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Promoting a growth mindset for all students

6 min read


What if we gave a test and everyone passed? That should be the goal! If that happened, however, instead of celebrating that success, policymakers likely would have the test-makers create harder tests. The reason is pretty clear: standardized tests primarily are for controlling education, not educating students.

Standardized tests measure student performance, identify “failing” schools and help evaluate teachers, all with the goal of increasing student achievement. This is a rather indirect and uncertain route for achieving that goal. To be managerially effective and fulfill their purpose, standardized tests cannot be designed for all students to pass them — some have to fail them.

Even though standardized tests primarily measure how large groups of students perform, the test items can represent specific learning objectives. Individual responses can, therefore, indicate what students know or don’t know. This can be useful information, but it doesn’t tell why they answered incorrectly, nor does it indicate how to best instruct them.

Effective teachers don’t need standardized test results to teach individual students. They have easier and more direct ways of determining what a student knows or doesn’t know. Observing and talking to students is the best way of knowing why they are not learning. Student learning improves as teachers discover more effective ways of teaching through their daily interactions with students.

Standardized testing, designed for some students passing and some failing, is probably the most prominent and impactful manifestation of what Carol Dweck would call a fixed mindset in education: A student with a fixed mindset attributes success to innate ability; a student with a growth mindset attributes success to effort and perseverance.

The manifestations of the fixed mindset of schools, unfortunately foster a fixed mindset in the students who attend them. Sadly, students with a fixed mindset probably believe innate ability is distributed like the “bell curve” across the student population: Some students are very smart, most are “okay,” and some are not smart at all. Many of the traditional practices in school unfortunately only confirm this belief about themselves and other students. Students are more likely to perceive school as a competition among individuals with unequal innate abilities, than a community of people helping each other learn.

In most schools, the “smart” students are perceived as the ones who don’t have to struggle; to whom the answers come quickly. They raise their hand the fastest. They are the first to hand in their tests and complete assignments. Some boast about getting “As” without really trying. They also seem to be the ones that gain the most teacher approval and garner the most awards and recognition. ‘”Being smart” in schools, as they are currently structured, is much more associated with speed and ease not effort and persistence. If you have any doubts about that just ask students, they know that “time” is a key variable for learning in school — they feel its pressure.

Someone with a growth mindset thinks, “no matter how long it takes or how hard it is, I will learn what I want or need to learn.” Many school practices, however, interfere with this mindset by penalizing students for taking longer to learn something. Students who pass a course in ten months are considered successful. Students who go to summer school (take twelve months to learn it) are considered to have failed with the added consequence of losing their summer break. An arbitrary, pre-determined length of time imposed on learning, leads not just to students “failing,” but also to viewing themselves as “failures” in school and in the eyes of their peers.

In elementary school, students who don’t learn “on time” can too easily think that something wrong is with them. These students, who often are retained a grade level while their classmates move forward, carry emotional wounds throughout their school career and into their adult lives.

All of this happens despite that fact that there is no research indicating that people learn in ten months segments of time. Research reveals just the opposite: people naturally take different amounts of time to learn things and learn best when they are not evaluated, nor penalized on the length of time it takes to learn them.

Telling students to try harder and praising them for effort, though helpful, cannot alone change student mindsets from fixed ones to growth ones. Only more substantive changes in educational practice can erase the fixed mindset that is communicated to students in their daily experience of school.

For example, if the goal and purpose of school was success for all students, a strong case, as Dweck has suggested, could be made for only having two grades: Mastery and Not Yet. All the resources and efforts of educators should be directed towards helping students persist until they learned what they needed or wanted to learn. School improvement efforts should focus on changing school practices so that students can believe that their efforts will lead to success rather than failure defined by time limits.

Even advocates of the common core standards would have to admit that a growth mindset supports the type of learning that best prepares students for college and careers. These new standards, however, go hand in hand with new standardized tests; they only cement the fixed mindset of schools more firmly in place. “Raising the bar” for students, who are used to failing, only makes success seem harder and less obtainable.

Schools should use assessments that are designed for helping all students learn and succeed. These assessments could provide feedback to students on their progress and to teachers for making adjustments in instruction. Tests could be used to determine mastery in a specific area of study, but students would only take that test when they were ready to “pass” it. If this sounds impossible, you have to look no further than the type of testing used for getting a driver’s license. The time it took to learn something shouldn’t negatively affect how students view themselves as learners. Students need an environment where learning is what matters, not the time it takes.

Schools should be designed to reflect and promote a growth mindset for all students. The changes needed would be radical but make common sense. Our students need for us to accept this challenge, make the necessary changes and persist in our efforts to make them a reality. We need a growth mindset about our students, our schools and ourselves. Schools can be places where the success of all students becomes not just possible but inevitable. Let’s hope and work together, making it just a matter of time, until they are.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at