Achievement Growth


Achievement growth refers to academic progress made over a period of time, as measured from the beginning to the end of the defined period. Achievement growth can be tracked and determined for individual students, schools, states, or countries, and a wide variety of variables and methodologies may be used to determine whether “growth” is being achieved.

In general, achievement growth is tracked and calculated to determine how effectively or how quickly students, schools, states, or countries are improving, and “achievement” is most commonly measured using standardized-test scores—although other metrics, such as graduation rates, may be included in certain methods or reports. Achievement growth is also commonly reported in a comparative format—i.e., how different states or countries, for example, are improving achievement in comparison to one another, or how certain groups of students, such as minorities or English-language learners, may be improving comparatively.

Achievement growth also intersects with efforts to improve public schools in a variety of ways, typically by using achievement growth as factor when making important decisions about schools or educators. For example, teacher compensation or job security may be based in part on achievement-growth measures, or schools may be subject to penalties or negative publicity if they fail to achieve expected levels of growth. For more in-depth discussions, see high-stakes test and value-added measures.

When investigating achievement-growth statistics, it is important to determine precisely how growth was calculated, since a wide variety of factors—such as length of the measured period, the calculation methodology and tests that were used, or the size of the represented student population or subgroups—can produce significant variation in results. For example, a school may experience a dramatic or atypical drop in standardized-test scores one year, which will have a much bigger affect on perceived achievement growth if comes at the end of a three-year period as opposed to ten-year period. Similarly, an atypical drop in test scores would skew the perception of growth if it came at the beginning of a three-year period, since it would appear that the school made significant achievement gains when, in reality, the gains may be based largely on a statistical anomaly.

While the term achievement growth may be applied to individual students in certain cases, the term learning growth is likely more common at the individual level.


Since achievement-growth statistics are typically used to evaluate the effectiveness of education systems, schools, or teachers, they are generally motivated by a desire to improve educational quality or performance. For this reason, the statistics could be considered a de-facto reform strategy, since there would be no need to track, calculate, and report achievement growth if the status quo was considered acceptable. In general, achievement-growth measures are either used to make the case that improvement is needed or to equip education leaders, policy makers, and elected officials with the information and arguments they need to improve results.

In recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis on and attention to growth-related measures in the United States. In general, the attention is based on the recognition that a school, state, or country may begin well behind another state, school, or country, but that reforms could be introduced that accelerate improvement in relation to others. For example, a school located in a high-poverty urban community may begin with standardized-test scores that are much lower than the scores in suburban schools in wealthier communities, but the urban school, despite facing significant disadvantages, may improve scores at a much faster rate relative to its suburban counterparts. Given that academic achievement can be influenced by factors outside the control of school or education system, the basic idea is that growth-related measures are a more reliable and useful indicator of how a school or system is improving, or of how they are addressing and overcoming factors that may adversely affect achievement. In addition, by looking at the schools and systems that are achieving greater and more rapid growth, the reasoning goes, education leaders can identify reform strategies that could be instructive to or adopted by others.


Supporters of achievement-growth measures are generally concerned that if schools or states, for example, are only judged by achievement scores, and not by achievement growth over time, it can mask achievement gains and—by extension—the exceptional leadership, reform strategies, or teaching practices that might have contributed to the improvement.

On the other hand, critics of achievement-growth measures are generally concerned that the use of growth measures, rather than achievement measures tied to learning standards, will inevitably lead to the lowering of educational expectations for certain groups of students, particularly minority and low-income students. In essence, their argument is that if a group of students shows strong achievement growth, but those students still can’t read or write at an acceptable level, for example, then the growth they have achieved is not really a cause for praise or celebration.