How Do We Measure Growth?

Recently, Donna Miller Fry shared a link to this blog post that I wrote many years ago about my aha moment.


Donna’s tweet made me look back on this post, but also think again about what I wrote. I wonder if my post simplified something that I’ve come to learn is far more complex. Learning these days so often seems to be associated with “meeting benchmarks,” but what about “demonstrating growth?” I’m not saying that benchmarks are bad: they help us measure success against a given standard. Since I wrote this initial post though, I’ve had various experiences that have caused me to pause and think.

  • I’ve taught in classrooms where many students come to me already meeting or exceeding year-end benchmarks.
  • I’ve taught in classrooms where many students come to me years below the developmental starting point of the curriculum expectations. 

In the first case, meeting benchmarks requires very little work on my part. Large percentages of success always look good, but who’s responsible for that success? Did I really help children learn? In the second case, it’s more challenging to meet benchmarks. If students start two or three years below grade level, how do I close the gap in a single year? If I don’t close the gap, does that mean that I’ve been unsuccessful? In both of these cases, I think that the true measure of success comes in focusing on “growth.”

Benchmarks are always about numbers. We tell our students to not focus on “the grade,” but then as educators, we stay focused on the percentage. What if we used a different measurement tool? If we want to see if every child is learning, why not use a portfolio to do so? Then we can see a starting point and we can see the growth. We can look at each child as an individual.

  • We can see the child that started by drawing pictures to communicate her thoughts that then moved to scribbles with no meaning, scribbles with meaning, random letters with meaning, and now some familiar words. That’s growth.
  • We can see the child that started by writing a single word or a short sentence that now writes multiple lines of text. That’s growth.
  • We can see the child (through video footage) that told us that she “can’t write,” that is now picking up a pencil, sounding out words, making connections to the letter-sounds, and writing down most of the initial and final sounds. That’s growth.
  • We can see the child (through video footage) that had no 1:1 correspondence skills that can now count groups of up to 10 objects and make the connection between the number of items counted and the numeral. That’s growth.

Yes, benchmarks help us gauge that child’s success against predetermined standards, but “growth” matters to me even more. I want to know that all of our children are learning, and I want to be able to prove it. For if not, I want to know what else we need to do to make that happen. Years ago, it was a group of amazing people — my parents and various educators — that did this for me, and now I’m in the position to do the same. What about you? Think of those children you know that may be struggling. How can we change their trajectory? What might our support mean to them? Every child needs a champion. I’ve had many over the years. Now I want to be that champion for others.


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