The Mis-Measurement of Learning Outcomes

A recent New York Times article questioned the practices of measuring learning outcomes in education today. Our response: the problem is the mis-measurement of learning outcomes. Read about it in a letter to the editor, written by ACASE Director Paul Zachos.

To the Editor:

The author of The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes’ (NYT 23 February 2018) is right to be concerned that the obsession with tests and grades, and its associated multi-million dollar industries, are a drain on the attention and effectiveness of teachers.  But measuring learning outcomes is not the problem; it is the mis-measure of learning outcomes and the inappropriate use of those measures.

Molly Worthen is correct that a basic part of the job of teaching is figuring out what students have learned.  This is the true purpose of educational assessment. Without this information a teacher cannot know what to teach next and to whom. She is also correct that, “… old-fashioned course grades…can’t tell us everything about what students have learned.” In fact they cannot tell us anything about what students have learned.  They only tell how students differ in their performance.

But then how do we figure out what students have learned? The answer is simple but difficult to realize in conventional test and grade oriented environments. The answer is to identify the capabilities that are most worth attaining and to monitor how well they are being attained. This is true learning outcome information. It is the most useful information that educators can have. It is the needed basis for planning, evaluating and improving teaching. It is on this basis that teachers can hold “serious conversations about what is and is not working in their classes.”