The Challenge of Measuring Student Growth in Classrooms

Career-tech teachers have it. World language teachers have it. Special education and arts teachers have excelled at this for years. Early childhood teachers rely on it.

What is it? It is a long history of measuring growth to mastery, having focused on collecting evidence of mastery for many years.

National and state policies on student growth measures (SGM) have been challenging to educators on a number of fronts. Issues related to the measures we use to determine academic growth in meaningful ways have prompted opposition to the use of such measures for high-stakes personnel decisions. And in my own opinion—rightfully so. But let me be perfectly clear: We should be working to create accurate and useful measures of student growth. Further, we should expect the help we need to get better at the selection or creation of measures and use the right measures to help accelerate student growth. I also believe that as we become better at this as a profession, we should invite our results as evidence to augment self-assessment, feedback, and even teacher evaluation.

So, how do we get from here to there? First, we need to take a page from the teachers who have been measuring student growth for years. Second, we need to make an intentional commitment to use only measures that are in the best interest of the student; measures that support teaching and learning. Lastly, we need practice and feedback. Think about the many hours it takes to become an expert pilot—time that requires productive practice where effective feedback is typical and intentional responsiveness is expected.

To close our current gaps, consider this:

If you intend to fly a plane, I will guess that your pre-test will not be the same test as the post-test. If it is, a lot of folks might get hurt. That makes sense because, in the example of flying a plane, much of what is being measured is skill-based. When we teach skills, we determine if students have basic knowledge and then we probe for any skills they may possess before instruction. We do not have them fly solo at the start of learning.

But this same idea is also true for complex knowledge and reasoning tasks. We can and should construct assessments of students’ entry level skills in, for example, math or science. This helps students as well as teachers know where they are entering into the learning. We can use these assessment results—if they are soundly designed—to inform our instructional decisions. (This is an example of what experts actually mean when they talk about “data-based decision-making by educators.”)

Given this logic, it stands to reason that the pre-test does not need to match the post-test in order to quantify growth. And herein lies the rub: How can you measure growth using unlike measures? Allow me to simplify this for a moment: Consider the use of analytic rubrics. Students who score low on a rubric upon entering are shown what they must do to advance to a higher level. Their growth is measured by the distance they travel across levels of the rubric. This approach does not require two formal and equivalent assessments, and is often how career-tech and early childhood educators measure growth over the school year.

Formative instructional practices reinforce the idea that assessment for learning helps students grow—and simultaneously helps teachers succeed. To that end, a new module, Measuring Student Growth in Classrooms is now available for teachers and leaders who want help measuring student growth using unmatched pre- and post-tests and performance level descriptors. 

On a final note, evaluation-related requirements for student growth measures may or may not change over time. In my opinion, the need to produce accurate classroom measures that support and monitor student growth to mastery and beyond should not change. It is part of who we are as professionals—we help students to close their gaps by knowing where they are and where they are going. This is how we help students safely and expertly fly.


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