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Word Attack: “Achievement”

June 23, 2010

In my introductory post, I wrote that my goal was to create a space where the people most directly affected by so-called “failing schools”

can share their experiences of what it’s really like to work and learn in a “failing” school, and begin to unpack and challenge the rhetorical and systemic tools that prevent them from using their professional expertise and personal knowledge to move their educational communities forward.

This post will be the first in a series that works on the second part of that goal; namely, looking at the ways in which commonly used buzzwords, metaphors, and trends may undermine educators’ (and the communities they serve) attempts to solve pressing problems in our neediest schools. Despite the good intentions of (most of) the people involved, casual use of language that means very different things to different people can create serious problems.


Ask yourself what the word “achievement” means. (I’ll wait.)

Like many words we use regularly, we probably have a general sense of what we mean when we say it, and we probably assume that others who hear us share our definition, however hazy. But hazy language in the educational/ public policy arena can get really scary, really quickly.

A quick Google search of the term “student achievement definition” returns 10.2 million hits, literally pages and pages of people discussing various aspects of achievement like

  • “learning gains”
  • grades
  • promotion to the next grade
  • awards
  • graduation rates
  • college acceptance rates
  • college graduation rates
  • career placement
  • standardized test scores

and so on. But, as Patrick Riccards over at Eduflack notes, there is really no precise operating definition of  student achievement. Everyone agrees that it is important, but true consensus ends there.

When I talk with parents and students, it seems that “achievement” is usually about positive outcomes in life, like graduating from high school, being accepted to college, or accomplishing other goals one sets for oneself. As I talk with other teachers, they tend to mention similar things, and may also mention things that have to do with actual learning, as in, “student achievement is about making progress toward learning goals” as defined by state standards/curriculum/etc.

By contrast, the district leaders and politicians (who make the big-picture decisions about education) tend to converge on a definition that is mostly about what can be frequently measured. They look at things like graduation and dropout rates, but their working definition of achievement centers on standardized test scores. Many of these people aren’t teachers, they’re not in classrooms, and they don’t see (or understand?) the learning process, so they rely on numbers to attempt to understand what’s going on in schools.

There’s a certain logic to that; from their perspective, it’s a simple matter of figuring out if we’re getting a good return on our investment (more on that pesky business metaphor later…), or if we’re spending lots of money and getting no student progress in return. But there are many problems with high-stakes standardized testing (again, a HUGE discussion to be had in a different post), especially when the scores they generate are used as a proxy for measuring student achievement.

When community groups, educators, and public officials get together to try to improve student achievement, without first agreeing on what that is, communities may end up consenting to things they’d never want for their children. I can’t think of a single parent who sends their child to school every day hoping they’ll come home knowing tons of test-taking strategies, but no social studies. This happens all the time, however, because the immense pressure placed on low-performing schools to raise test scores often results in those schools trimming non-test subjects from the curriculum, and using time intended for true instruction on test-preparation instead. Likewise, I can’t think of any community that would be excited about  increases in student achievement that were actually the result of lowered standards, as is the case in many cities and states across the country.

As educational historian Diane Ravitch notes in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,

Higher test scores may or may not be a reliable indicator of better education. The overemphasis on test scores to the exclusion of other important goals of education may actually undermine the love of learning and the desire to acquire knowledge, both necessary ingredients of intrinsic motivation…Yet at the same time that scores go up, the youngsters may be ignorant of current events, the structure of our government and other governments, the principles of economics, the fundamentals of science, the key works of literature of our culture and others, the practice and appreciation of the arts, of the major events and ideas that have influenced our nation and the world. Even as their scores go up, they may be devoid of any desire to deepen their understanding and knowledge, and may have no interest in reading anything for their own enlightenment or pleasure. And so we may find that we have obtained a paradoxical and terrible outcome: higher test scores and worse education.

When educators and community members enter into any discussion of improving student achievement, we need to be very certain of what everyone means when they use that term. We need to be clear about what we want for our students, and about fair ways to assess our progress toward those goals. Otherwise, it is very easy to be sucked into great-sounding “solutions” that may create more problems than they solve.

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