Achievement matters but what about tracking learning progress?

by Peter Goss and Jordana Hunter

Published by The Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday 27 January

As school students dust off their lunch boxes and stock up on stationery, it is worth reflecting on what we want from our education system in 2015, and how to judge success.

Many students will hope for great end-of-year results – a good ATAR score, or more ‘A’ grades on a report card. Others may hope just to pass. Typically, the aspirations of students, parents and schools focus on academic achievement, as measured by final results.

Of course, achievement matters. The class of 2014 no doubt understands this well as they contemplate the options enabled – or blocked – by their ATAR scores. But final results are not the only way to judge success, particularly for students earlier in their schooling.

On their own, end-of-year results say little about how much each student has learned during the year. Academic achievement is influenced by many factors, including prior achievement and socio-economic background. By contrast, academic progress, while not perfect, provides a better indication of how much students have actually learnt.

In 2015, our focus should be on the academic progress we want students to make, rather than the final mark. Our national aspiration should be that all students make at least one year’s worth of learning across all their subjects. For students who are behind where they need to be at this stage of their learning, we should aim higher.

To some, this may seem obvious. But our education system, with its emphasis on achievement, is not structured this way. Take, for example, end-of-year grades.

Most schools award grades on an A-E scale. A ‘C’ grade generally means a student’s academic achievement matches expectations for their year level. An ‘A’ means achievement significantly above expectations and an ‘E’ significantly below. Hopefully, each student’s grades are a good reflection of how much they know, although there are some reasons to think schools under-report achievement at both ends of the scale.

Yet while these grades provide valuable information, they do not tell us what we most need to know – how much learning is happening. Here is why.

Imagine a child starting year 7 three or four years behind their peers in reading. With hard work and great teaching, they achieve two year’s worth of progress in 2015. But they will remain an ‘E’ student in their end of year report because they are still significantly behind the expected level. Their outstanding effort may well go unrecognised and uncelebrated.

Now imagine an ‘A’ student who is far ahead of their grade level in mathematics. NAPLAN results show that 15 percent of year 3 children already perform at the minimum standard in numeracy expected in year 9. They can make no progress for several years before their grade falls. Unless a school pays close attention to their progress, not just their high achievement, it will not know how much they learned in 2015. This is a serious problem. Both NAPLAN and international data suggest many high achieving Australian students stall in their learning and do not reach their potential.

Tracking academic progress is vital. It tells teachers and schools when their approach is working. Recognising and celebrating great progress helps sustain motivation.

It also makes it clear when it’s time to try something new. Stalled progress may mean an ‘E’ student needs help to build basic literacy or numeracy skills, or an ‘A’ student needs a more challenging curriculum or a gentle push to raise expectations. Students whose progress stalls are likely to become frustrated and disengaged, and may well become disruptive.

Although tracking progress is not systematic in Australian schools, there are pockets of good practice.

Some report cards show student progress alongside letter grades. This is a good start. But this approach is far from universal, and the quality of the information on progress can and should be improved greatly.

Great teachers use high-quality student assessments to identify where each student is starting from. They teach based on what students are ready to learn next. They monitor progress over time and adjust their teaching strategies along the way. This approach needs to become systematic, including being embedded in teacher training courses.

Growing numbers of schools analyse student progress over time to identify and fix problems individual teachers might miss. A few schools are increasingly clear-eyed about their challenge and target two years of learning in one. They know exactly where each student is at, and track progress relentlessly to stay on target. However, many Australian schools do not systematically collect and analyse standardised data about the progress of every student.

Rather than just hoping for a great end-of-year result, we should focus on the progress we want students to make. Every school should track the learning of each student, using robust and precise measures, and include it clearly in report cards along with current achievement. Parents have a right to know how much their child has learnt.

Finally, schools should use progress data to inform and improve teaching practice. Increasing the rate at which students learn is, and always has been, the best way to improve their achievement.