Student achievement's trick masks student growth's treat


Halloween is around the corner and children everywhere will wear masks throughout their neighborhoods for a night of trick-or-treating fun and, likely, too much candy. A masking has also occurred in education policy with the No Child Left Behind Act, sans the candy at the end of the night. That is, how the focus on student achievement with NCLB’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) has deemed 80% of schools as “failures” and masked the actual growth or progress that many children make in schools each year.

On Halloween, some children will frighten adults and kids alike with heinous masks, while their beautiful faces are smiling underneath. In school, this could be equated to low-achieving students who worry teachers, administrators, and policymakers with their abysmal test scores. Teachers have no control over which students enter their classrooms each year, and often students arrive multiple years behind with little hope of reaching proficiency. However, highly effective teachers can often impact exceptional amounts of progress or growth along the learning continuum. Low achievement can mask high growth unless school systems have a robust value-added or growth measure to showcase this success.

Likewise, if high achieving students are not challenged by a rigorous academic program with highly effective teachers, their growth can plateau and even recede. High achievement very often masks low growth, as illustrated in a recent study released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Tracking the individual scores of nearly 82,000 students on the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, many high-performing students lost ground from elementary to middle, and to high school. SAS® EVAAS for K-12 incorporates MAP tests along with other standardized assessments, and our analysts have seen similar trends in some schools. However, this does not have to be the case. Teachers with high value-added scores are very often highly effective with students at all achievement levels. They can masterfully differentiate instruction to meet the needs of low, middle, and high achievers so that no one loses ground.

So just what are some the differences between achievement and growth that allow this masking to occur?

Achievement Growth
Measures a student’s performance at a single point in time. Measures a student’s historical progress across all tested grades and subjects.
Highly correlated to a student’s family background or socioeconomics. Not related to a student’s family background or socioeconomics.
Compares student performance to an external standard. Compares student performance to their own growth standard based on prior performance.
Critical to a student’s postsecondary opportunities. Critical to a student’s future academic success.


With reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act stalled in Congress, President Barack Obama unveiled details of the long-awaited NCLB waiver plan at a White House event on Sept. 23. In order for states to qualify for the flexibility package they must create teacher and principal evaluation systems that will be based in part on student growth and used for personnel decisions. For the nitty-gritty details, including all waiver requirements and timelines states will have to meet, see this document. I feel that this is one step in the right direction to encourage states to take a look at student progress/growth to identify those teachers who can truly maximize educational opportunities for students at all levels, and find ways to replicate and scale up their practices. Ultimately, incorporating student growth or value-added metrics will remove the “achievement” masks students wear. The powerful combination of looking at progress and achievement will finally shed light on the pockets of success and opportunities for growth to improve outcomes for all students.


About Author

Nadja Young

Senior Manager, Education Consulting

Hi, I’m Nadja Young. I’m a wife and mother of two who loves to dance, cook, and travel. As SAS’ Senior Manager for Education Industry Consulting, I strive to help education agencies turn data into actionable information to better serve children and families. I aim to bridge the gaps between analysts, practitioners, and policy makers to put data to better use to improve student outcomes. Prior to joining SAS, I spent seven years as a high school Career and Technical Education teacher certified by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. I taught in Colorado’s Douglas County School District, in North Carolina’s Wake County Public School System, and contracted with the NC Department of Public Instruction to write curriculum and assessments. I’m thrilled to be able to combine my Bachelor of Science degree in Marketing Management and Master of Arts degree in Secondary Education to improve schools across the country.


  1. I like this paper Nadja it surfaces some deeper thinking on why most schools fail to raise achievement until they understand the importance of growing the child instead of measuring
    them. I look forward to more of your insights and how they impact my situation in my school and
    with my own learning.
    PS trick or treat was a great metaphor - NCLB had a great wrapper and it's sweetness was shortlived but the cavities will last much longer and bring more pain.

  2. Pingback: More than “teaching to the test”: Value-added ROI persists throughout a student’s life - State and Local Connection

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