How Can Learning Gains For Pupils Be Measured?

Although she began speaking with a smile, confusion soon spread across the face of US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at her confirmation hearing in 2017. Her lack of understanding on the difference between measuring benchmark proficiency and relative growth in the classroom skyrocketed the issue into public consciousness.

This fumble from a key figure in American educational policy reminds us of the central question at hand in the growth versus proficiency debate: Why measure learning gains? And how central is this ability to good education?

Why Measure Learning Gains?

As an article in The Atlantic pointed out shortly after the DeVos debacle, measuring learning gains, or “student growth” as it is often called, is a more specific approach that takes into account how much a student has progressed as opposed to whether or not the student has met a standardized benchmark. This is particularly important when one considers the wide range of social, economic, personal, and cultural factors that can impact student performance.

According to research quoted in the The Atlantic, differences in schools themselves only account for 20 percent of the difference in achievement. This means that schools with a high population of students in poverty or who enter their educational careers with low achievement levels will look worse than those with students who are already meeting the proficiency benchmark. Measuring learning gains and critical thinking skills as opposed to baseline proficiency allows for the relative improvements in learning to be accurately accounted for.

How Is Measuring Learning Gains Central To Good Education?

The growth model is favoured by educators themselves who believe it is a better path to good education. A 2008 study found that more than two thirds of education researchers believe growth is an ideal way to measure the quality of a given school, while just 9 percent said that proficiency alone is preferred.

Measuring learning gains and critical thinking as opposed to standardized proficiency allows students, teachers, and policymakers to chart the progression of education and leaves room to account for student differences. It also ensures that schools with disadvantaged populations can still demonstrate their relative educational successes, thus guaranteeing them access to necessary funding and support from the school board.

In addition, measuring learning gains is central when it comes to teaching, improving, and evaluating critical thinking skills. Merely measuring benchmark proficiency simply teaches students how to pass a test. Education and testing on critical thinking teaches student real-world skills that can be transferred to a variety of contexts, be it in further academics or in the business world.

How To Measure Learning Gains?

Traditionally, learning gains have been measured in several different quantitative ways. Most often, this has been done through standardized tests which measure whether a student has acquired given skills. Grades have also been a traditional quantitative method to measure potential progress. However, each of these methods have their limitations.

Standardized tests, while they do measure whether or not a student has gained knowledge in a particular field, are fundamentally based on the proficiency model. These tests demand that students meet a benchmark test score to reflect educational success. As discussed above, this method doesn’t take into account the various different starting points from which individual students may have begun their educational paths. Grades are also problematic, particularly when taken out of context, as they provide no real insight into the progressive nature of learning gains.

Both these methods focus on the student’s ability to pass a test, rather than how they will benefit from and apply their education once that test it over. This is where the development of critical thinking offers a better solution. Measuring learning gains and critical thinking skills is a much more accurate way of determining, not only student progress, but whether that student will be able to translate and apply their new knowledge in future situations.

The ability to not merely gain knowledge but to evaluate, analyze, interpret, reason, problem solve, and think creativity about that knowledge cannot be easily measured by any of the traditional methods mentioned above.

Moving Forward

Macat offers unique solutions to develop, test, evaluate, and improve critical thinking skills in a way that clearly demonstrates learning gains. Macat uses the unique PACIER model to break down the necessary components and interlocking skills of critical thinking. Macat also offers testing solutions to measure learning gains in critical thinking skills without relying on traditionally ineffective quantitative methods. Macat critical thinking tests require students to find missing links in arguments, interpret evidence, and consider multiple possibilities.

These are just some examples of how Macat critical thinking tests are designed to evaluate learning gains in skills-based areas. In other words, evaluating critical thinking skills and learning gains determines a student’s ability to synthesize and apply their knowledge, rather than simply judging their ability to meet a proficiency standard by passing a test.

No matter what field you’re working in, measuring learning gains and developing critical thinking skills are important strategies to better understand exactly how your students are learning. The growth approach takes into account the myriad of individual factors that contribute to how we acquire knowledge, develop skills, and improve our critical thinking.