Student Success–Better Defined

A school that’s all about achievement and performance is a school that’s not really about discovery and understanding. — Alfie Kohn, Schooling Beyond Measure


We expect government to be accountable . Therefore, the menu of offerings in education must be presented to the taxpayer and their universal delivery must be verified. Thus, measures of student success have been created. There are three main challenges that result.

1. What are Public Education’s Objectives?

Public education everywhere has several objectives.  The core goal is usually knowledge acquisitionquite simply that students will have learned the prescribed material and be able to demonstrate their new knowledge and skills.

In the Cégep system, courses in Humanities, Physical Education, First and Second Languages are compulsory for all students. This suggests an additional set of expectations: that students be critical thinkers with a broad world view, be able to design healthy lifestyles for themselves, converse in two official languages and appreciate the contributions to culture that these languages have made . This generally defines a goal that could be called “good citizen”.

Cégep education is tuition-free. The condition, however, is that students be enrolled in a program. The program will either lead to immediate employment or to a university program with the same ultimate destination. In other words, the government wants graduates to be employable.

While there may be other expectations of public education these three are normally the main ones.

2. How to Measure Them

Of the three goals mentioned above, institutions generally choose knowledge acquisition as the one they can measure.

Unfortunately, while trying to be scientific in their measurements of student success in knowledge acquisition, they are anything but.

While the gold standard in scientific investigation is the double-blind, controlled experiment, in public education there is no control group. Furthermore, the teacher applies a treatment to a class of students and then determines its results in the form of grades.

In addition, teachers are sometimes encouraged to raise or lower their grades. The fact that this is even possible confirms that grades cannot be relied upon to measure the success of the learning experience. No self-respecting scientist would believe otherwise.

Success rates (pass rates) are direct derivatives of grades. Not only are these subject to the inherent inadequacies of grades but setting an acceptable success rate is usually arbitrary.

3. The Cost of False Acceptance

When educators do not acknowledge the underlying weakness of grades as a measure of student success, they become complicit in a deception.  Continuing to do so dis-empowers them. The value of their sincere efforts and personal integrity to the institution are then diminished.

4. Alternatives

A first step in looking for a better measure of student success is to identify the full set of goals that are actually intended. Three have been mentioned above; there may be others. The process of actually defining them can be a positive experience for the institution.

An alternative approach to measurement would shift the evaluation focus from outputs to inputs. Instead of looking at grades, which are an outcome of the education process, it makes more sense to consider the elements of the process which are essential to its successful functioning.

Inputs might include: well qualified teachers, professional development, inviting spaces, useful equipment, supplies, and technology, various out-of-class support services, and effective leadership.

Inputs can be evaluated in two ways: they are either present or absent, and if present, could they be improved? Even those who insist on analyzing outputs would have to turn to the inputs to solve any apparent shortcomings they had discovered.


Governments will continue to insist on assurances of student success. In response, the institution should begin by identifying the complete set of learning goals it is trying to meet.

The second step is to define the inputs necessary to achieve those goals.

Thirdly, the institution should regularly assess the presence or absence and the quality of these inputs. Discussing inputs goes right to the question of what needs attention. It doesn’t depend on false interpretations of grades or metrics that are hard to interpret.

It also acknowledges that institutions do not control the success of their students. Clearly the students themselves are the key determiners of their own success as learners.

This shift requires honesty about grades in particular. But this honesty will liberate educators from complicity in false measures  that have never served education well.