I can often define it individually for each student.

What is meaningful for a student to learn is the unique set of skills and knowledge that prepares them best for the world, that leverages their affinities and maximizes their potential, and that best matches their individual needs at a given time.

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