Measuring School Growth Instead of Achievement

(Image credit: Pixabay)

Education researchers in Missouri have struck upon a new metric for assessing school success: growth. 

Rather than look at school achievement, a more traditional benchmark of success, the researchers at St. Louis University’s Policy Research in Missouri Education Center have focused on measuring how schools improve over time because this is less influenced by socioeconomic factors.

“In Missouri, we have quite a few districts and schools that get dinged for low achievement, when they serve a lot of low-income, high-mobility students,” says Evan Rhinesmith, Ph.D, executive director of the PRiME Center. “They typically don't have high achievement levels but they can still exhibit high growth.” 

He adds, “Conversations around school quality really should hinge a lot more on the growth aspect and how much kids are moving forward each year, instead of just ‘What do they show us at this point in time on a test?’” 

The Importance of Growth  

The idea of measuring growth is familiar to classroom educators. “My wife is a second-grade teacher. Her reaction was, ‘Yeah, you should obviously be looking more at growth, every teacher knows that,’” Rhinesmith says. “But for some reason, something's gotten lost in translation between the classroom and the policymaking process. We’ve lost focus on what really needs to be highlighted.” 

To encourage more discussion of growth in schools, the PRiME Center has released multiple reports that examine improvement in Missouri schools. 

The most recent one, “Beating The Odds,” uses data from Missouri’s elementary, elemiddle, and middle schools to highlight growth in high-poverty schools to spark more conversation, research, and collaboration around the issue. 

Rhinesmith hopes administrators go beyond the data gathered in the reports and start tracking growth in their own internal data. “They can take a look and find the things that they're doing really well and the things that maybe they're struggling a little bit with,” he says. “Talk to your neighbor to find out what they're doing well, and then apply it to your specific student context to hopefully push more students forward.”

Growth Matters in Every School 

Even high-achieving schools should pay attention to growth rates, says Misti Jeffers, Ph.D, a postdoctoral fellow at PRiME Center and co-author of the reports. Some schools Jeffers and her co-authors examined had excellent growth rates overall but struggled with certain subgroups. Often these subgroups consist of minority students, ELL students, and students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch. 

“Some schools are serving the whole school really well, in terms of having a high growth score, and also the subgroup population has a high growth score. For some schools, we didn't see that,” Jeffers says. Really examining growth across groups of students within a district or a school can help school leaders serve all students equitably. 

The growth rate can also be a good indication of recent progress at any school. “You can have high-achieving school districts that are low growth, which is pretty concerning,” Rhinesmith says. “Kids who are really high flyers scoring right at the top of their score range, it's tough to move them forward even more.” However, he says even in that scenario, you want to watch and make sure that your numbers don’t slide backward. 

While growth can be a valuable metric in any school, it is particularly important to monitor within schools that don’t achieve as well. As the “Beating the Odds” report recommends: “It is important for us to learn what is happening in these high-growth schools, while simultaneously recognizing these schools’ ability to move student learning forward.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.