What Does Measuring Student Growth Look Like in Practice?

By: Kristin Moran
This is the second of a two-part series from Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) about measuring student academic growth. Our first post by Sarah Godlove Evans made the case for why measuring student growth matters now more than ever, to ensure that teachers have what they need to succeed in the classroom and that all students are supported in their learning to meet ever rising standards. NWEA authors Matt Chapman, Raymond Yeagley and Anne Udall have previously written for Getting Smart about educator evaluation.
What does measuring student growth look like in practice?
How do you know if a student is learning?  Too often, we neglect this fundamental question in our ongoing debates about test scores, standards and student progress.
Successful educators—who know that virtually all students have the potential to learn and grow—consider three essential questions about growth to understand whether and how students are learning:

  • Where is each child starting the semester or school year? Individual students typically enter the fall at different levels of understanding and readiness to learn.
  • How is each child progressing along his or her learning pathway throughout the year and toward becoming college and career ready? Students build skills and knowledge at different rates from one another and may individually experience both rapid bursts of development and areas of prolonged academic challenge.
  • How does each child’s achievement and progress compare to his or her peers in the classroom, school, district and country? Comparisons at key points in a student’s development enable teachers and school leaders to ensure that every student receives equitable and comprehensive preparation for college and career success.

To answer these questions, educators use real-time growth data from assessments to help all students achieve their fullest potential. They work with students to set individual learning goals at the beginning of the year; consistently check in with both formal and informal assessments of progress throughout the year and adjust instruction accordingly; and celebrate achievement and mark remaining opportunities at the end of the year.
When measured, understood, and used effectively, student academic growth allows educators to truly recognize and champion the often heroic progress students make in their learning. Using student growth data makes academic progress visible, and makes it count.
Targeting Individual Interventions with Growth Data
In Beaufort County, South Carolina, for instance, educators are seeing promising results from recent efforts to bolster student achievement.  Beaufort County is a moderately sized school district, with approximately twenty thousand students enrolled. Twenty-two percent of Beaufort County families live at or below the poverty line and more than half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.  Beaufort’s teachers have been particularly successful at focusing on student growth through targeted summer intervention.
Like many districts, Beaufort identified nearly half of its students were showing some level of learning loss between spring and fall assessments. Further, district research showed that this loss had a significant impact on where students ultimately ended up the following spring. This was particularly true for Beaufort County’s struggling students. To overcome this challenge, Beaufort identified the need for a strong virtual summer learning program to combat learning loss and chart sustainable positive learning paths for all students, using student growth data from throughout the year to pinpoint where the intervention was most needed.
“Our teachers…came to us thanking us for the amount of students that they saw coming in the following fall that weren’t showing a loss,” said Daniel Fallon, Beaufort County’s Director of Accountability.
Key Questions for Understanding Student Growth
Beyond informing educators about student progress toward learning goals and providing a set of indicators for instructional needs, growth data helps the many people working to support student learning answer important questions like these:

  • As a school principal, how can I ensure that the students in my school are tracking toward key milestones? How can I offer the best professional development to support our teachers in their use of timely growth data?
  • As a district administrator, how can I evaluate our district’s programs for improvement planning? What’s working best? What should we stop doing?
  • As a parent, how do I know my child is progressing?
  • As a student, how do I know if I am learning and what do I need to work on next to reach my goals?

There are many considerations and challenges for teachers, parents, and administrators to balance in the work of educating the next generation. Student growth data can be an invaluable and efficient tool to systemically keep a rightful and needed focus on student learning and progress.
And the insights of teachers, parents, administrators, and the students themselves are all critical to the interpretation and usefulness of the data.
Download the first, second and third articles in NWEA’s series on growth data to learn more about why and how to measure student growth.
Kristin Moran is a Curriculum Specialist for NWEA Professional Development. With more than sixteen years’ experience in education both domestically and internationally, she has served as a teacher, administrator, curriculum manager, and student achievement manager for online programs.

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