Academic Achievement

Academic AchievementAcademic achievement is axiomatic to career development processes. In people’s lives, academic choices, barriers, or opportunities occur early and frequently, and they have a pervasive and lasting influence on career development. For example, a middle school student’s choice of or opportunity for educational curricula limits or broadens the student’s subsequent opportunity for learning experiences; a high school graduate’s postsecondary educational opportunity and choice opens some occupational fields and closes others.

Academic achievement has been defined in a seemingly infinite number of ways, and some definitions are more valid, useful, and less harmful than others. In defining academic achievement, there are three salient dimensions to consider: equity, development, and meaning.

Academic Achievement and Equity

Academic achievement is the main means of social mobility for people outside the mainstream of the U.S., Western, and increasingly global socioeconomic system. Yet barriers to academic achievement remain, and these barriers perpetuate the chronic achievement gaps evident in the United States and other countries. These achievement gaps produce continuing social and economic inequity and stratification. Many authors writing in the career development field have made the point that much of career development theory, research, and practice has little use or meaning for those outside the mainstream of the U.S. socioeconomic system. That is, because many people outside the mainstream have limited opportunity—including limited opportunity-to-learn—they have no choice; and choice is frequently an explicit or implicit assumption in career research, theory, and practice.

Thus, defining academic achievement is an educational, career development, professional, ethical, social, economic, and political issue. Any definition of academic achievement that does not take into account many students’ lack of opportunity-to-learn serves to perpetuate inequity. For example, in the late 1980s, several U.S. states rewarded and punished schools based on students’ average scores on basic skills tests. Students in more wealthy schools had higher scores than students in poorer schools where there was less access to a quality curriculum and quality instruction. In the mid-1990s, this perpetuation of inequity was recognized, and states moved to a system based on students’ degrees of improvement on basic skills tests. This current system, however, is not without fault, and no definition of academic achievement is perfect.

Academic Achievement and Development

Academic achievement is naturally developmental and hierarchical. One developmental educational milestone opens opportunities for the next academic achievement endeavor. Thus, any definition of achievement must take into account the developmental nature of academic achievement. Paying attention to developmental phenomena helps counselors and educators focus on students’ and clients’ past and future learning experiences in a dynamic way. A developmental perspective helps professionals see academic achievement choices, opportunities, and barriers through an equity and cultural-experiential lens.

The Meaning of Academic Achievement

The meaningfulness of academic achievement definitions, measures, or indicators is related to the equity dimension and the developmental dimension. Some developmental accomplishments have more meaning and bearing on subsequent achievement than others. If achievement outcomes have some functional meaning in terms of educational, social, and economic advancement, they are meaningful. Governments and educational institutions, however, have historically bestowed high levels of meaning on particular academic achievement outcomes that have dubious functional meaning (e.g., scores on tests with limited validity, invalid college admissions criteria).

A Positive Example

The following is an example of a definition of academic achievement that accounts for the equity, development, and meaning dimensions: The National Center for Transforming School Counseling (NCTSC) is a component of the foundation The Education Trust. The Education Trust focuses on educational reform, educational equity issues, and closing achievement gaps. One goal of the NCTSC is for all students to graduate from high school college ready and work ready—using one intensive high school curriculum. Current school counselor training done by the NCTSC focuses on transcript analysis, with particular attention to the academic intensity of courses students complete across their middle and high school careers. Based on students’ course-taking patterns, they are placed into categories representing degrees of behind, on target, or advanced (toward college ready and work ready). This definition of academic achievement in high school is meaningful because longitudinal national research has shown that the strongest mutable determiner of postsecondary educational success is the curriculum that students experience in middle and high school. This definition is developmental in focus, and it also takes equity issues (e.g., opportunity for an intensive curriculum, institutional barriers, high school curriculum tracking practices) into account.


  1. The Education Trust. (2003). The National Center for Transforming School Counseling. Retrieved from
  2. Trusty, J. (2004). Effects of students’ middle-school and high-school experiences on completion of the bachelor’s degree (Research Monograph No. 1). Center for School Counseling Outcome Research, University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Retrieved from