How many times have math teachers told you to check your work? And, how many times did you make the mistake of putting ⅓ of a student on a bus because you didn’t think about what the story problem was asking and you only did the calculation?

Sadly, “like lemmings to the sea”, too many departments of education and educators are jumping onto the “value added model” and “growth model” practices in vogue today. Conceptually, these make good sense. Of course we want to know if teachers, schools, and districts are more effective than similar entities. Of course we want to make sure that each student is growing well. These are important questions.

Unfortunately, many practices used to answer these questions today are just performing calculations without really thinking about whether or not they are really answering the question. And, because most calculations are using data from state accountability assessments which were designed to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind, they are getting poor results.

Think about it. These accountability tests are designed to answer the question, “Is the student performing on grade level?” These tests aren’t designed to answer the question, “Where is the student performing?” The distinction is significant. In analogy, it is like asking if fifth graders are between 55 and 57 inches in height. Some will be, but some will be shorter and some will be taller. If all we do, though, is determine if they are in the set range, we won’t know where the others are performing. Because NCLB accountability tests only measure students on grade level standards, this is precisely what is happening when it comes to assessing student achievement. And, to take the analogy further, because state standards for one grade are not the same standards for another, we are assessing things that may be related, but not the same and in some cases are truly very different. It’s like measuring the child’s weight one year and height the next. While they may be related, they aren’t the same thing.

Importantly, states also use cut scores for descriptors that vary from grade level to grade level and over time, so this complicates things further. It’s like using a yard stick in one case and a meter stick in another when we compare student performance from one grade to the next. Even though we might be comparing the same student, if we are using descriptors like “meets” and “exceeds”, we may be missing real growth or believing students made gains when they didn’t.

Overall, current state accountability tests are not effective measures for VAM or growth modeling.

The good news is, the Every Student Succeeds Act does allow for some states to adopt measures that assess students off grade level and some test publishers have already done good work that can be leveraged to support this sort of approach. And, some states are beginning to take advantage of this flexibility. And, there are other measures out there that already do a much better job of measuring growth, like NWEA’s Measures of Academic Progress, that can be used right now to answer the questions above.

In the meantime, while we hope and wait for state accountability measures to improve, educators, state departments, and legislators need to become more assessment and data literate so we can all start getting the correct answer.

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

Many of us grew up believing we were born with an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and that we were graced with cognitive ability at birth, or not. That notion is still quite present today, even among both general and special education teachers.

Today, though, we are understanding more about cognitive abilities. Plural. You can find a few psychological theorist models for this with one popular model being the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory.

Regardless of the model, though, it becomes clear that cognitive ability is more complex than simply an intelligence quotient. It also becomes easier to see how we can each have relative cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Our experiences with these abilities, especially in younger children and the elderly, also demonstrate that these things can change over time.

With these understandings, the need for a personal learning approach becomes obvious. The unique cognitive profiles in a classroom are as many as there are learners, with each learner bringing strengths to bear. Each learner will think differently and process at differing rates.

Learning experiences need to be designed to accommodate these differences. Teaching to a standard or a skill isn’t sufficient. This assumes all learners learn in the same way and at the same rate. Traditional approaches of insisting same age students are all taught the same thing on the same day in the same way may be the greatest malpractice in schools today. In addition to learners needing to be taught in their Zone of Proximal Development, they also need to be supported in the ways they are thinking about information. This supports the case for learning trajectories. For more on this topic, see

Ultimately, educators need to be researchers…researching each learner in their sphere of influence. Educators know the importance of building relationships with learners and that to build a relationship you have to know about the learner. And, knowing about the learner means more than knowing a name and other facts. It means knowing someone’s likes and dislikes, passions, dreams, fears, and so on. Similarly, educators need to be researchers of how learners think. This involves knowing their relative cognitive strengths and weaknesses and constantly asking learners to share their thought processes in the moment. In this way, educators can correct misunderstandings quickly and stimulate the thinking to move the learner on to the next level of understanding.

Learning. It’s personal.

You might be hearing terms like “badges” and “micro-credentials” being thrown around more and more in the educational environment. Is this trend just a gussied up version of what the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have been doing for years? No, not in the way most professionals are using these terms today.

Right now, badges are often being awarded to educators demonstrating some competencies resulting from a professional learning experience. They are more than CEUs, though. For a CEU, the educator often just needs to “sit and get” some professional development. True badges, in contrast, require the individual to demonstrate some learned ability or competence.

A badge, then, is a digital credential that represents an individual’s mastery of a competency or set of competencies.

A competency is a cluster of related abilities, attitudes, knowledge, and skills that enable a person to act effectively in a job or situation.

Competencies are more than skills. A skill is simply a proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired through training or experience. As an example, consider coding. Coding is more than the skill of writing statements in a particular language, such as Java. Coding involves organizing a series of computer-language statements in such a way as to accomplish a larger task. It requires logic, problem solving, planning, task analysis, understanding of implications for approaches taken like the ability to revise code in the future, etc. And, when a computer language becomes obsolete, a coder can quickly acquire a new language skill and incorporate that with the other coding abilities to remain viable. So, while a competency involves having skills, it is much more than that.

Badges are the mechanism for validating that an individual has indeed demonstrated mastery of a competency. And, while they are useful for teachers, they are essential for K-12 students, too. As noted in a previous blog, learning happens everywhere, so there need to be ways to document learning. Course grades only reflect student achievement based on what was taught in class and only through the assessments included in the course. But, what if the individual learned something through another mode? That learning is equally, if not more, valuable and worthy of being accredited to the learner, as well.

Badge systems have the capability of better helping industry hire the talent they need, too. Too many companies are struggling to hire the talent they need and it isn’t because the talent isn’t out there. It has a lot more to identifying the talent when they see it. A college degree or high school diploma isn’t enough information. So, many companies have acquired or developed systems to assess applicants for the competencies they need for specific positions. Others, though, don’t have the resources to invest in that kind of effort and so hope for the best when hiring. Badges are discrete enough to better match employers with job applicants. And, badges also help employers know how to relocate an employee in the company if the position they currently have is eliminated or identify an employee ready for a promotion.

A badge system, then, involves the badge awarder (often a school or university, but also a company), a badge earner (the individual), and a badge consumer (company or other organization seeking to identify talent). These badges are stored in an online system with their metadata, so the badge earner can easily share their success.

This video gives you a good overview of badges. It’s time to get rid of traditional grades and move to a mastery-driven, competency-based approach. Badges are part of this new paradigm.

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