Betsy DeVos’ fumbling on proficiency-versus-growth debate underscores the challenges “struggling” sc

I applaud Sen. Al Franken (D) for reviving the proficiency-versus-growth debate when he asked Education Secretary Nominee Betsy DeVos to give her thoughts on the important issue during her confirmation hearing. Sen. Franken made it clear that he favors “growth” measures to assess a school’s impact on student performance, as do many throughout the academic community.

In a recent article published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute “Why states should use student growth, and not proficiency rates, when gauging school effectiveness,” it states, “In an era of high standards and tough tests, proficiency rates are correlated with student demographics and prior achievement. If schools are judged predominantly on these rates, almost every high-poverty school will be labeled a failure. That is not only inaccurate and unfair, but it will also demoralize educators and/or hurt the credibility of school accountability systems.” I wholeheartedly agree.

But Devos, like many officials in New York City who are responsible for holding schools accountable for student achievement, fumbled on this issue by not understanding the distinct difference nor significance between absolute proficiency and student growth. For the increasing number of charter schools with a mission to serve particular groups of low-performing students, or for those who serve those students by chance, this trick of perception that a school is “struggling” or failing because of their proficiency scores poses a serious problem for evaluation. In a nutshell, the danger is that schools with high absolute achievement scores will more easily be seen as successful, while those with low achievement metrics will be seen as unsuccessful. In order to look past this surface understanding at the true impact that a school is having stakeholders must account for those factors that most impact student performance.

Since founding OCS in 2004, whose mission is to serve students from all backgrounds regardless of previous academic performance, and where 54% of our students currently have an IEP, proficiency scores will always be a poor indicator of our success. Proficiency scores will not tell you that our students’ average ELA exam scores increased from 2013-14 to 2015-16 or that our Regents passing rates increased on the majority of Regents exams for each of the last five years; or even, that for the last two years, OCS has performed above the 78th Percentile of New York City High Schools for positive impact on student academic performance.

Additionally, OCS students make above average progress in reading compared to a nationally-normed sample. For the last two years, OCS has met the New York City Department of Education’s target for average student proficiency in reading. This is the type of student growth that every educator, parent and elected official should expect of schools, traditional or charter, charged with educating youth.

And there are many more schools like OCS throughout the city that remain caught in the middle of this political debate, and who are unable to prove their successes if beholden solely to their proficiency scores. But there’s an easy answer readily available—the DOE currently has at its disposal a “Comparison Group” metric that was created specifically “To understand how effectively a school is helping its students.” According to the DOE, “the Comparison Group takes into account the student population served by the school, provides an accurate point of comparison, and helps to show the school’s effectiveness at helping its students improve.”

Let’s end this erroneous practice of using proficiency scores to mislead the public into deciding that a school is either a success or a failure, and instead turn our attention to a more sensible measure—student growth.

Leonard Goldberg

Founder/Head of Opportunity Charter School

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