How to Set SMART Goals That Matter

Over the past couple of decades, the once helpful practice of setting SMART goals for school improvement has largely devolved into a compliance activity, devoid of any real aspiration.

During my career in public education, I have reviewed hundreds of school improvement plans, and the most common practice for goal setting I have observed is taking whatever proficiency rate a school hit last year (even if it was startlingly low) and increasing it by 3-5 points as a target for this year.

Technically speaking, such a goal is Specific, Measurable, probably Achievable, and Timely (SMAT). (You have to say it with a Boston accent.)

Where is the R for Relevant?

I guess it depends on what a school is trying to accomplish.

If the ultimate goal is to get a higher accountability rating, a 5-point increase in proficiency may get the job done.

But if the goal is to serve the needs of all students (regardless of where they started), to strive for equitable opportunity in learning, then I would argue aiming for a 5-point increase in proficiency is not only irrelevant but potentially harmful.

A focus on an annual increase in proficiency as the primary indicator of success does nothing to account for the students in the building, in the classroom, this year. A number of students may be starting so far behind they likely will not reach proficiency even if they demonstrate remarkable growth, in which case a proficiency goal is defeating for students and teachers alike. Another group may be so advanced that maintaining proficiency is a breeze, in which case a proficiency goal undershoots what teachers and students are capable of achieving with more rigorous tasks.

And in the worst case, focusing primarily on an increase in proficiency can lead to prioritization of “bubble kids” (i.e., those students hovering right around the threshold for “counting” positively toward the school’s accountability rating) at the expense of students on the lower and higher ends of the academic ability spectrum.

If equitable learning is a value, we need to be setting goals for rates of academic growth. We should be celebrating success based on whether the majority of our students are learning quickly enough, regardless of their current achievement status.

So what is enough?

We recommend two metrics that help to answer this question:

1) The percentage of students whose national percentile ranking in the current year is greater than or equal to their percentile ranking at the end of the prior year.

If a student finished last year testing at the 60th percentile in third grade math, then it is reasonable to expect after a year of effective math instruction they should complete fourth grade at the 60th percentile or higher. Maintaining position relative to peers is a proxy for learning a year’s material in a year’s time.

When we don’t track changes in percentile rankings, it is possible, and fairly common, for students at the higher achievement levels to maintain their proficiency status but actually lose ground relative to their peers. Left unchecked over multiple years, these students may eventually regress to a point where they are no longer considered proficient.

2) The percentage of students who did not meet the state’s threshold for proficiency last year who increase their achievement level or tier this year.

Students who are not yet proficient in the grade-level standards must grow more quickly than their national peers if they are to reach the threshold for proficiency in a reasonable number of years. They need to learn more than a year’s material in a year’s time. So for them, maintaining percentile ranking is not sufficient.

Consequently, we use a second metric to focus specifically on the percentage of students in the non-proficient population who are demonstrating significant progress toward proficiency. In Florida, we call this growth standard “making a learning gain,” and it is defined by moving past certain scale score thresholds that tend to require multiple point gains in percentile ranking.

Bottom line: Design improvement goals that reflect an expectation that all students learn quickly enough, then build a plan with your teachers for how to meet diverse needs. That’s what I call SMART.

PS–We are often asked, “Once you know which metrics to use for your SMART goals, how do you know which numeric target to pick?”

Our advice: Don’t get stuck here. Pick a defensible but aspirational number. Something you can rally your teachers around. The worst thing we can do is live into low expectations.

When it comes to rates of learning, up is good; more is better.

To learn how K12 Lift helps teachers monitor their students’ progress toward meaningful SMART goals, click here to contact us.


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