A Critical, Simple, Almost Never Used, Measure of Academic Performance
Whether you are a teacher, homeschooler or therapist, when we teach, we want to know that our teaching has been successful. Whether it is at the kitchen table, in a classroom, a withdrawal special ed program or a therapy session, we want to know that our teaching had an effect, made a difference, was worth the time and effort dedicated to it.
How Olympians Measure Results
For most teachers, the results of our teaching are only known periodically, in weekly tests, state or district standardized measures or some other index that is well removed in time and space from what we did today.
I have always found it curious that, at the Olympics, for example, in the pool, commentators can make such confident statements as “If he can keep his stroke pace at this rate for the next 100 meters, he will set, not only a personal best, but an Olympic record”. How do they know that?
They know that because there is a ton of data on stroke rate of Olympic athletes for every type of race or combination of strokes in races. Every swimmer, every coach, every commentator and analyst has access to, and is current with the stroke data of every swimmer. They know the very tight range of differences that distinguishes between a winning a gold and not medaling.
Measuring Results in Terms of Frequency
So why should we limit our idea of frequency as a measure to Olympic swimmers? The answer, of course, is that in education, except for keyboarding classes, we never consider other behaviors as being measured according to their frequency. In fact, we do not even know the frequency of some of our most common behaviors. For example;
- How fast is your heart beating in terms of count per minute at this very moment?
- How many breathes are you currently taking per minute? How long have you been breathing?
- How many words per minute do you speak?
- How many steps per minute do you walk?
Frankly, most of us have only a very vague idea, despite having engaged in these behaviors for decades.
Nurses know about heart and respiration rates. Soldiers know about miles per hour on a march or forced march. Almost no one, except speech therapists, know about the rates at which we converse. Mostly we do not consider frequency as a measure that we could use to describe behavior.
Of course, the frequency is not a single number, but rather a range of numbers. We amble at 100 steps per minute, we walk briskly at 120 steps per minute and we power walk at 140-150 steps per minute.
Humans speak at approximately 200 words per minute.
Using Frequency to Measure Academic Behavior
How can we use frequency as a measure of other, especially academic behaviors?
If a child is reading aloud, should that child not be able to read the words on the page at a rate that would be similar to the rate at which s/he speaks normally. If the rate is decidedly slower than that, does it not indicate that the passage is too difficult for the child? Children should read appropriate passages at approximately the rate at which they carry on a conversation. If they cannot do so, it is an indication that something on that page is holding them back, probably because it is too difficult. You can usually tell when they pause at some words.
An Example: Using Frequency to Measure Reading (Decoding) Skills
So let’s consider using frequency as a measure of reading (decoding) skills. Take a book that is appropriate for the age and/or grade level of the child. Time the child’s reading of the story for exactly one minute. Count the words, subtract any errors and look at the frequency and the quality. We count the errors because we do not want to develop fast, sloppy readers. Children should read between 150-200 words per minute aloud with no more than 2 errors. Have the child read the same passage each day for 5 consecutive days. Look at the change in performance. Just like an Olympic swimmer, the student will post a personal best. Rate will increase, errors will decrease.
Now you can expand the activity to other stories, most of which will contain many of the same words. You will most likely see a performance that rises faster and/or has fewer errors than the first story. In time, with enough practice on enough stories, the child will begin to read a new story at 150-200 words per minute with no more than 2 errors. You now have a competent decoder, a good first step in learning to read.
Here’s a rule. Every behavior has a range of frequencies. As far as we can prove, you are born once and you die once. Some cultures would disagree, but offer no definitive proof. Being born and dying are low frequency, but very significant behaviors. Other behaviors have higher frequencies. People write 20-30 words per minute (150 -160 characters or digits per minute – try it- you will see that I am correct. We can choose academic behaviors and use frequency as a reliable measure which have known, universally accepted standards. We can collect such measures in a minute or two a day and know specifically whether the teaching and practice we just engaged in was of any real benefit to our student. Did my student read at 150- 200 words per minute with no more than 2 errors? If yes, move on. If no, decide on a remedial strategy to increase the rate tomorrow. It’s fast, accurate, repeatable, and easy to explain and understand measure of human behavior.