Measuring Academic Progress: An Alternative Proven Approach



Ever since Sir Francis Galton developed the concept of the “normal curve”, a continuing academic debate has raged regarding its characteristics, and its application. The emergence and dominance of the entire field of statistics on social science research has determined how experimentation is designed, analyzed and reported. It also underlies how academic and other tests are created, are modified to suit the normal curve, and how results are reported and interpreted.

When applied to measuring the effectiveness of education systems involving standardized testing, the measures become combined across students and curricula to yield some indirect measure of their performance. It is then used to determine how those performances stack up against that of other students, grades, schools, districts, states and countries. The results of these annual academic snapshots often drive the policies and practices that are mandated for schools, teachers and kids by policymakers at a variety of levels. While the standardized testing indirectly points out deficiencies, it offers no suggestions for remediation. It is incredibly expensive, very time-consuming and prone to cheating in a variety of forms including outright assistance to the student during the testing. The latest scandal in Atlanta depicts the issue of cheating on a district scale.

There has been a simpler alternative created and demonstrated as an effective alternative by the late Ogden R. Lindsley and his colleagues using frequency as the basic datum.

  • Every behavior has a frequency. 
  • Frequencies of behaviors do vary but generally remain within a fairly narrow range both within and across individuals. 
  • Frequency can be easily measured within a specified block of time, e.g. one minute. 
  • The same task can be repeated over days to see the rate at which the frequencies are changing.
  • The rate of change allows the learner to predict how long it will take to reach the defined standard for that behavior.
  • Anyone can do a measurement for a fixed period of time, determine the frequency and compare it to previous scores or to known standards.
  • The impact of instructional changes can be seen immediately and specific errors can be isolated and remediated as they occur.

How does that apply for example to learning how well a child is learning to read?

We know that humans speak at approximately 200 words per minute in normal conversation. Students who are good readers should be able to read a passage aloud as quickly as they can carry on a conversation. i.e. 200 words per minute.

If the material is too difficult, the frequency of words read will decrease and the frequency of errors will increase. Now you know that this passage is too difficult for this student until these errors are corrected and more instruction and practice are given.

Gathering daily frequencies on a few critical behaviors is inexpensive, easily done if properly organized, does not allow for “teaching to the test” and yields fresh information for decision making on this student’s academic progress every day. Frequencies and standards are easily understood by students, teachers and parents and provide a simple, direct measure of a specific skill and how well and quickly it is being learned.

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