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Broadening Definitions of Student Success

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What is student success? What does it look like? How can we measure it? Is it academic achievement? Is it retention rates? Is it levels of social, emotional and physical wellbeing? Is it a school based measure or is it systemic? Does there have to be physical evidence to support it? The introduction of the 5P planning model in NSW Public Schools has again ignited this debate and has possibly given rise to a broader definition of student success.

There can be no doubt that parents, students and teachers want to see students succeed, but it can be difficult to actually determine what success really looks like. Making judgements about individual student success actually requires a wide range of factors to come into play and may vary depending on specific contextual information. The challenge is coming up with a credible way of measuring individual success.

There is a system requirement that we measure student success. Student academic achievement needs to be monitored, it is one way that we can identify areas for improvement and provides some form of accountability measure for systems and governments to make judgements about policy implementation and financial management. High stakes testing obviously feeds into this form of measurement. The problem with this however is that it has a limited scope and a limited capacity to cater for the individual. This style of testing can be linked to funding decisions and policy implementation which in turn has the potential to narrow the curriculum focus of teachers who may feel pressure to ensure students meet externally identified standards.  I’m not implying that results from this form of testing cannot be used in some way on a school level to assist with future planning, I do believe however, that the results are just a snapshot and have a range of contextual information that needs to be considered when interpreting them. There is no doubt that systems need to collect some form of student success measure. In my opinion the jury is still out as to whether the current high stakes testing regime is the tool to be used.

In stark contrast to the high stakes testing regime, a selection of NSW Public Schools have the opportunity to participate in a strategy known as Early Action for Success. This initiative implemented as a response to the NSW government’s State Literacy and Numeracy Plan provides teachers with high quality professional learning. An appointed Instructional Leader provides evidence based professional learning enhancing teachers’ capacity to provide best practice strategies in developing personalised learning for students and utilising a range of assessment for learning practises. Individual student results are matched against a learning continuum allow student success measures to be recorded, analysed and use in a way that drives individual student performance and focuses teaching and learning programs. Whilst these results are still used to compare with an external benchmark level, they rely on quality teaching practises that engage students to achieve levels of personal success.

If we are to broaden the definition of success we must provide students with the skills and capabilities to understand where their own learning needs to go. I strongly believe that successful students know where they are  in their learning, where they need to go and how they are going to get there. This must encompass a wide ranging curriculum. For some students success could be reaching high academic attainment, for some is may be on the sporting field, for others the area of social interaction may be an attainable goal. I am not suggesting that strong foundations and essential skills and knowledge learnt through key learning areas are not important, merely that student success should be an individualised measure driven by students and strongly supported by quality teachers. Trying to provide narrow banded definitions supported by quantifiable measures will never reflect the accurate picture that individualised measures provide.

There is much debate around the term student engagement and how we can measure this. Observing students actively engaged  in a task has the ability to provide individual success measures for a much wider range of students. If students are engaged in a task rather than on a task it allows us to measure student satisfaction with their learning and can act as the catalyst for self-driven enquiry which if managed effectively can provide powerful avenues for student success. One of the pitfall with this area that I am currently witnessing are students who are given the freedom to discover their learning with little structure or feedback. Many students are lacking the skills necessary to really understand the process of discovery learning. There can be wide spread engagement on task with little learning evident. Whilst I believe that this type of learning has the capacity to broaden the definition of student success it must be monitored and guided by quality teaching practice. Setting high expectations and holding students accountable for their learning by having them establish clear goals and being able to articulate their achievement of goals is an effective way of measuring this type of success.

It is now vitally important that our students learn a broad range of skills to enable them to interact in an increasingly globalised environment. They need  the ability work collaboratively in teams, to be creative, to be able to think critically, to be reflective and be able to evaluate their actions. To my knowledge there is no single high stakes test or single set of performance measures that provide an accurate indication of student success across these areas. A broad definition of success takes into consideration individual context and allows the setting of personal goals. In NSW Public Education our new planning model is widening our definition of student success. It is providing schools with the opportunity to identify and contextual rigorous performance measures whilst still allowing the system to fulfil its obligation of data collection. NSW Public Schools in consultation with their communities now have the capacity to  broaden their definition of student success. The challenge for the system now is to support individualised definitions and determine if high stakes testing has a relevant  place in the new world.

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