Proficiency or Growth?

For years there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding the debate of the best way to measure school quality. The two most common arguments are to either measure for proficiency or growth. While there are other options, the two that are most argued are proficiency and growth. Proficiency measures “how many students meet a certain score deemed proficient” by a certain governing body. The topic of proficiency in schools stems back to the No Child Left Behind Act passed by President Bush that required schools to have all of their test scores reach a “proficient” level, which was found to be near-impossible once the bill went into action. Growth measures how much a student improves in their education from year to year. This issue has recently gained a growing national audience after Minnesota Senator Al Franken asked President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, about her personal opinion on the issue.

As Senator Franken explains in the video, the problem with proficiency lies with the fact that the method incentivizes teachers to ignore students on the extreme ends of the spectrum. If a teacher’s goal is to attempt to have all of the students in the class become proficient, the teacher will pay more attention to the kids on the margin rather than the kids well above or below the mark of proficiency. The teacher is more likely to focus on the students in the middle because the students who are way above will not drop below proficiency and the students who are way below are likely to not reach proficiency even with a great deal of help. One of the biggest issues with proficiency lies with low income schools and students. There is a correlation between poverty and lower education levels and due to this trend proficiency punishes schools who bring in low income students. While a school with lower income students may be increasing the education levels of their students greatly, they may still be falling short of the proficiency mark and will therefore be deemed lower quality than other schools whose students came in at a higher level. Kids with poor learning environments or that come from low income families may have to work a lot harder than other more privileged kids to meet the requirements. It is important that when choosing the best method for measuring school quality, other outside factors are taken into account. There are also issues with growth as a sole measurement too due to the fact that it relies heavily on test scores which have been found to be poor indicators of student’s education levels and achievement.

When recently speaking with a retired school administrator of 20 years, he explained to me how at one point in his career he took a job as a principal at a very poor, under-performing public elementary school. He spoke about the plans he had for the school and the reforms he was able to put into action, as well as the results that he saw during his 5 years as principal. However, he explained that he knew his school needed 10 years to reach these goals and get up to the level that they desired to be. He knew that this was going to be a long process and that he could not fix everything all at once, so he told me that he did not focus on test scores. This was a very strange thing to hear from a public school principal. You didn’t care about your school’s test scores? He described how test scores were not what needed to be fixed first at this school. He focused on growth in his school rather than proficiency, because by viewing his school’s growth he was able to see the progress they had made, instead of solely seeing how they were still under-performing in comparison to other more affluent schools in the area.

While this issue is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon there has been a great deal of attention shed on the topic and the debate will remain in the spotlight for many months to come. There are positives and negatives to both sides and hopefully with further research and attention scholars and researchers will finally conclude which method is a better measure of school quality.

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One Response to Proficiency or Growth?

  1. leighahall says:

    Very well said, and I couldn’t agree more! Growth is far more important to focus in on. If a child grows significantly then that is progress even if they are yet labeled as proficient. We need to focus on what students are learning and how they are improving and give them ways to feel good about that. Kids who grow, but fail to meet proficiency, are still at risk for being labeled in negative ways when they worked very hard and improved!


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