What is Achievement?

In today’s education reform era, student achievement is king.  We want to see our kids succeeding.  We want to see test scores rise.  We want to know we can better compete against foreign nations on things like PISA and TIMSS.  We want assurances our students are getting a top-notch education measure by results, and not by processes.

But what, exactly, is achievement?  Eduflack and a close friend have been debating this very issue this week, and it really has me thinking.  Do we, as a nation, now believe that student achievement is only measured based on state-offered standardized tests?  And if not, what else qualifies as a measurement tool?

When the State of Maryland announced earlier this year that student achievement had dramatically increased in many at-risk schools across the state, Mike Petrilli and the folks over at the Fordham Foundation quickly pounced, correctly noting that reducing a standard so more kids make it does not mean students are achieving.  The same could be said in NYC.  NYCDOE’s recent test score boastings are indeed impressive.  But how does this year’s yardstick measure with the previous years, those years when fewer students hit the mark?

And what about those subjects not measured by the state tests or by national measures like NAEP?  Is there no student achievement in subjects like foreign languages or the arts or, in some cases, social studies?  Clearly, that isn’t the case.

I recognize these are some odd questions coming from me, particularly when I have long argued that we know programs like Reading First work because we have the student performance data to show it.  Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that.  In core subjects like reading and math, we have decades of data that demonstrate student performance.  As long as the measurement tools are the same (as is the formula to calculate achievement) we know effectiveness or not.

I’ve heard myriad of stories of how elementary school music classes have boosted student math ability and how “non-core” classes have had a real impact on student interest and ability in the three Rs.  With the recent push of STEM (science-tech-engineering-math) programs in our K-12s, we often talk about how social studies and other course electives can help strengthen a student’s STEM ability.  Can we quantify such impacts?  How do we claim more than just causal relationships between X course and student achievement?

A relative first for me, I’ll admit, but I don’t have all of the answers here.  I know that student achievement should be our primary focus, and that we must ensure that all students are performing at the necessary levels in all subjects.  I know that national standards are key to delivering on this promise, providing a singular yardstick by which to measure all students in all 50 states.  And I know that such measures in reading/ELA, math, and science are the most important ones to provide us a real benchmark on where our students are … and where they need to go.

But I also recognize there is more to it than just that.  How do we benchmark other subjects, particularly those that are not mandated as part of the state assessment or graduation requirements?  How do we make sure that the year-on-year yardstick doesn’t move from 36 inches to 33, giving us a false reading in a given year?  How, exactly, do we make sure our kids are really learning and achieving?

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