How can schools measure creativity, critical thinking or other skills that might be overlooked by a standardized test? We posed the question to you in this blog about the quest for new ways to gauge student progress in San Diego Unified — and you’ve already flooded my inbox!

Miguel Valenzuela, an engineer and parent, writes that this is especially challenging “in a system that awards people for succeeding rather than failing”:

Hasn’t history taught us that most of our successes come from failures though? We constantly hear that Edison failed a bunch of times at the light bulb before he succeeded. How would we measure that in school now? “Sorry, your son failed 234 times at making a light bulb so he will have to repeat his senior year again.”
I believe if you want to measure creativity you have to ask yourself how do we not measure creativity now. We don’t measure creativity now by the use of standardized tests. … I believe we measure creativity by the use of projects, vocational type programs where we get to see how one approaches a problem and then develops a solution. We may forgo the final outcome of the project if it fails to meet the objective and instead, look at the process which took place. … We measure their success on how they approached the problem and what the learned from it.

Longtime teacher John Chase writes that the solution is “structured but open tasks” that allow for student choice and creativity while requiring them to think critically, make connections and demonstrate understanding. Chase sent three links as examples: a student video to inspire volunteerism, a music video project and 3D memorials.

But Chase and Valenzuela both provide examples that lean heavily on teacher grading. That works well in individual classrooms, but it poses a challenge if San Diego Unified wants to scale this up and make it systematic, to evaluate how creative and critical kids are across the district. Staffers noted that that was the key problem with an earlier practice of grading student portfolios.

School board member John Lee Evans summed up the problem simply: “The things that can be most carefully measured are the least useful.”

Yet could ordinary tests do a better job at evaluating deeper skills? I tweeted this a while back, but it’s worth another look: Education Week posted this presentation on how kids in other countries are evaluated. It shows how other countries grade their students (compare and contrast pages 37 and 38) but it also shows that the more complex tests are often more expensive because they take more time to grade.

Do you have more ideas or examples of ways the school district can evaluate creativity and critical thinking — and is there any way to cut down the cost? Let’s keep the conversation going! Post your comments to the blog or feel free to send me an e-mail at


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