Image of Attainment vs Progress: What's the Difference?

Attainment vs Progress: What's the Difference?

In the world of education and assessment jargon, attainment and progress are two frequently used terms. While, at first glance, these concepts might seem interchangeable, John Rees, experienced teacher, trainer, and consultant, argues that there are some important differences which have implications for the development and success of learners. This understanding is crucial for adults to improve the efficacy of teaching. The differences should also be explained in age or developmentally appropriate ways to students, to enable them to better understand the learning process and become more effective learners.

What is attainment?

Attainment refers to the level of knowledge, skills, or qualifications a learner has acquired at a specific point in time. It reflects what the learner knows, or can do, at a particular stage of their educational journey. Attainment is often associated with outcomes such as grades, test scores, certifications, or external measures of academic success. These rather narrow descriptors frequently ignore the development of learners’ attitudes towards learning, which underpin so much success for individuals and organisations, whether they are schools, academies, or colleges.

What is progress?

Progress, on the other hand, describes the journey of improvement over time. It measures the distance travelled from a starting point towards a destination, indicating how much the learner has developed or grown academically, socially, or emotionally. This might be measured in terms of knowledge acquisition but might also be identified as skills development or perhaps the deepening of learners’ attributes - the development of self-confidence to ask questions, or preparedness to take risks with their learning. It’s important to recognise the importance of developing the character of learners, not least because attributes such as self-worth, empathy, and a sense of social justice are statutory components of the curriculum for schools in England. Progress is not just about reaching a predetermined benchmark but also about the pace and trajectory of improvement.

Fundamental distinction between attainment and progress

Perhaps the most fundamental distinction between attainment and progress relates to time. Attainment offers a snapshot of a learner's current standing - where they are at a specific moment. This might be recorded and reported at the end of a learning module, a term or semester, at the start or end of the academic year, or as learners prepare to join or leave a setting. In contrast, progress encompasses the journey undertaken by the learner—it tracks their evolution and development over time.

Attainment tends to be more static, focusing on outcomes that are relatively fixed at a given point. Once a grade is assigned or a test is taken, attainment provides a stable representation of achievement. Progress is more dynamic, highlighting the ongoing process of learning and improvement. It acknowledges that learners' capabilities are not static but evolve with time and experience. Attainment emphasises the product—the end result or achievement that can be measured and quantified. It answers questions like "What does the learner know?" or "What skills have they mastered?" Conversely, progress shifts the focus to the process—the journey of growth and development that unfolds over time. It explores questions such as "How has the learner improved?" or "What gains have they made in their learning journey?"

Attainment metrics often lean towards quantitative measures such as grades, scores, or percentages, which provide clear numerical indicators of achievement. Progress, while still measurable, encompasses more qualitative aspects such as skills development, critical thinking abilities, or socio-emotional growth. It acknowledges the multifaceted nature of learning beyond numerical benchmarks.

Finally, attainment reflects the outcomes achieved by learners based on their current efforts and abilities. It showcases what they have already accomplished. Conversely, progress hints at potential - it highlights not just where learners are but where they can go. It recognises the capacity for growth and improvement that exists within every learner.

Monitoring and evaluating

In all educational settings, both attainment and progress play an essential role in monitoring and evaluating learner performance and informing teachers’ planning. Understanding when and how to use each concept can empower educators to provide tailored support and interventions for their learners and so meet the needs of all students. Both attainment and progress can be considered at the level of the individual, group, class, year group and as a measure of the whole setting.

It’s important for any external group, whether they are parents, the school’s inspection service, or potential learners, to look at more than one performance measure to get a full picture of how the setting is performing. While attainment data tells us something about the performance of a setting or their learners at particular points, it’s important to remember that learners will inevitably have different starting points and very different levels of prior attainment.

Some learners may appear to be achieving relatively low results based on their overall attainment at the end of a key stage. However, a learner’s progress score will take into account their attainment at the end of the previous key stage, and the progress they have made since that point compared to others with similar starting points. When this is taken into account, a school may be helping their learners achieve better results than in other settings with similar students.

Attainment data is often used for benchmarking learner performance against established standards or comparing achievement across cohorts. This may be used for monitoring standards within the setting or for national comparison, through SATs, GCSEs, A levels, or more vocational awards. Such measures can also form the basis for accountability measures, such as ‘age-related’ scores, informing inspection judgements, and enabling educational settings to track progress towards learning objectives and standards for individuals and groups of learners.

Providing evidence of both attainment and progress requires some form of assessment. Before starting a new learning module or programme of study, good teachers will take time to identify what learners know or can do, as a baseline from which to work. Whether this is done informally through questioning, a quiz or mind map, or more formally, through exams or standardised tests, starting points for groups and individuals can be identified. This should inform teachers about any gaps in knowledge or understanding, and they can then plan their teaching and the student’s learning with greater accuracy.

As learners move through the module or course, teachers can use assessment-for-learning tasks or formative assessment strategies to track students' learning in real time. By gauging progress along the way, teachers can adapt their teaching, provide timely feedback, and address misconceptions effectively before errors become entrenched in learners’ long-term memories – which can be hard to ‘unlearn’.

This can also happen at a group level. If, for example, all the learners achieve 8/10 in a test, progress could be assumed to be reasonably good, but if all the students get the same two questions wrong, some more specific teaching will need to be done.

Adapting teaching

Monitoring and understanding the progress of individual learners enable educators to adapt or personalise their teaching to meet individual learning needs. Recognising and building upon prior learning helps teachers and their learners consolidate understanding and build schema or patterns of understanding. This can increase self-confidence and engender a sense of progress as learners build on existing strengths. At the same time, teachers must help learners address areas for development, where their knowledge, skills, or understanding are less secure. This level of personalised learning builds a greater sense of equity and inclusion, a learning environment where risks can be taken, secure in the understanding that ‘beautiful mistakes’ are encouraged and are seen not as failure but as an inevitable and constructive part of learning. 

Formative assessment for learning, throughout a programme of study, should produce progress data which can signal when learners are falling behind or struggling to grasp essential concepts. Early intervention strategies can then be implemented to provide targeted support and scaffold learning, ensuring that individuals can make appropriate progress.

At the end of a module, programme of learning, course, or academic year, educators can set tests or learners can take external exams as part of an assessment of the learning process. This summative assessment provides data on both assessments - what students now know or can do - and evidence of progress – the distance travelled since the baseline assessment. 

Striking a balance

While both attainment and progress offer valuable insights into learning, it's essential to strike a balance between the two perspectives. Overemphasizing attainment measures, at the expense of progress, can overlook and demean the developmental journey of students. This can lead to a focus on outcomes at the expense of growth. Conversely, prioritising progress without considering attainment can obscure the need for concrete evidence of achievement and mastery.

Effective strategies to support attainment and progress

Practical strategies for educators to support both attainment and progress in their students require a blend of pedagogical approaches, tailored support mechanisms, and fostering a conducive learning environment. Some effective strategies include:

  • Recognising the different learning needs within a classroom, so that educators can adapt their teaching methods to meet individual needs. This might involve varying the pace of teaching, offering different explanations, or providing additional or practical resources.
  • Clearly defined learning objectives and high expectations for behaviour for learning help students understand what is expected of them and provide a roadmap for their progress. By breaking down complex concepts into manageable goals, educators can scaffold learning and track learners’ progress more effectively. 
  • Conducting frequent formative assessments allows educators to gauge learners’ understanding and adjust their teaching accordingly. These assessments might be quizzes, discussions, or group activities, and provide invaluable feedback for both teachers and learners.
  • Developing personalised learning plans for students who require additional support can help address learning gaps and enhance attainment. These plans may involve targeted interventions, extra practice opportunities, or extension activities tailored to each learner's needs. 
  • Encouraging collaborative learning environments fosters peer support and engagement, allowing learners to share their understanding and develop essential teamworking skills. 
  • Providing timely and constructive feedback is essential. Educators should offer verbal or written feedback which clearly identifies areas of strength and areas for improvement, empowering students to take ownership of their learning. 
  • Integrating technology into the classroom can enhance learning experiences and facilitate personalised instruction. Educational software, online resources, and interactive tools can cater for diverse learning needs and provide opportunities for greater independence. 
  • Encouraging a ‘growth mindset’ promotes resilience and a belief in the potential for improvement. Teachers can foster this by praising effort and perseverance, emphasising the value of learning from mistakes, and celebrating progress.

By implementing these strategies, teachers can create a supportive learning environment where all students can flourish and make meaningful academic progress and attainment.

Understanding the distinctions between attainment and progress is essential to supporting different aspects of students’ learning and growth. While attainment captures the outcomes achieved at a specific moment, progress demonstrates an ongoing journey of improvement and development. By recognising the unique contributions of each concept and using them appropriately, educators can gain a more nuanced understanding of learners’ performance and tailor their approaches to foster more meaningful experiences. By embracing a balanced perspective, educators can cultivate environments where learners not only achieve academic success but also thrive as lifelong learners equipped with the skills, resilience, and confidence to navigate future challenges.

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