‘Assessment is not measurement’

Sometimes, a perceived problem is explained with a polarity at work. In a conversation between a teacher and another person, the teacher was explaining the ways by which he supported learning of a student. The context was, he had just begun with an intervention for a set of skills, which impact the ways the student might access learning. It had been three weeks since the intervention started, and the meetings were about once a week, so the total time the teacher and student had engaged in the intervention was about 130 minutes.

The other person asked, What difference has it made in the student’s results so far?

The question struck me as a significant cause for reflection on the different mental models non-educators have versus the mental models of educators, around learning.

Mental models are structures formed in our minds, which shape how we perceive and think about polarities that exist in our organizations, such as that of rigor and inclusion.

Polarities consist of the tension between two stances, and often they are perceived as problems when they are not; polarities co-exist, and when organizations address one to the neglect of the other, the imbalance creates conflict, or at least disagreement.

One way that we might address and define a polarity is to take a look at the assumptions we hold regarding the two concepts at the poles of the polarity. In the situation above, we might take a look at the assumptions of the teacher and the other person.

Assumptions at play

The teacher in the conversation represents the polarity of inclusion. His assumption is akin to the views in Joe Bower’s talk at the UNESCO Chair in Education and Technology for Social Change in Barcelona, wherein Bower says, Assessment has been bastardized into meaning measurement. It’s not the same thing. Assessment is not measurement.” 

[Hear Joe Bower’s talk on Soundcloud.]

The other person representing rigor seems to have the assumption that learning is linear. Further, another assumption might be that we only know a student is learning when we measure something and we’ve got some kind of unit of measure. Yet another assumption might be that because learning is linear, 130 minutes would have yielded a measurable result.

Our assumptions shape our conceptions about how learning happens.

In the classroom, with a diverse group of learners whom we want to foster agency and independence, a lot of our work involves assessment as learning, and assessment of learning (the thing that we do which yields a score of some kind) is something that happens at the end of the unit of work, when we have engaged in using performance to inform improvement.

This is what teachers facilitate day after day after day. And in this process, teachers do not measure everything. There are so many ways to assess conceptual understanding, skills and knowledge in ways that are not score-based.

In this personal project by a student from Edutopia, there is no grading involved at all.

Pierre was interested in his project and motivated to see it work. The project involved a series of open-ended problems. Pierre had to understand the concepts of hydroponics, systems, sustainability, aquaponics, among others. He had to gain skills and craftsmanship in building the systems using approaches such as nutrient film techniques. His research and application was interdisciplinary, involving integration of science concepts, economics concepts, social sciences concepts. His attitudes throughout the project align with Guy Claxton’s Learning Power dispositions of resilience, resourcefulness, reciprocity and reflectiveness. Pierre used a lot of skills in communication to persuade community members to fund the project, and he might have applied concepts of audience imperatives, context, style, register into his presentations to the community.

But there’s no score at the end. No grade.

How do we assess it? might be a question we ask if we were standing from the pole of rigor. If we are standing in the corner of inclusion, we might allow the self-directed Pierre to assess his learning.

Often, what students demonstrate, in the moment of observation is a powerful assessment for learning. To create systems that worked, Pierre would have observed how the parts contributed to the successful whole; how the air pumps added the opportunity for fish to thrive; he would have used this information to create a better system the next time he made one. His plans, documentation consisting of balance sheets, proposal, research notes, and the actual systems he built would be evidence of his learning.

In the final stages of his project, Pierre successfully created a system in his school’s greenhouse. The vegetables grown from that system he created became a feature in the school’s daily salad bar.

In our IB continuum, that would probably count as Service.

And yet, there is no score.

Yes, there is no score. The important thing that teachers look for in their classroom is the learning. The score is just a by-product of the learning and it is at the end of all the work of learning.

In his talk in Barcelona, Bower mentioned what Jerome Bruner said about the role of assessment, that “Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment, but as information.”

Assessment is the use of information to get better at performance. And ultimately, our students will grow up to be people who don’t do things for the sake of a score but for a need or problem for which the learner is able to use conceptual understanding, skills and knowledge to create solutions.

We hope we are creating those kinds of humans.


Bower, J. (n.d.). UNESCO Chair in Education and Technology for Social Change. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/graham-brown-martin/joe-bower-teacher-unesco-chair-in-education-and-technology-for-social-change. Retrieved on 12 September 2018.

Featured Photo by patricia serna on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at http://myptoolbox.com.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.