Team SMART Goals vs. Smart Students

A teacher raised this issue about SMART goals by offering this example:

Current Reality: Last year, 70% of the students in Algebra classes earned a final grade of C or better and 68% of the students met or exceeded the proficiency standard on the State/Provincial Algebra Assessment.

SMART Goal Example: This year, at least 75% of the students in Algebra will earn a final grade of C or better and at least 75% of our students will meet or exceed the proficiency standard on the State/Provincial Algebra Assessment.

His Question: "If we meet this SMART goal, how do we know if the change is the result of the actions we took or just that this group of students was more proficient in Algebra to start with?  Aren’t we comparing apples and oranges?  Maybe this year’s students are far better at Math than last year’s group and our actions actually hindered them from scoring at 80% or better."

Our Response: There are two assumptions we can make about teaching and learning. One is that students will learn according to their effort and ability and that their teachers and their school have no impact on their learning. The other is that teachers and schools can have a significant impact on student learning, and as  teachers work more effectively and become more aware of more powerful strategies for teaching, assessing, and responding to students, they can help more students learn at higher levels.

Your question indicates that you subscribe to the first assumption: if Group B achieves at a higher level than Group A, it means the students in Group B are smarter. But thirty-five years of research on effective schools and effective teaching indicate the second assumption is valid: some teachers are  able to help more students achieve at higher levels than other teachers in the same school teaching the same kind of students. I have no doubt that if you were to look at the achievement of all the students in your school over an extended period of time, the students of some teachers consistently outperform the others.

We advocate that teams set their SMART goal based on the assumption that the previous year of working and learning together will enable them to improve student learning for all incoming students. This kind of goal reflects the assumption that teachers make a difference.

If you would also like to establish a goal based on growth, and you had a valid way of assessing student proficiency at the start of the year, you could establish a growth goal as well. For example, a team might say, 83% of our entering students demonstrated proficiency on the state/provincial test in math last year. Our goal is to ensure at least 90% of these students are proficient on the state/provincial test at the end of this year. But I would advise that if you use a goal based on the growth of your students that you also use a goal based on your team’s growth as professionals. For example, of the students we taught last year,  85% scored proficient on the state/provincial test, and this year we want to get 90% to be proficient. Thus, you are setting one goal -90% proficiency - that has taken both student growth and teacher effectiveness into account. What I would not support is your establishing a goal based on incoming student proficiency that would result in lower student achievement than your team accomplished in the prior year.

Finally, here is a question we ask teachers: "Next year you have a choice of teaching either of two classes, both of which are grouped heterogeneously.  In Class A we have grouped all the students who believe they will be successful in your class if they are smart, and that they will not be successful if they are not smart. In Class B we have grouped all the students who believe they will be successful if they apply themselves and work hard. Which class would you rather teach: those who believe they will be successful based on their innate intelligence or those who believe they will be successful based on their effort?"

Every time we ask that question, teachers pick class B. If we want students to believe that their success will be determined by the willingness to continue to work and learn, we should model that assumption and recognize that our effort and willingness to continue to grow as educators impacts the achievement of our students. If, as you suggest, the only factor impacting their achievement is the ability they enter the class with, we could administer a pre-test and assign grades for the year since what we as educators do does not matter.


Christina Barnold

I never thought to look at the teacher growth as well as student growth-I had always assumed that I would understand my own growth based on how they improved. However, this post has really made me think about how I can reflect on previous actions based on my students' growth and modify future lessons to better teach the next set of students. Thank you for providing this insight!

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Most states/districts have an "advanced" level of proficiency - so once a team has been successful in helping all students reach the proficient level in all essential skills, teams of teachers work to enrich and extend the learning. Annual SMART goals for these course/grade level teams would look something like:

Current Reality: Last year, 100% of our students met the standard of proficiency in reading and 33% of those students scored at the advanced proficient level.

SMART Goal: This year, we will maintain 100% of our students meeting the standard of proficiency in reading at at least 40% of those students will score at the advanced profocient level.

In addition to the annual SMART goals, each team can set short term SMART goals on other common assessments administered to students throughout the year and each student can be taught to set SMART goals to monitor and celebrate their own learning progress.

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How do you write a smart goal to answer the question "What are we going to do when they get their?". I always view this question as focusing on the needs of the learning that has already mastered the content/skills and needs to be extended or moved beyond the grade level curriculum. Our SMART goals are always based on the data. From the data we set goals to move students toward the expectation. When we're talking about moving students beyond, what specific data should be collected? Do we choose a particular skill or content area that is beyond the grade level curriculum and/or expectation , assess their knowledge in this area and base goals on this data? As a staff we all know that some of our students on the higher end have needs that are not being met, but are not sure how to go about writing smart goals and using data to deal with this? I would appreciate any input about this and how other schools have addressed this issue.

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Jay Westover

This question comes up in most of the work I do with schools. I would like to extend the concept of SMART goals and student achievement with a scenario that relates to every classroom.

Let's say that a team of 4 teachers administer a common assessment. Now this assessment measured several essential learnings, and it was determined that 60% of students were proficient within this assessment on a specific concept/skill. The question becomes, how does the team measure an increase in student proficiency within that concept/skill? And more importantly, how does the team make the explicit connection to their team and classroom practices?

Here is an answer. After having given the common assessment, this team immediately identifies the students who made up the 40% not yet proficient and provides them with additional support. This extended time for learning would occur during the teams’ or as part of a school-wide intervention/enrichment period/block that is a component of the students’ daily schedule. When the team deems it appropriate, they reassess the students who were not initially proficient (using Form B - a similar but not the same initial common formative assessment). The students who are now proficient will be assigned to an enrichment group and those who are still not proficient will continue to receive small group intervention until they become proficient.

The team also reviews the curriculum to be taught over the next 6 weeks and finds the critical areas where the deficient concept/skill can be retaught/reframed/reviewed and decides on how best to provide instruction for that skill/concept. The team then determines where they might administer one or two quick formative assessments (3 to 5 questions) specific to that skill/concept during the 6 week period of time. In this manner the team has reviewed the curriculum to be taught, discerned key places to reinforce the deficient skill/concept, chosen instructional strategies, and decided on places within the curriculum where incremental common assessments can serve as a lens to discover the impact of their practice on student learning.

So in this scenario the team can make the explicit connection to their practice on student improvement as their collective efforts to support student learning were intentionally designed to support a specific student learning deficiency. The big assumption here is that the team has selected a deficient essential learning that impacts students' future learning; a critical pre-requisite skill or conceptual building block.

And the process continues on a quarterly basis as the team has pre-determined common assessments administered quarterly from which to set new incremental smart goals and create new incremental common assessments to guide their curriculum, focus their instruction, refine their practice and ultimately gauge their effectiveness as a team based on student learning results.

I extend this frame of looking at SMART goals as I have seen many teacher teams review common assessments only to spend time reflecting on what they might have done to get the student learning results. In this framework, the team plans future instruction and predetermines their practices versus reflecting on past practices. The student learning results not only gauge student improvement, but also serve as a tool for capturing and sharing best practices.

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