Proficiency vs. Growth

Know your terms.

Trump’s Education Secretary Pick Betsy DeVos, during her confirmation hearing, seemed to be ignorant of the longstanding and ongoing debate about measuring student performance — whether it should be based on proficiency or growth. Whether DeVos was aware of any details about this issue, or even familiar with its existence altogether, is not the actual failing in this case, in my opinion. It is the fact that she couldn’t understand the difference between these two concepts, regardless of their role in the debate concerning education systems. For her educational level (BA from Calvin College), she should have been able to discern, from the context and way the question to her was phrased, what these two terms refer to. To her credit, she did seem to grasp the fact that indeed, successful learning means growth, no matter how we measure it. “To achieve proficiency, students will often need to demonstrate growth to reach their goals” (AIR, 2015). But that wasn’t what Sen. Al Franken asked for.

So what did he ask?

He asked the Education Secretary Nominee about her views relating to assessment that is based on measuring proficiency as opposed to assessment based on measuring growth.

What did he mean by that?

Well, it’s simple. Assessment based on proficiency (sometimes termed “mastery”) assigns a skills or knowledge achievement level to each educational stage (specifically “grade level” in the US, as set by each state). This is the level which a student should be at according to their age (or the grade they attend, which might not correspond, due to grade retention or grade skipping). Growth, on the other hand, is exactly as it sounds — assessing the acquisition or improvement of knowledge or skills within an interval of time (during a school year, commonly).

While this subject has been widely discussed since the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act required “proficiency” standards, and while the answer might not lie in either approaches but a combination thereof, it comes down this core distinction that policy makers must appreciate in order to contend with. DeVos’s reaction doesn’t bode well, as she wishes to become the top policy maker of them all.