Right now, state education departments are working to try to come up with a plan that meets all the requirements of the Federal government’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). One area that has received a lot of attention in ESSA is the student accountability section and the required indicators that hold schools accountable for student learning.
The first indicator under ESSA is known as the academic achievement indicator and requires states to annually measure English/Language Arts (ELA) and Math proficiency using statewide assessments. To simplify, I would call this a proficiency indicator, where states use the information from state standardized tests to see if students are meeting grade level standards. When I was a 4th grade teacher, this information was incredibly useful for me. I needed to know what level my student’s were performing at in language arts and math so that I could scaffold lesson plans, create student groups and understand which students needed to do the most catching up. These scores helped me also talk to parents about where their child was performing in relation to where he/she should be performing as a 4th grader. However, a student’s proficiency score was only a part of the puzzle, which is where the second indicator under ESSA comes in to complete the picture.
The second ESSA accountability indicator is the academic progress indicator, which looks at the growth or progress that an individual student or subgroup of students has made in elementary and middle school. States have created different policies to measure this, but the general goal is to measure an individual student’s growth over a period of time.
When I was a teacher I also had a method of measuring this for each of my students. For example, in reading I would assess their starting reading level at the beginning of the year and then map out an individual plan for each student. Each student would have to grow between 6 or 8 reading levels, depending on where they started, with the overall goal of growing the equivalent of two grade levels. Some of my students did grow two grade levels, but they would still be below where they should be at that grade. For others the two-grade boost would put them way above the 4th grade reading level. It is important for teachers and students to understand and celebrate their progress at multiple checkpoints throughout the year that are not in the form of state tests. In my classroom, this gave students a sense of purpose for their assignments because they wanted to meet the individual goal that we had set together. As a teacher, I also would constantly adjust assignments, homework, student pairs, etc. based on the new levels that students reached throughout the year.
For me, both proficiency and growth measures were crucial for the success of my students. The growth measure made learning real for students as they saw their reading levels steadily increase throughout the year. But I couldn’t rely on growth measures alone. The proficiency measure provided that benchmark to help me know what level fourth grade students should be able to perform at by the end of the year. Without this, I could not have identified the achievement gaps in my classroom and would also not have been able to communicate these to the parents of my students. After understanding the difference between growth and proficiency indicators and how to use the data from each to inform my instruction as a teacher, I do not think that it is a matter of one being more important than the other, but rather both working together to paint a more holistic picture of student learning.