What Matters Gets Measured: Defining and Evaluating Student Goals

Portrait of a Graduate (PoG) competencies — such as communication, critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving — are crucial for student success beyond school. Schools and districts must establish, measure, and assess PoG attributes and one easy way to do that is through Project-Based Learning. 


We as educators are responsible for teaching our students a great many things based upon the wants and needs of our stakeholders. We are held accountable to state academic standards and the corresponding state assessments. We are often also accountable for national assessments that assess our school, our school system, and our students. These are typically based on content areas measuring students' knowledge and content skills. The scores on these content-focused assessments are used by individuals, groups, communities, and state and federal governments to determine the perceived quality of education students are receiving. 

These situations reinforce a quote attributed to many different individuals, “What matters gets measured.” In education, this principle is very important and provides a common understanding that measuring and assessing aspects of importance is crucial for effective management, improvement, and decision-making of school systems to help all students succeed beyond school. With this in mind, most educators commonly assess content knowledge, practices, and skills based on the assessments shared above. Local assessments such as school and/or classroom tests are most often tied to the content and skills of specific courses and/or classrooms. This leads to an important conundrum and/or a-ha moment. 

Why are most school system mission and vision statements built around future-ready skills and knowledge to help students succeed beyond school and yet are rarely evaluated or measured? This leads to the perception that the attributes found in these statements are not important because they are not measured. Speaking with educational leaders around the country, the answer this occurs is often quite simple: it is easier to quantitatively measure information and conceptual knowledge based upon academic standards through traditional testing methods. Some schools also use strategies such as project-based learning when the standards are used as a “measuring stick.” 

This answer makes some sense in terms of teaching, learning, and assessing, but then are we meeting our obligations and goals for our mission and vision? To help begin to develop strategies for meeting and measuring the mission and vision, many schools are creating their own “Portrait of a Graduate.” My colleague, John Larmer, defines this as a vision statement that schools and districts create, with input from students, educators, parents, and community members. It describes the desired outcomes of the K-12 system: the competencies and personal qualities students should possess when they graduate, in order to be successful in the world beyond school” (Defined, 2023).

In most mission and vision statements, a number of similar attributes can often be found. As these are individually crafted by a school system, most have attributes that are important for the school system and community being supported. Defined has developed our own Portrait of a Graduate (PoG) to meet our mission and vision. Our work supports school systems, teachers, and learning through authentic learning opportunities connected with real-world tasks, products/projects, and learning processes requiring students to utilize skills and practices that will benefit them beyond school. 

For those of you who may not be familiar with a Portrait of a Graduate, I offer Defined’s PoG as an example:



How Do We Make This Happen? Performance Tasks to Defined Goals

Performance Tasks: Scenarios

Defined’s educational foundation is in Understanding by Design (UbD) constructed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. An important construct of UbD is the identification and application of transfer goals. McTighe (2014) states, “Transfer goals highlight the effective uses of understanding, knowledge, and skill that we seek in the long run; i.e., what we want students to be able to do when they confront new challenges – both in and outside of school.” The attributes found within a Portrait of a Graduate can be seen as transfer goals. To bring about this transfer, we begin by looking at authentic learning opportunities and applications. To do this, Defined utilizes performance tasks, which are any learning activity or assessment that asks students to perform to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, and proficiency. Performance tasks yield a tangible product and/or performance that serves as evidence of learning (McTighe, 2023). 

Defined utilizes Understanding by Design’s GRASPs template to create our performance tasks. GRASPs refer to:

  • Goal: establish the challenge, issue, or problem to solve
  • Role: give students a role that they might be taking in a familiar real-life situation
  • Audience: identify the target audience whom students are solving the problem for or creating the product for
  • Situation: create the scenario or explain the context of the situation

These performance tasks can be used for content application and practice, opportunities to connect learning to the world beyond school, and to help solve real-world problems to help meet the needs of an audience such as a community or society. You will notice that I shared just the G, R, A, S above. I wanted to highlight how these scenarios help set up opportunities to meet certain attributes of a Portrait of a Graduate. As an example, I will use Defined’s PoG to share these connections.

  • Career Readiness: Using these performance tasks helps provide strong connections between academic knowledge and skills to possible careers. Every Defined task has the student assume a career Role, solving problems that benefit the intended Audience. Within the tasks, students can become aware of problems that many careers work to solve and the difference that an individual can make in the lives of others through the career. The scenario also helps students begin to understand their own values, dreams, strengths, and goals, which is a critical attribute in many PoGs.
  • Citizenship: This attribute takes on many different contexts but at its core, it is about understanding how personal and/or career actions connect to the wider world and taking responsibility for these actions. Through the GRAS students can become aware of and potentially act (both in the classroom and potentially in the community) on local, national, and global issues. Students are encouraged to engage in classroom dialogue and dialogue with others within the school. They can also engage in community and civil dialogue to have an opportunity to understand diverse perspectives.
  • Problem-Solving: This attribute is one of several that occurs throughout the teaching and learning process. The GRAS helps to begin the problem-finding process in that students will need to begin to think about the Goal for the task and the connected Situation, considering how their Role and the Audience come together to determine what the problem is before it can be solved.


Performance Tasks: Products and Assessments

We will talk about the messy middle, which is where deep learning and practicing many of the PoG attributes will occur. First, let’s think about the results of the completed work which in the GRASPS template is represented by:

  • Product/Performance and Purpose: paint a clear picture of the WHAT and WHY of the product creation or the performance;   
  • Standards & Criteria for Success: inform students how their work will be assessed by the assumed audience.    

The performance tasks have students complete projects/products that help communicate the solution to the problem. These products can take a variety of types including some that are written, oral, technological, hands-on, artistic, scientific/mathematical, demonstration, and reflective. In all cases, the products are created to communicate the solution, most often in a creative or innovative way utilizing academic content knowledge, research, and ideation.

Each product has an associated analytical rubric that is designed to provide students with the opportunity to identify important aspects of their work and the completed product. These rubrics can be used formatively to help guide the student through the process. They are also used summatively to assess the products and/or provide information for reflection and resubmission. The rubric traits typically incorporate academic content and concepts, content practices and PoG attributes, and a measure of product quality. Additionally, reflective questions titled Student Check-ins provide many opportunities for students to reflect on their work and what they have created.

To highlight how these products and criteria for success set up opportunities to meet certain attributes of a Portrait of a Graduate, I will use Defined’s PoG to share these connections.

  • Communication: Communication is critical throughout the project and product(s) created. To be successful, the student and the created product must accurately convey and receive information to others, in this case, the Audience. The product(s) often require the student to use various modes of communication in order to make thinking visible and effectively present the solution/goal in a meaningful way. It is also important that the student understands the audience and communicates appropriately, utilizing empathy and cultural competence as appropriate.
  • Problem-Solving: Once the problem-finding process is complete, the problem-solving process begins. The result of this process is product creation, presentation, and often numerous rounds of revision, as in the real world. This process is closely connected with critical thinking and begins by analyzing the problem and seeking and finding resources to assist in developing possible solutions. The final product is often the result of testing, evaluating, and reflecting on procedures and solutions. Persistence will be essential until the most appropriate solution is identified and product(s) are created.
  • Innovation & Creativity: The ideation process often results in product(s) that are engaging and beneficial to the Audience, meeting the goals of the task. Success often comes from students thinking unconventionally, while coming up with new ideas. To do this, they must be willing to take risks, fail, and try again. With a willingness to be flexible, trying different ideas or approaches when one does not work will help them be persistent and create ideas and products that matter and make a difference.


Performance Tasks: Project-Based Learning Processes

Between the GRAS scenario and the PS, which represents the products and standards & criteria for success, comes the “messy middle.” This is where deep learning and the opportunity to practice many PoG attributes occur. Sadly, this is also the area that is cut first when time becomes an instructional issue. Defined utilizes Project Based Learning processes to provide a general structure for working through a task with suggestions from the HQPBL framework (2023). The framework contains six criteria: Intellectual Challenge and Accomplishment, Authenticity, Public Product, Collaboration, Project Management, and Reflection. Throughout each task, students are encouraged to work collaboratively to solve the problem while achieving the Goal of the task.  

John Larmer (2023) provides a depth of knowledge and information for making project-based learning an instructional strategy helping all students practice and attain competence in a variety of the PoG attributes. His blog, Why PBL is Key to Meeting Portrait of a Graduate Goals, provides important points to consider as you create an authentic learning environment connecting academic standards and skills, with important attributes of a school system’s Portrait of a Graduate.

To highlight how project-based learning can promote deep learning and create opportunities to practice many attributes of a Portrait of a Graduate, I will use Defined’s PoG to share these connections.

  • Academic Knowledge and Skills: As students work through problem-finding and into problem-solving, they will need to use their understanding of various subjects, content practices, and skills to apply their learning to new and often unfamiliar situations. They will need to do research and engage in inquiry pursuing new knowledge with an eagerness to continue to learn. Often, the task scenarios can help provide this motivation and engagement.
  • Collaboration: Students need to be able to work together to become ready for what lies beyond school. Collaboration is an extremely important skill and one that students (and yes most adults) often struggle with in their work. Through the problem-solving and product-creation process, students must be able to collaborate through contributing actively to shared goals, responsibilities, and decision-making. They need to be able to build on other’s ideas and honor their individual differences which often involves a willingness to compromise. An important part of this process is being able to provide and receive feedback in a meaningful way, while not taking the feedback personally.
  • Communication: Throughout the process, students must be able to effectively communicate with their teacher, their class, and if in a team with their team members. This is done by accurately sharing and receiving information to/from others. I must be done with respect for the team members while respecting differences and different points of view. Understanding your team and the audience and communicating appropriately, matters.
  • Critical Thinking: This is an ongoing process and is practiced throughout the learning experience. This involves the gathering of information, and evaluating its relevance including the identification of potential bias and varying perspectives. In many instances, this is also connected to being versed in digital literacy. Students (teams) may need to use systems thinking to make connections between ideas and see the big picture. As the solution is developed it will be important to use evidence and logic to justify the conclusions made.


Defined Goals: Evaluating PoG Goals Through Performance Tasks and PBL

Identifying performance tasks tied to a class and/or school scope and sequence helps to effectively help students learn more deeply about important academic content while connecting these ideas to the real world. Assigning these tasks, ideally two per year, can assist students in honing the attributes outlined in the PoG, fostering competence aligned with their age and abilities. By approaching this systematically, students will encounter numerous opportunities throughout their academic journey to apply and transfer their learning and skills to authentic tasks. 

Defined Goals utilizes a portfolio system for each student to collect evidence through products, rubrics, and plans.  This system can be aligned with classrooms and school goals to evaluate opportunities and potential growth over time. Often students become proficient with a skill, but practice is important to maintain a high quality. The plans are designed to capture student’s work associated with the attribute(s) identified as a focal point. 

How is this accomplished? Each product has an associated analytical rubric tied to content, quality, and skills. Defined will add a trait and descriptors tied to one or more PoG attributes identified for assessment. Over time, students can practice all of the attributes by completing the performance task products as evidence. This data can help chart student work and growth while providing the school with evidence of a focus on their Profile of a Graduate in the classrooms. The data can be easily shared with stakeholders as desired. Learn how a plan can be developed for a school!


Do These Attributes Really Matter?

As a passionate educator, I am often reflecting on what I do and the belief that what I do matters. Much like yourself, I have many friends who work in many different occupations, jobs, and careers. Many of these people work in different environments, career clusters, and pathways. We have some great conversations, as they are often interested in education and the work Defined does around the real world, career-focused teaching, and learning connecting the classroom to the world.

Two of my friends work in construction industries, very different companies that do different things, yet when we talk they constantly identify the same struggles with the people working with them. Sharing my work with them and my writing of this article, they were quick to offer their opinions. They shared that they can teach the workers the specific skills associated with the job, such as using certain tools. What they struggle with is finding people who are on time, take pride in their work, follow directions, and problem-solve throughout the task to be completed. Their hope is for people who can independently work, thinking through the problem and coming up with the answer. We as educators often refer to this as critical thinking. They also share the idea of project management, not managing a whole project, but being able to manage the part of the project that they are responsible for completing. These attributes are not nearly as common as one would expect based on our conversation.

Other friends overheard our conversation and were curious about my question. Conveniently, they are all in the health care cluster, with two being doctors and one being a nurse. What I found valuable was what we agreed to call self-management and/or self-regulation. They shared with me that they are always being asked to work overtime or extra shifts due to a lack of staff. If they are not thoughtful about their work and their self-care then they may put themselves, and most importantly those that they are caring for in a compromising situation. This may come from being overtired, overworked, and/or too emotionally connected to a patient’s situation. They all stressed the importance of empathy for the patient and for the family and friends but reinforced that they need to pay attention to how and what they are doing. Additionally, they need to be able to effectively communicate with all involved to help everyone understand what is happening and how best to deal with the situation. 

They stressed time management in terms of thinking about a shift as a project and the need to manage time, resources, and themselves to accomplish all that must be done to meet the needs of all patients. They highlighted the need to critically think and problem-solve, often creatively as each patient and each case brings its own variables.

I am confident that everyone reading this could ask their friends and families in different careers their own thoughts and they would learn about the importance of a great many skills and personal attributes needed to be successful in many careers. What I found validating was that these conversations and many more reinforced the importance of not only teaching academic content and skills but also teaching students future-ready skills; the skills found within a school’s Portrait of a Graduate.


HQPBL (2023). A framework for high-quality project-based learning. Retrieved December 9, 2023, from, https://hqpbl.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/FrameworkforHQPBL.pdf

Larmer, J., (2023). What is a portrait of a graduate? Defined. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from, https://blog.definedlearning.com/what-is-a-portrait-of-a-graduate

Larmer, J. (2023). Why PBL is key to meeting Portrait of a Graduate goals. Retrieved December 9, 2023, from: https://blog.definedlearning.com/blog/why-pbl-is-key-to-graduate-goals

McTighe, J. (2014). Transfer goals. Retrieved December 7, 2023, from, https://jaymctighe.com/downloads/Long-term-Transfer-Goals.pdf

McTighe, J. (2023). What is a performance task? Retrieved December 7, 2023, from, https://blog.definedlearning.com/blog/what-is-a-performance-task


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