I had a student walk into my 9th grade class five years ago, and after her first writing sample I knew that I was going to struggle.
What she wrote stymied me. It was fluid, articulate, focused, insightful...all of the things I wanted my students' writing to be. If my supervisor had walked in and glanced over her shoulder as she worked in my room, the level of quality he'd see there would be above-and-beyond--and probably make me look darn good at first blush.
Over the next four years, she was a student in my 9th, 10th, and 12th grade classrooms. By the time she graduated, I had shared with her many, many times how she had challenged me as a professional to find ways to push her to that "next level" as a writer and thinker. She had walked in my door from day one a high-achiever in that regard. Many times, I questioned whether I had been able to truly promote progress, but through the teacher-student relationship we developed, she helped me see the very small, subtle ways that I had in fact helped her progress as a writer--not so much in mechanics as in nuanced craft and internal disposition.
When I think about other students who've passed through my room--the ones who were utterly unable to string two ideas together in September and who by June at least could focus five or six sentences on a cogent point alongside those writers who challenge me with their natural skill--finding ways to promote meaningful progress for all students is a tremendous task. That, though, is what makes the job the greatest intellectual challenge I can imagine.
My new challenge as a professional is how I can communicate about and therefore promote meaningful progress to my students, their parents, and my bosses. My gradebook doesn't do it. My gradebook documents a string of achievements. We all have those students who from day one rise to our challenges and earn A's on every task. A string of A's in a gradebook cannot in itself evidence the progress a child may (or may not) have made. Similarly, rising from all F's to all A's is not necessarily evidence of progress either--at least not in the sense of progress toward a learning goal. It is evidence of something--perhaps different content that grew more interesting, stronger parental influence, or renewed work ethic--but progress toward a specific learning goal or skill is not automatically evidenced there.
Considering that the current wording of the law that defines how student learning relates to my performance evaluation prizes growth (progress) rather than scores (achievement), I'm optimistic that a shift toward focusing on progress rather than achievement will be a good thing for our system and my students. I have many kids who don't care about getting A's... for whatever reason they've already decided that this prospect is not part of their identity as a student.
However, those same kids, whether they openly admit it as is so risky in teenage culture, do want to do better. They do want to make progress. This year, as I work on being better at tracking, monitoring, and fostering student reflection about progress rather than achievement, I've seen many of those kids achieve in ways that they and their parents alike are surprised to see. If I were only focusing on their achievement of grades or test scores, not their progress toward a skill, I don't think I'd see the same results.
Achieving high scores and transcripting top grades feels out of reach to far too many. Progress is something accessible to all.