An Important Clarification in the Growth vs. Proficiency Debate

Watching the downfall of Al Franken reminded me of a moment earlier this year when Senator Franken was was questioning Secretary-designate Betsy Devos during her confirmation hearing. His question was about her thoughts on the "proficiency vs. growth" debate, specifically whether educators and policymakers should use assessments to measure proficiency or growth.

This piqued my interest for two reasons: 1) because I'm on the board of a charter school in central Oregon called the Redmond Proficiency Academy (as you can imagine, using assessments to measure proficiency is a big part of the instructional model), and 2) because I believe that implementation of a proficiency-based model in the public school system could provide a higher quality, more personalized learning experience for students. As RPA's Executive Director Jon Bullock likes to explain, in the traditional school system, time is constant and learning is variable, whereas in a proficiency system, learning is constant and time is variable. Proficiency accelerates the learning of high-performing students who are ready for more difficult content, while also decelerating the learning of students who are struggling to keep up with the pace of instruction.

One dominant assumption in the public education system today is that all students learn at the same pace. Generally speaking, students start school at the same time, and students (at least the ones who make it until the end) graduate at the same time. Each year, students advance from one grade to the next. Proficiency models, depending on how they're designed and implemented, could turn that on its head, and could allow significantly more flexibility for students.

Back to the confirmation hearing. The "proficiency" that Senator Franken is asking about, in this context, is a different thing altogether than the proficiency model of education I'm discussing. Senator Franken asks Devos her thoughts on the debate between proficiency and growth, and it becomes pretty clear that Devos is out of her element. She conflates the two concepts within seconds -- but both are used in the context of what assessments should measure and how to use the results of those assessments. 

What's important about that debate is that they were talking about how to measure the success of schools. As in, does a "successful" school have a certain number of students (or all students in NCLB) proficient in their subject areas for each grade level? Or should we instead judge those schools based on how much their students improve over a period of time? In this debate, as Franken persuasively argues, growth seems to be the better measurement -- because we know that not all students enter the education system at the same level, and variance between students' lived experiences is almost unimaginable, sometimes even in the same district.

The important distinction I want to make is this: while it makes sense to measure schools, states, and districts on growth, it can also be a good idea to allow students within those schools, states, and districts to advance through the system, and earn academic credit, based on their proficiency in a given subject.

Proficiency-based models of education are different from accountability measures based on proficiency. Measuring the success of a proficiency-based school or district based on the growth of its students (rather than grade-level mastery) actually makes a lot of sense, and as Franken mentions, using proficiency as an accountability measure actually leads to schools and teachers to have an incentive to "ignore the kids at the top" and "ignore the kids at the bottom," which is the exact opposite of the premise of a proficiency-based model of schooling.