What Gets Measured

My sister Jodi Weber, in reference to child development, recently reminded me of the quote: "What gets measured gets improved."

Reportedly, this is a variation on a quote from management theorist Peter Drucker, although there also seems to be some debate about its origin and exact wording.

At Rooted in Language, we don't talk very much about measurement and assessment. There are a few reasons for this, which I will explain.

Reason One: So many struggling learners and their parents are already facing the reality that grade-level expectations are not being achieved. Our primary mission is to help learners get started and to progress—beginning where they are and moving beyond. 

Reason Two: I test students directly using standardized measures that are well researched and credible. Those measures require one-on-one scheduling and they are time-consuming, which makes them expensive. We always encourage people to have their students tested, but we also recognize that if the problem is dyslexia or dysgraphia, then finding a well-informed educational psychologist or speech-language pathologist is a daunting task. Too many of my students have been tested by a psychologist who did not understand dyslexia and assumed possible ADHD as an explanation for their reading and writing delays. Testers often give bad advice, such as pushing adaptive speech-to-text devices too soon, rather than providing teaching methods to help students overcome their dyslexia or dysgraphia. Hopefully this problem is resolving, but changes in educational practice are typically slow and uneven, at best. In student performance, what we measure and how we measure is a messy business. Tests are limited and often attempt to measure one skill, but are in reality measuring many skills. Even in my own field which is full of well-studied language assessment tools, there is constant debate about what we think we are measuring vs. what we are actually measuring. Is a vocabulary assessment actually measuring socio-economic opportunities or home language experience? Does a particular set of questions measure reading comprehension as claimed, or is it instead measuring background knowledge? On a macro level, speech-language pathologists are now questioning whether we can truly separate expressive language skills from receptive language skills. Even on a micro level, I can see that certain directions or question prompts cause confusion, influencing a student's performance.

Reason Three: In "business as usual'' education, kids are over-tested. Watching my own children and my students progress through school, I can tell you that typical education now consists of presenting information and then giving a test. Everything is tested, and if it isn't tested, it doesn't count. But here is my soapbox: Presenting is not teaching. Testing is not teaching. Providing a study guide is not teaching. Assuming that kids know how to study for a test is not teaching. Teaching involves engagement. Teaching is a process. Teaching takes time. Once again I will quote a former colleague of mine, Kay Stafford: "When kids don't know, that's when we roll up our sleeves and teach." Testing robs from teaching, forcing beleaguered educators to dispense knowledge the way pharmacists dispense meds.

Despite all these problems, measurement is important. A measurement gives us a baseline. It helps us know where to start, and it helps us see progress along the way. Measurement helps us notice particulars and address them. Measurements bring attention to a particular task. Measurements can be encouraging. Measurement can increase student ownership.


The spirit of the quote, "What gets measured gets improved," is that measuring the right things in the right way can lead to improvement. This is a basic premise in all health and wellness programs because trainers know that when people attend to a given measure, they will do better. If senior citizens are asked to simply measure how many minutes they walk per week, they will begin to walk more, even when there is no explicit walking goal. Whenever I do a fitness challenge with my trainer, I am asked to take very specific and small measurements: thigh, belly, weight, activity points, etc. The idea is that four to six weeks of measuring motivates people to make daily changes that will hopefully translate into life-long changes. 

So how can we use measurement to help and encourage kids, rather than impede teaching engagement? I actually use measurements all the time to show kids their own progress. This encourages them and me as their teacher. The key is to keep a measurement simple and precise. Here are a few of my favorites that you may wish to employ:

When working on letter formation, define parameters of "best" such as letters anchored on the line, words held together with proper spacing, etc., then have students select their best letter or word. If you have taken our Handwriting Struggle & Intervention class, you have seen this measurement tool. Having kids define and notice their best work is a means of measurement and elevating expectations. This, in turn, elevates performance. 

The same idea works for copywork or dictation. Have kids notice their best efforts. Help them define what a strong effort looks like by looking at a page of their best work so far. Then set that work level as the new standard. I also have my students notice a bad day of writing. We then honestly discuss what influences their sloppy work. Was it in fact because the text was difficult to write? Sometimes. Was it because they just weren't in the mood? Usually. We then assign effort points to their best and worst passage, ranging from 1 to 10. We discuss that copywork needs to have at least a level 8 in effort and attention. Improved effort improves legibility and strong spelling practice.

In original writing, I periodically help kids count how many words they wrote, then how many words they spelled correctly. Measuring correct spelling (as opposed to errors) helps kids see their improvements over time. If they use the same word three times and spell it correctly once out of the three, we take that measurement. If they have been working on spelling a high frequency word, we identify that goal prior to original writing. Then, we measure if they used the word and spelled it correctly. Knowing that measurement is coming helps kids practice writing a target word correctly in original writing. 

When editing, I also have kids measure how many lines they fill on a page. As discussed in our Supported Writing & Editing class, we might draw circles around their writing efforts and help them recognize how easily they can now write this amount of text. Circling text may seem counterproductive to good writing, since it measures quantity over quality, but this strategy helps kids see themselves as writers who can easily conquer the blank page. In addition, I may have kids circle paragraphs in their essays to help them notice what they do well and what they need to work on. Are introductions easy or on the light side? How about body paragraphs or conclusions? I ask: "Where have you progressed and what do we need to focus on?" This simple, periodic measurement helps both students and teachers feel encouraged, but it also shines light on where to go from here.

In our Foundations for Teaching, Reading, Writing & Spelling course, we suggest tracking students' progress across various levels. Can they read 8 out of 10 CVCs (Consonant Vowel Consonant words)? Can they spell them with short vowel sounds? How about CVCCs? CCVCs? Two-syllable words? Three-syllable words? Can they use a targeted vowel or spelling pattern in an original sentence? How about three sentences? In Pinwheels, our comprehensive early literacy curriculum, students progress from writing 3-5 words from dictation to writing 7-10 words. They progress from one original sentence to three and then to five. These aren't just progressions, they are also measurements.

In our Roots Entwined year-long coaching course, we help parents set goals for their kids at the beginning of the school year. We talk about noticing and measuring throughout the year what is working and what needs more attention. We help them problem-solve as their student progresses or seems to regress. We focus on how and why to modify-what it means to work to a level of success, and how to keep inching kids along. How to encourage and raise expectations. How to shift ownership from educator to student. Parents tell us that just being a part of Roots Entwined is encouraging. They also feel it helps keep them accountable (a form of measurement in and of itself). I think accountability happens because it is a year-long class with consistent group meetings. Throughout the year, the home educator can see how everyone is progressing, separating difficulty from feelings of utter failure. We help parents see when to fall back, when to regroup, and when to charge forward. 

Teaching takes engagement. But engagement is messy.

Teaching takes time. But time is slow and weirdly inconsistent.

Measuring can help. As long as we measure small skills in meaningful ways.

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