The Quest to Define and Measure Academic Success

Written by: ArgoPrep Team



Time to read 3 min

As parents and teachers, we all want our students to succeed academically and in life. But what does it really mean for a student to be "academically successful"? This question has challenged researchers and educators for years. The research paper titled “Defining and Measuring Academic Success”, Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation by Travis T. York, Charles Gibson & Susan Rankin  took a deep dive into how academic success has been defined and measured in education research. The findings provide some thought-provoking insights that can help parents and teachers evaluate what success means for our students.

Defining Academic Success: More Than Just Grades

The paper reveals that there are myriad definitions of academic success used in research literature. On the surface, most people equate success with good grades and test scores. However, researchers' definitions dug deeper to encompass outcomes like:

- Attainment of learning objectives

- Acquisition of knowledge, skills and competencies 

- Development of critical thinking and problem solving abilities

- Satisfaction and engagement with school

- Motivation and confidence 

- Persistence towards educational goals

- Career success and post-college performance

This shows that academic success is multidimensional, going far beyond performance on tests. The authors synthesized these definitions into a new model of academic success with six key components:

1. Academic achievement (GPA, grades, test scores)

2. Attainment of learning objectives (knowledge, understanding)

3. Acquisition of skills and competencies (critical thinking, problem solving)

4. Satisfaction (with school, engagement, motivation)

5. Persistence (towards degree/certification)

6. Career success (post-college performance)

This model provides a more holistic and nuanced picture of student success in school and beyond. It encompasses not just their performance on tests, but also the knowledge, skills, and experiences that will enable success in college, career, and life. 

The Problem With Overreliance on Grades and Test Scores

The study found that despite conceptual models like this, grades and test scores remain the most commonly used measures of academic success by far. Nearly 55% of research defines success solely in these terms. The authors argue that the overreliance on grades and test scores to evaluate success is problematic for several reasons:

- Grades and test scores do not necessarily reflect true learning, development or acquisition of skills.

- Grading and assessment practices vary widely between teachers and schools, making scores inconsistent and unreliable measures of student growth.

- Defining success too narrowly as just test performance fails to capture students' overall development and future prospects. 

- This narrow focus causes research, and in turn education policies and practices, to disproportionately prioritize academics over other facets of student learning and well-being.

Grades and test scores provide limited insight into students' educational outcomes. Solely relying on them obscures a fuller picture of success.

Measuring the Multidimensional Nature of Academic Success

To address these issues, the authors compiled an extensive list of assessment tools from education research that can measure the varied components of academic success. This includes instruments evaluating: 

- Critical thinking and problem solving abilities

- Communication and writing skills

- Content knowledge and intellectual development

- Motivation, confidence and self-efficacy

- Satisfaction and educational experiences

- Career readiness and professional competencies

Utilizing assessments like these, in addition to grades and test scores, provides a multidimensional profile of students' development, knowledge, skills, experiences and future prospects. Taken together, they paint a richer, more nuanced picture of academic success.

Key Takeaways for Parents and Educators

This research highlights important considerations for parents and educators seeking to foster academic success:

- We need to recognize that success encompasses more than just grades and test scores, and encompasses development of broader knowledge, skills and experiences. 

- Relying solely on academic achievement measures provides an incomplete and potentially misleading view of student learning and development.

- We should utilize multiple forms of assessments to gain a well-rounded understanding of students' growth and future readiness.

- Our policies and practices should provide learning experiences that develop the array of abilities needed for college, career and life, not just academic metrics.

In sum, academic success is multidimensional. To help our students achieve it, we need to take a holistic view and promote learning and development across various fronts. This requires looking beyond grades alone to nurture the knowledge, critical thinking, skills, and experiences today's students need to flourish in the future.

What needs to change in American education to reflect a more holistic view of student achievement? As parents and educators, we must lead the way. What other changes do you think are needed?

Research Paper Citation:

York, T. T., Gibson, C. & Rankin, S., (2019) “Defining and Measuring Academic Success”, Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation 20(1): 5. doi: