Measuring Learning vs. Measuring Achievement

I want you to reflect on this question, “When was the last time your performance was measured by a written multiple choice test?” There will be few of us who have had our performance measured by a single test in our adult life. Our performance cannot be captured on a single or even a series of tests. Our performance is dynamic and contextual and multiple indicators are required for accurate assessment. Yet, in education, we continue to give the “test” to measure the performance of students, schools and divisions!

Why do we continue to only measure, what I would consider, the lowest form of learning, namely achievement? I would suggest that there are at least three main reasons on our continuance to measure achievement only. The first is that measuring achievement is fairly easy. Tests are easy to create and easy to mark. “There you go, you received 76.32% on your exam.” My issue with this achievement measure is what does that percent really mean? Does the student know 76.32% of the material on the test, or 76.32% of what was taught or 76.32% of the curriculum? And really, what is the difference from a learning perspective between a mark of 76%, 78% and 80%? Achievement testing may be quick and easy but does it really measure what we want it to measure?

The second reason that achievement is measured so readily is that it is easily communicated and understood. Parents grew up in the era of marks and grades and therefore they speak that language. Many still want to know their child’s percentage score and gulp… their child’s ranking in class. With an input of the marks and a push of the button, we can calculate just how well the child is doing compared to the class average!  Educators can defend their grades given based on the list of assignments, quizzes and tests that generate the mark. Achievement testing many be easy to communicate but does it communicate the right thing?

Lastly, measuring achievement provides for and supports an somewhat archaic accountability system. Governments, school divisions, schools and even some teachers can hold up their test scores and say, “See, aren’t we doing well!” Education funding is substantial and achievement testing is seen as a good analysis of how our tax dollars are being spent…wisely! It also suggests that this accountability system is how the real world is and a requirement for university. If that is the real world, then there should be an awful lot of people out of work because many of us in our current jobs would be unable to simply write a test for our performance to be evaluated. Secondly, with less than 20% of our students entering university, is it really fair to create a system that only works for that few?  Achievement testing may be good for accountability but is it good for children?

Let me give you a couple more divergent scenarios to reflect upon before I speak to learning. Does the number of years a couple is together be the only indicator of a good marriage? Does the young adult who passes his or her written driving exam automatically know how to drive well? Simple numbers or achievement scores alone can only tell us a small part of the story. Learning is much more difficult to measure and far more complex. Learning must be measured (to be truly accurate and meaningful) through an outcomes based approach. And although many elementary schools follow an outcome based model, it must go much deeper. It must involve the competencies that our students require for this ever-changing world. It must focus on the skills required to address the mismatch between education outcomes and labour market needs as suggested by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in the document Public Education 2.0.

This type of learning requires a shift from content focused to competency based. Knowledge is no longer sacredly held by only the adults in the school. It is readily available and easily accessible. Learning for tomorrow is about creating citizens and developing character. When was the last time you saw that on a multiple choice exam? Learning is about collaboration and networking with others… we usually call that cheating in school! Learning is about innovating, creating, problem solving and critical thinking. Those are best measured though performance and projects not multiple choice tests. Learning is suppose to be about real life and in real time. Learning is suppose to be rigorous and FUN!!!

Learning, the type that we really want our students to be engaged in, is not only difficult to measure but hard to explain. It requires our educators to have not average but exceptional background in assessment. It requires our educators to be able to clearly communicate what learning looks like so that their students and parents and the public fully understand. It requires our educators to be truly reflective of their own practice and be willing to let go of pedagogy that does not enhance the spirit of learning fully. It is an uphill climb but, if we truly want to transform education and develop engaged thinkers, ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit, we must be willing to tackle the task of measuring learning and not just achievement.


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  1. Thank you very much for sharing! I really enjoyed reading your post and was able to appreciate the connections to my studies at U of L and current experiences in PSII. Have a great day!

    1. Thanks Justin for reading and taking the time to comment. I think it is critical that our pre-service teachers are well connected and therefore ready to take on the change required to truly transform the education system. Good luck in your studies.

  2. Thank you so much for this. 21st century competencies have been a big focus for me over that last two years, and I’ve struggled against students and colleagues and admin/government who have been ingrained in outdated teaching and assessment methods. I’ve also struggled against myself. As you mention, doing things “the old way” is so much easier. I’ve been trying to teach competencies yet have continued to assess achievement (mostly). This term I’m striving for something different. I’ve altered how I record grades, though I’m told I still need to report in percentage, my students receive criteria based feedback on assignments and projects, never a percent (except on tests) and never an overall project grade. I’ve all but eliminated tests from my classes except where they seem to be the only way to test certain curricular outcomes. And I’m exploring a way to move away from a diploma-style exam for my grade 10 ELA class and more toward a collaborative/critical thinking test. But it is difficult, and therefore I greatly appreciate hearing from others that this is the right path. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Jon for your comments! We’ve embraced this factory model of education for a long time and therefore it is not going to change overnight. However, I believe that each teacher who “stretches the box” is not only promoting the change process but more importantly creating a better learning environment for students. Best of luck!

    • Trudi Mason on March 24, 2013 at 7:47 PM
    • Reply

    Thanks for the great post. I’m dismayed by the number of multiple choice tests that my son has been given. I’m anxious to see your ideas being consistently used throughout our schools.

    • Rob Harvie. on March 25, 2013 at 7:24 AM
    • Reply

    Last time I checked, the Provincial Achievement exams were not 100% of a child’s mark, so there is still lots of room for more subjective marking criteria if a teacher or a school wants to measure “character” and “collaboration” or whatever other factors are deemed important.

    Unfortunately, in most professions, trades and jobs, there is a very objective standard of excellence and performance. If I have a doctor operating on me, if I have an accountant providing tax planning, if I have an electrician wiring my home, they are “tested” every time they perform their job. And if they “fail” that test, it’s small solace that they get along well with their co-workers.

    Sadly, too many parents (and apparently teachers and administrators) want to suggest that our children avoid at all costs the need to meet objective standards of accountability.

    The other concern, frankly, is that education costs the taxpayers a lot of money, and with that expenditure should be some objective analysis of whether or not that money is being well spent.

    Sorry, Chris, but while I am sure you are well intentioned, for this reader your blog gets a “D”.. err.. I mean, your problem solving and critical thinking appear to be lacking.

    1. Thanks Rob for your comments. I appreciate your position and send the following comments back. Society is deeming that character and collaboration are important in this world but, as I said in the current model of testing it is difficult if not impossible to assess. I agree, that those professions, trades and jobs are tested every day through their performance. Performance is the key word! Our students should be “tested” based on their performance and on what is needed for society. In regards to ‘getting along well with co-workers,” you may want to check to see how many people cannot hold a job because of that inability. And finally, I believe in holding our students to very high standards… of learning!

    • Staci Schori on March 25, 2013 at 11:52 AM
    • Reply

    A former colleague of mine directed me to your twitter feed recently and I am very glad she did. I’ve only read three of your posts so far, and already I am excited with the direction you are taking this district. Two years ago the school i was working with in Medicine Hat launched outcomes based reporting. It was tough. Parents weren’t accustomed to it, and I was a brand new teacher. Everything was overwhelming to me! I by no means mastered the use of this type of reporting, but over the past two years have really come to embrace it. Outcomes based reporting helped me to break down the curriculum and truly discover what was required of students, what areas we needed to improve on and what areas individually each student was experiencing success. Outcome based reporting was especially helpful in math. I could easily show a parent that their child knew how to skip count (had the foundational skill) but was having trouble understanding “grouping” for multiplication. A few years prior to outcome based reporting I may not have had the opportunity to discover this stall in the learning continuum of the child and would have told the parents they need to work more on memorizing the facts with their child.

    On an entirely different note, I have a personal passion for special education and would love to hear your ideas on inclusion; a massive and multilayered topic, I know. Have you already penned a post that I could read?


    Staci Schori

  3. A former colleague of mine from Medicine Hat notified me of your twitter feed and I am extremely glad that she did. I have only read three of your blog posts to date and am already very excited about the direction the Holy Spirit School Division is taking. in 2011/2012 the school that I taught at in Medicine Hat launched outcome based report cards as a sort of pilot project. It was my first year teaching, and on top of trying to grasp the extensive report cards myself, I also had to try to explain them to parents who were accustomed to seeing percentages. It was tough, but after working with them for a while I began to really appreciate how much more meaningful they were than the previous assessment methods. It wasn’t until my second year working with them that I really began to gain a better understanding of how to use them everyday in my classroom.

    I found them especially useful in math, where i could see exactly where students needed more support and share this information with parents, thus providing a more comprehensive understanding of their student’s learning. For example, when I evaluated student A for skip counting I discover that they are very good at it. When I again evaluate student A for multiplication skills, I discover that the information is not transferring over, and I know that they are having trouble visualizing grouping, or maybe they just don’t understand what the times symbol in a multiplication sentence means. I can show parents that they have the foundational skills and can better assist them in their learning. I was able to transfer this to language arts and better help students to understand grammar and sentence structure. Evaluation was also much easier, as it was either “not getting it yet”, “partial understanding” or “fully grasping concept”. This type of evaluation enabled me to give almost immediate feedback to students as I could see exactly where in the process they were losing understanding.

    Thank you very much for bringing this topic up for further discussion and understanding.


    • Stephanie on August 25, 2013 at 4:09 PM
    • Reply

    As a parent, I am concerned that our school division may be moving further away from standardized testing. I feel that future decisions may be without meaningful consultation to the parents, students and tax base that contribute to our schools. As a example of this issue, I point to the recent provincewide decision to move away from the PAT testing without prior and substantial family consultation.

    I am concerned that a move away from standardized testing to more subjective methods may result in favoritism in the classrooms and the lowering of guarenteed teacher standards.

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