Growth vs. Proficiency for Dummies

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In February of 2017, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the Secretary of Education in the closest and most hotly contested vote the position has ever seen. Much of the debate surrounded the nominee's lack of experience in the public education sphere, an impression only reinforced by her less-than-stellar performance at the Senate hearing which preceded voting.

DeVos struggled to answer some fairly basic questions, a fact which alarmed Democratic Senate Committee members and the educational community alike. Perhaps most notable was her gaffe on the oft-debated matter of growth v. proficiency, which is why we've offered this handy primer on the subject.

The Hearing

To recap a telling moment from the DeVos confirmation hearing, Senator Al Franken (D-MN) asked DeVos how she felt about student assessments, and whether they should be used to measure proficiency or growth.

Below is the brief exchange between Franken and DeVos on the subject:

DeVos: “I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.”

Franken: “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency. So, in other words, the growth they are making isn’t growth. Proficiency is an arbitrary standard.”

DeVos: “Proficiency is when they reach a third grade-level of reading, etc.”

. . .

Franken: “This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years. And I’ve advocated growth as the chairman, and every member of this committee knows, because with proficiency, teachers ignore the kids at the top who are not going to fall below proficiency and ignore the kids on the bottom, who no matter what they do will never get to proficiency. I’ve been an advocate of growth. So, it surprises me that you don’t know this issue.”

The Debate

It would be easy to dismiss this as a partisan issue, but Senator Franken's shock stemmed from the fact that the soon-to-be Secretary had little to no familiarity with the ongoing debate. It isn't that DeVos advocated for an approach with which the Democratic Senator disagreed. It was that she seemed to have no concept of the differing approaches supported by either Democratic or Republican lawmakers, let alone students, educators, parents, and administrators.

For a tiny bit of background, former President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative rewarded or deprived schools of federal funding based on the ability of their students to reach a uniform “proficiency” benchmark on standardized tests.

Critics argued that the use of a universal proficiency standard inherently punished struggling schools and at-risk students, magnifying rather than healing fundamental inequalities in American education. Under Obama, assessments focused instead on growth. Under this strategy, assessments are used to evaluate every school and district based on its own progress toward improvement, as opposed to its achievement of a unilateral standard.

Wherever your fall on this debate, it is an issue of importance to the educational community, which means that, at the very least, DeVos will have to stake out some sort of meaningful position on the matter.

Here's a basic primer for the new Education Secretary, and of course, for you. Naturally, the difference between you and Betsy DeVos is that it's her job to know this stuff, not yours. You can be forgiven if this is the first your hearing about it. Ms. DeVos? Not so much.


The idea of testing students on the basis of proficiency is fairly straightforward. Here, the Department of Education sets certain achievement benchmarks for students, schools and districts. These benchmarks are uniform and apply to students and schools across the board without adjustment for regional or socioeconomic context.

The argument in favor for this approach is the presumption that all students should be held to the same standard, regardless of familial, community or cultural experience. Thus, the idea of proficiency holds that every single student should be encouraged and educated to the end of reaching the same basic level of academic capability.

The argument against this approach is the fact that, according to the Albert Shanker Institute, roughly 60% of achievement outcomes are likely predetermined by student and family background characteristics including income level and home life. By contrast, “observable” and “unobservable” schooling factors like teacher effects and curriculum likely account for just 20% of performance outcomes.

Proficiency standards do not adjust based on these factors, suggesting to some critics that this approach is not especially useful as a way to measure the true capabilities of at-risk students. When proficiency is then coupled with funding or a deprivation thereof, there is a clear punitive effect for those who are already face systemic obstacles on their path to proficiency.

This orientation places many at-risk schools in a position of growing disadvantage. Those that opened their doors to at-risk students would be inherently less likely to rise to a “proficient” level even as their students demonstrated individual and collective improvements. The result is an environment in which better performing schools are incentivized to keep at-risk students off their rosters and in which lower performing schools are under pressure to pass assessments by any means necessary (even cheating).


These very considerations led to a gradual shift in orientation with the start of the Obama administration. Recognizing the rigid reliance on proficiency standards as one of the chief flaws in the oft-derided No Child Left Behind policy, a newly oriented Department of Education moved increasingly toward the idea of using assessments to measure growth.

According to a survey administered in 2008, as the nation began its transition away from strict proficiency-based assessments, educators overwhelmingly favored the idea of growth-based assessments instead. The survey found that “more than two in three said that value-added metrics — which examine how much students grow from year to year — are a good way to measure school quality. Just 9 percent said that ‘raw test scores' — proficiency — made sense for evaluating schools.”

On the surface, growth-based assessments respond to some of the key flaws of a proficiency-based standard. Then again, this discussion still centers on our excessive reliance upon standardized tests which, when it gets right down to it, is a deeply flawed method of assessment that is also not very popular among educators. There is a pretty strong case to be made that, in general, we depend too heavily on diagnostics that aren't all that informative about student capabilities or the strengths and weaknesses of individual schools.

I Guess It's Not That Simple After All

So really, it's a bit more complicated than I at first let on. Clearly, the winds have blown away from proficiency-based assessments and increasingly toward those driven by measurements of growth. But much about this approach remains flawed. In other words, there is no simple answer in the government's ever-fluctuating quest to balance accountability with actual educational improvement.

So I guess the point really is this: As of January, 2017, the new Secretary of Education knew basically nothing about this debate. Let's hope she learns on the job really quickly.

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