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Start with a SMART Goal

By Julia Taylor | October 2018

I often tell our graduate students that a data-driven, comprehensive program is the “school” part of school counseling. Arguably, the most important step of a comprehensive school counseling program is a sound SMART goal. The acronym SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and time-bound. In school counseling, SMART goals are derived from student behavior, attendance and academic outcome data. Outcome data can be found on the Virginia Department of Education School Quality Profile page, or from your student information system (such as PowerSchool).
After you are familiar with your school’s data, but prior to developing any SMART goals, it is important to dig deeper and look for root causes. For example, why did 18 percent of ninth graders fail two or more core classes? Why did the majority of suspensions occur in the seventh grade? Or why did seven percent of third graders miss 20 percent or more of the school year? School counselors have to constantly ask “why?” Once you know why, ask “why” again. Data mining should take time. If school counselors do not have an idea of what the root cause of a problem may be, they run the risk of designing an irrelevant or unsuccessful intervention.
Let’s go back to the attendance example. Based on the outcome data, it would be easy to design a SMART goal similar to this: By May 2019, fourth-grade students who were absent for 20 percent or more of the 2017/18 school year will decrease by five percent, from seven percent to two percent. If there are 112 students in the fourth grade, and nobody moved, you are targeting 16 students. But what if you discover that one student broke his arm and had three surgeries, another student’s grandfather died and the funeral was in Japan, and two students missed random weeks and you find out they were on family vacations? Sure, you may want to talk to a parent/caregiver about missing school with said vacationers, but your time will be better spent designing specific interventions for the other 12 students. Last, since the SMART goal percentages are small, I would likely not adjust SMART goal, because the other four outliers are likely to regress to the mean.
Pro tip: Your school improvement team is likely to have similar goals, and your school counseling goals should be somewhat aligned.
In sum, measuring success starts with a SMART goal. Look at your outcome data. Dig. Ask why. Ask why again. When you have an idea of why, and resolving the issue is in your realm of control (and a funeral in Japan, arm surgeries and mid-year vacations are out of your control), create a SMART goal.
Here are a few resources:
  • ASCA’s RAMP resources at
  • ASCA National Model (third edition)
  • ASCA National Model Implementation Guide
  • Making Data Work (2013), by Kaffenberger and Young 
  • Facilitating evidence-based, data-driven school counseling: A manual for practice (2016), by Zyromski and Mariani
Julia V. Taylor, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia.