How Much Information is Enough?

Have you ever received the results of a set of blood tests and tried to understand all the data? Which numbers are critical? Should you worry if a number is out of the ‘normal’ range? How far out makes it worrisome?

I recently received a multiple page document like this by email from my doctor and honestly, I barely knew where to start in interpreting what it meant for my health. This data problem is similar to the one faced by teachers at reporting time. Teachers have large amounts of data about many different aspects of a student’s learning that could not possibly be all communicated on a report. So we have to select a few measures to represent the learning achieved at that point in time. We have to try and select the measures that are both faithful to the learning AND interpretable by students, parents and schools in other parts of the world.

We know that condensing all that information down to a single number is far too limited. That would be like the doctor telling you your health is a 4 out of 7. Even breaking it down a bit further and giving a number for a few aspects of learning only adds a little to the information picture. If the doctor tells you that your digestive system is a 6, your cardiovascular system a 5 and your respiratory system a 2, at least you know roughly where the problem is. You don’t know what the problem is though, or what to do about it. At ISB we have tried to find a balance between giving enough information to be meaningful but not so much that it becomes completely overwhelming. In doing this our guiding principle has been that everything we do in assessment and reporting should improve learning and should be consistent with the latest research.

We know that condensing all that information down to a single number is far too limited. That would be like the doctor telling you your health is a 4 out of 7. Even breaking it down a bit further and giving a number for a few aspects of learning only adds a little to the information picture. If the doctor tells you that your digestive system is a 6, your cardiovascular system a 5 and your respiratory system a 2, at least you know roughly where the problem is. You don’t know what the problem is though, or what to do about it. At ISB we have tried to find a balance between giving enough information to be meaningful but not so much that it becomes completely overwhelming. In doing this our guiding principle has been that everything we do in assessment and reporting should improve learning and should be consistent with the latest research.

Finding that information balance is a challenge though, and as we have adapted our assessment practices we wanted to seek feedback from parents to ensure we were meeting their needs. With this in mind we recently organised three focus groups of parents. Each group had around 10 participants and lasted about an hour. The focus questions were:

1. What information do parents feel they need in order to understand their children’s learning? 2. What kind of format on a report card might make the information easier to understand?

We gained some significant insights into these questions as a result of the parents who generously gave their time to speak with us and as a result we have made some small adjustments to the format of our reports. We have also added a bit more explanation to the report itself and created a short video explaining how our reporting descriptors work. We hope the changes and explanations will help parents better understand their child’s learning progress. We will continue to dialog with parents and students to ensure that our students and their parents have an understanding of all aspects of their learning.

While our approach to assessment and reporting looks very different to what parents may be used to from their school days, so is learning, and the ISB approach is much more thorough and rigorous than reducing learning to a single number. The science of teaching, just like the science of medicine, has evolved to focus beyond simple diagnosis of ailment towards providing both students and parents with detailed information on key aspects of learning and how to improve. The real purpose of assessment and reporting is not telling you simply how good you are. Rather it helps provide information to help you improve. This is an approach that is readily recognised and appreciated by schools and colleges throughout the world.

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