What Are the Right Learning Goals for Students for the 2020–2021 School Year?

By: | 09/03/2020
Categories: Data Culture, Distance Learning

As students return to school this fall—at home, in a school building, or a little of both—their teachers will have a lot of tough questions to sort through. Setting the right growth goal for each learner shouldn’t be on the list of tough problems. From our perspective, each student should have a goal that is both realistic and ambitious. Realistic means it’s obtainable—something we know is possible. Ambitious could mean a lot of things, but in our minds it’s a goal that helps the student close in on proficiency. In this year, more than any other, we think students will need big goals to make up for some of the disruption they experienced this past spring.

For many, setting better goals might mean abandoning some old habits. While old goal-setting conventions like “a year’s worth of growth” or “the 50th percentile of growth” helped us understand if students were tracking with peers, they generally didn’t help us understand if students were closing in on the ultimate goal: grade-level work. If we believe that grade-level work is the right goal for all of our learners, goals grounded in averages aren’t the right starting place. And in a year when more students than ever will be starting out behind, we’d argue that these normative “average growth” goals aren’t right for any of our students.

Here’s an illustration of why we think educators need a different kind of goal: If we track students to normative goals based on historic averages (like average or 50th percentile), they will tend to hover around the average indefinitely.

Graph showing average growth each year.
A chart showing average growth percentiles across Grades 3, 4, and 5.

And if those same students experience a significant disruption in their learning—like the one brought on by school closures last spring—and continue to grow at average rates, they will inevitably “stick” at a level of performance even further below grade level.

Graph showing average growth after learning disruption.
A chart showing a drop in average growth after a learning disruption for Grades 3, 4, and 5.

Goals like this, unfortunately, put students on a path that never actually gets them to grade-level proficiency.

We certainly aren’t the first to note this phenomenon. In a study of programs in place in Kansas City, the Council of the Great City Schools found that setting expectations for growth based on normative growth goals “would leave the district well short of proficiency on the state assessment, and students would fall [further] behind as they proceeded from one grade level to the next.” The finding was similar in an audit of Columbus City Schools, where the Council found that “although they are meeting their annual growth goals, students are still not making the additional gains necessary to close the achievement gap nor improve state assessment scores to a large degree.”

If our past goal-setting approaches won’t work, what will?

Ideally, students will have growth goals that put every learner on a path to grade level, even if that destination isn’t reachable within one academic year. We think that these big, ambitious goals are best for students, and our research leads us to believe grade-level work is possible for the vast majority of learners. While there are probably a lot of ways to set a goal that’s both obtainable and ambitious, we have a pretty good approach built into i-Ready. You can learn more about our Stretch Growth® model here, or see how Kansas City Public Schools used it to set higher expectations here.

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