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Envision runs a group of three charter high schools in the Bay Area. They champion, as many schools do these days, “deeper learning” and “21st century skills.” Envision enacts this philosophy through a “Know-Do-Reflect” process that uses projects, portfolios and presentations to integrate assessment with learning. They prompt students to turn the lens both inward and outward. The students are asked to self-assess their own progress, and through the portfolio exhibition and performance assessment process, they open up their work to outside evaluators as well.

Education these days is falling into a data gap. There is wide agreement that reading and math test scores alone reflect, at best, a small subset of what we want students to know and be able to do. But concepts like deeper learning, critical thinking, collaboration, and the like are inherently subjective and qualitative. In today’s high-stakes, bad-faith atmosphere, and in a global context, the subjective judgment of teachers, students and school leaders on “is our children learning?” is not trusted as a standalone measure of student progress. For better or for worse, politicians and the public want to see hard data.

One emerging consensus on how to bridge this divide: use outcomes instead of test scores. The idea is that by looking at trends in high school graduation, college entrance, college persistence and college completion, schools can fairly compare themselves by transparent measures that really matter. (Race to the Top provided significant funding to states to create the kinds of databases that make these outcome measures possible). In 2011 KIPP, the charter school chain, released a much discussed report looking at the outcomes of its own students. They found that one in three students who completed a KIPP middle school had graduated from a four-year college at least a decade later.

These were good results. Coming from a population that was 95% African-American and Latino, and 85% free or reduced lunch, KIPP students graduated at quadruple the rates of similar populations. But KIPP publicly declared that they weren’t good enough. They want to create schools where at least 75% of students beat the odds, and have the tools to succeed long after the intensive atmosphere and extra resources of the school are just a fading memory.

The change in metrics has influenced a change in strategy, at KIPP and across the charter school world. To graduate from college, students need to be self-directed, highly motivated, and confident. Bob Lenz, the founder of Envision, believes that those qualities are best cultivated by the performance assessment model integrating learning and assessment. But when it comes to convincing outside observers of the effectiveness of this measure, graduation rates and college persistence are paramount. In a recent case study of two of Envision’s three schools by Stanford University, students demonstrated college persistence far above the norm. At Impact Academy of Arts and Technology in Hayward, CA, founded in 2007, 81% of the first graduating class that started there as freshmen enrolled immediately in college. Of those, 66% made it to their second year. At City Arts and Technology High School, for the class of 2009, nearly 85% of graduates who enrolled in a college stuck with it for at least 4 years.

Tracking outcomes is more complex than reporting test scores. It’s also more relevant.

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Anya Kamenetz, writes the Digital blog for The Hechinger Report. She is a contributing writer at Fast Company and the author of several books and book chapters about the future of education, including...

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