Help Kids Learn by Measuring Their Growth, Not Their Proficiency

Help Kids Learn by Measuring Their Growth, Not Their Proficiency
Ben Garver/The Berkshire Eagle via AP

A new school year is starting, but what about last year? Did your student progress as much as he should have? Did she acquire the skills that will help her thrive this year? Unfortunately, the way most schools assess student achievement probably won’t give you the answers to those questions.

Every student is different and supporting their individual growth is the gateway to achieving proficiency. For example, if a 6th grader is reading on a 3rd or 4th grade level, he or she won’t do well on a 6th grade reading test and we shouldn’t have that expectation of them. It’s nearly impossible to make up that kind of growth in one year. Failing to evaluate students according to where they are, and instead measuring proficiency based on chronological age is unfair to them. Further it pushes teachers to rush students who are behind and disincentives them from helping students achieve mastery of important concepts.

Many students, especially those who have transferred from school to school, need individualized evaluation and assistance to get up to grade level or make up credit deficiencies that could prevent them from graduating. Traditional and online charter schools routinely face this challenge. They often serve students who are economically disadvantaged, have disabilities, or have higher mobility rates, all of which can impact the pace of learning and make earning credits on time more difficult. One 2015-2016 study of six large, online charter schools found that over half of their new high school transfer students were credit deficient and not on track to graduate with their four-year cohort.

Some states are wisely taking steps to more accurately assess student growth. In Arizona, AZMerit test scores are used to help rate schools by examining not only pass/fail results but student growth as well. In elementary and middle schools, 50% of the accountability rating is based on students’ year-to-year AZMerit performance growth, compared to only 30% on proficiency.

Fixating on proficiency based on standardized tests can be damaging to students, teachers, and schools. Parents want to know that their children are making progress, and teachers need to focus on helping students achieve gains–not based on age or grade, but on where they are at. Overreliance on proficiency results can also result in teachers or schools being labeled as failing, when in fact their students are learning and improving.

Kids don’t all start at the same place and should be judged on their own progress, not how they match up to other kids who may have had more advantages. Students across the country right now are excited about heading back to school. Measuring their academic growth in a real, effective way should be our focus for the new school year.

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