How ‘Growth’ Goals Actually Hold Students Back

Aug 30, 2020

Each fall, teachers return to classrooms to students with varying levels of preparation for the new grade in which they find themselves. Sadly, students of color are often the least likely to be prepared for grade-level work.

This year, those inequities are poised to balloon as students who entered the pandemic behind may have had little or no formal schooling since March.

Against that backdrop, technology-enabled assessments will play an outsized role in diagnosing student progress and prescribing a course of educational “treatment.” With good reason: When educators understand where students start the year, they can create on-ramps and supports to help them grasp the concepts that will lift them to the next grade level. Such assessments can also take administrative work out of teaching, creating time and space for educators to focus on the complex socio-emotional needs of children faced with unimaginable trauma in the months that they were disconnected from their school community.

But relegating recommendations to algorithms and technology risks exacerbating the very inequities it is intended to address.

As it turns out, the problem is that nearly all of the interim assessments used for setting student goals report only normative measures of growth, which compare a student’s progress to their peers, rather than how they are performing versus their grade-level expectations. It is rooted in a testing paradigm that reflects the now defunct concept that students fall along a Bell Curve—that some will always be behind—rather than a belief that all students can reach proficiency.

If you are a student who is performing at or above grade level, setting goals in relative terms can be innocuous enough. But when considered in isolation, such measures can have the insidious effect of holding back students who start the year already behind. Replacing grade-level achievement goals with relative growth goals undermine the mission of equity that our schools promise to uphold.

Imagine a student who is working to overcome years of inequitable, low-quality schooling and starts third grade at a Kindergarten level. She takes an assessment and is assigned a “growth goal” (for example, a fixed number of points to achieve on the scale used for a given assessment). This growth goal is based on how thousands of other students who have started third grade at a Kindergarten level have typically grown.

At the end of the year, she has met or slightly exceeded her growth goal, a fact celebrated on her score report. Her teacher celebrates. Her parents celebrate. This happens year after year. But guess what? Even after five years of meeting her growth goal, this student may still be below grade level. Celebrating this kind of growth—especially when the student, teacher, and family think they are doing what they need to do to support the student’s journey towards the life they imagine—is not only misleading, it’s unconscionable.

What’s worse, a growing body of research, perhaps best encapsulated in TNTP’s seminal “Opportunity Myth” report, suggests that reliance on normative growth measures hurts Black and brown kids most because they are pathologized. In effect, it sentences them to lower growth goals, lower expectations, less work and poor outcomes. It is a practice that, albeit common, perpetuates a racist system where those with access to high-quality education are perceived as achieving more, and those without access are perceived as achieving less.

There is, of course, nothing inherently problematic about the use of normative measures in education. In fact, comparative measures have generated insights that have, in recent years, helped to reconceptualize our understanding of student achievement. They have helped to shine a light on schools that may appear to be falling behind but are, in fact, putting low-achieving, high-growth students on a path to grade level or higher achievement.

Likewise, they may reveal schools that appear to be bastions of high achievement, but are simply preserving the status quo for low-growth, high-achieving students.

Of course, the pathway for each student will differ—some will need more time to thrive in grade level work than others. But we must approach the work of education as if each of them must. This school year holds both profound risk and profound opportunity for our most vulnerable students. The gaps are wide. Closing them will require heightened transparency, precision, and candor about whether students are doing grade-level work—and what it will take to get there.

That will require that we set equitable goals that are both attainable and ambitious. It will demand that we put systems in place to help children meet them—because they really simply can.


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