How Do You Measure Progress?

I have a student who is significantly behind the rest of the grade level, and has been making slow, yet steady, progress all school year. I’ve noticed, as has the general education teacher, as of late he’s really been hitting stride. We use data to inform our instruction, and have several progress monitoring methods. In addition to reading benchmarks taken by the entire school, I keep almost daily records of word list readings according to his decoding ability (for non-teachers, this means sounding out words, I promise I’m going somewhere with this post, keep reading). Our school has a heavy focus on growth mindset for students and teachers alike, and when we give praise, which we do often, it’s likely related to growth and effort. One of the greatest parts of working in special education is getting to celebrate the small stuff on a regular basis. If you’ve never been genuinely excited about a kid (with fine and gross motor challenges) learning how to zip up their coat with ease, you haven’t lived!

We recently started reading two syllable words with short vowel sounds, a tremendous feat for someone who didn’t know the entire alphabet last year. When it came to reading the word list, he got 9 out of 15 correct (students need 15 out of 15 correct to move on), and he was bummed. So this is when I got all, “HOLD THE PHONE!” and pulled out the word list charts going back to the beginning of the school year (when we were reading one syllable words with only four sounds), along with the monthly growth line graph to drive my point home.

“Remember when we first started three letter blends? Look at the chart, how many did you get right?” God, I love teachable moments.


“And what happened?”

“I practiced.”


“I got better.”

“You sure did!” We went on like this for every single unit we’ve studied this year, and found a trend of 8 or 9 correct words for each time he attacked a word list for the first time. Our session ended with a high five and a positive text home, but that’s not to say that’ll be the last time I have to whip out my arsenal of progress monitoring charts.

On an annual doctor visit a few months after completing my first marathon, I was kind of bummed when the scale said I weighed 161lbs. It always seems like the nurses move that little weight way too fast for it to be accurate. I lamented to my doctor how difficult it is for me to get below 160lbs. I just ran a marathon for Pete’s sake, and I lift weights 3-4 times a week! When I finished my whining, all she said was, “Do your clothes fit better?” The answer was no–I actually had to buy new clothes because all my old clothes were too big. I was wearing jeans a size smaller than I did in HIGH SCHOOL. So did it really matter what was on the scale? As my doctor so wisely pointed out, there’s more than one way to measure progress, and just like with my student, it’s important to look at the big picture.

Left: Senior Prom 2003 (size 8) Right: A few weeks after completing the marathon in 2011 (size 6)

Left: Senior Prom 2003 (size 8)
Right: A few weeks after completing the marathon in 2011 (size 6)

When we’re putting effort into reaching a goal, it can be really challenging to notice how much progress we’re really making. If you don’t currently have a way of measuring progress, stop what you’re doing RIGHT NOW and come up with AT LEAST one way to know you’re getting closer to your goal. The same applies for those of us who my be in maintenance phases. Just kidding, there’s no such thing as maintenance, you better find a new goal STAT! All jokes aside, in order to know you’re making progress, you also need to be clear about your goal. Is it weight loss? Overall fitness? Lowering cholesterol? Minimizing sugar intake? Whatever your goal is, the way you monitor achievement should directly correlate with a measurable goal. I couldn’t hold my student accountable to reading even one syllable with a long vowel sound if he has only been introduced to short “e,” nor would it be fair to compare him to other students in his class.

Don't compare yourself to images you see in the media. Progress begins and ends with you!  Photo Credit

Don’t compare yourself to images you see in the media. Progress begins and ends with you!
Photo Credit

Always remember, progress starts when you do. Tracking your own progress helps deter any comparisons with unrealistic images in the media, or the progress of friends and family members. Everyone is on their own track when it comes to health and fitness, and you never know what type of work (or enhancements) other people have been putting in, or for how long, or what sacrifices they may be making to their health on account of vanity. The only journey you truly know is your own.

Here are some questions for reflecting on your progress:

  • How do I feel? Physically? Emotionally?
  • How are my clothes fitting?
  • What can I do now that I wasn’t able to do in the past?
  • Have I been getting more compliments than usual? (Note: If so, accept them graciously and don’t feel the need to explain yourself; a simple “thank you,” will suffice. You deserve it!)
  • How have my overall habits changed?
  • Have I been consistent in my efforts?

Check in with yourself regularly, and be honest with your answers. When it comes to progress, consistency is key.  Have you ditched the scale? How do you measure progress?

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