Schools use proficiency over growth

Of the students who received Renaissance Awards, only five percent were African-American. This is contrasted with 19 percent of students overall. Graph made with Google Sheets.

The proficiency vs. growth debate has gained steam in recent years, especially after the confirmation hearing of education secretary Betsy DeVos.

During her confirmation hearing, DeVos was asked by then-senator Al Franken about her ideas on the debate. However, DeVos’s response used the definition of growth to describe proficiency, and when Franken tried to ask a follow-up question, he was cut off, and the topic was changed.

Proficiency targets are an easily quantifiable way to judge a school’s ability to teach students.

According to the American Institute of Research, “proficiency targets set a minimum level of achievement that all students are expected to meet on their summative assessments regardless of where they start at the beginning of the instructional period.” For example, a teacher might give a test at the end of a unit and set a goal that all students will pass the test. Proficiency targets provide easy-to-understand statistics that are used to rank schools. Because of this, proficiency is the system that the state uses for tests like MAP and EOC. Proficiency targets are also much easier for teachers to grade.

On the other hand, proficiency targets can also disadvantage schools. If schools are ranked by proficiency, schools that don’t perform as well could lose funding. These schools are typically in lower-income areas, and students that go to these schools don’t have the same resources that students in a higher income school, like Webster, have.

The median household income for Webster Groves is $28,000 more than the national average. African Americans are five times more likely to be below the poverty line than white people in Webster Groves, according to Census Bureau projections. In addition, since a large number of those in poverty are African American, those lower income areas receive less accreditation and therefore appear to be performing lower than average. This leads to less funding of schools, which creates a poorer education for those in the lower income schools, which leads to lower test scores, and the cycle continues.

Growth provides for a much fuller picture of a student’s advancements. Growth measures how much a student advances over the course of a class. At the beginning of the class, the teacher will give a pre-assessment to determine a student’s starting level. Then, at the end of the year, the students will take a post-assessment to see the improvement a student has made. For example, a teacher might set a goal for all students to improve their test scores by 30 percent. Therefore, if a student gets a 40 percent on the pre-exam, he/she will need to get 70 percent to meet the goal.

The elementary schools utilize the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), a growth based grading system that is aligned to Missouri standards. This is the district’s third year using this system.

Growth provides a number of advantages. It shows the full range of advancements that the student has made over the course of a year. It also shows that learning might be different for each student. Growth allows those differences to be seen.

However, growth has its flaws. It requires teachers to give pre and post assessments, which may take up more time. Growth also does not motivate students as much. Referring back to the previous example, if the state minimum test score is an 85 percent, and the student gets a 40 percent on the pre-assessment, he/she will not be motivated to try to get that 85 percent, as it is above their growth target of 70 percent, still putting him/her behind his/her other classmates.

“Growth and proficiency measure completely different things,” Dr. Kristin Denbow, assistant superintendent for learning, said.

The achievement gap is when the proficiency of a group of students is lower than the larger group.

Typically, the achievement gap is discussed as it relates to African-American or Hispanic students underperforming or Asian students overperforming on standardized tests.

“At times we have to look at if there is bias in the test,” Denbow said. “Sometimes there is racial bias.”

Policy addresses the achievement gap through affirmative action. The purpose of affirmative action is to address the lower achievement of African-American students. Affirmative action advantages African-American students who are previously disadvantaged by the empirical proficiency data of which college applications are heavily based.

Webster Challenge is an initiative founded in 2008 with the goal of tightening the academic achievement gap that exists between African-American students and non-African-American students.

Assistant Principal Dr. Shiree Yeggins, who helps organize Webster Challenge, said educators need to “relook at what is proficient” and that some of what contributes to this differential is the proficiency-based standardized test and grading that is commonplace.

Yeggins said, “Standardized tests are somewhat unreliable” when comparing the success of students.

Webster Challenge holds monthly meetings which include guest speakers, looking at stats relating to the gap and goal setting. Webster Challenge also hosts college trips, biannual celebrations in January and August and community service events.

Despite all of this organizing,  African-American students have seen little improvement over the 11 years Webster Challenge has been around. The attendance of African American students has increased, and the number of failing grades have decreased slightly.

Though, Yeggins said, she “sees more individual success.”

Self-fulfilling prophecy is the idea that there is an expectation that something will happen, then that expectation makes that thing happen. In the case of the achievement gap, African-American students are expected to do worse than other students which in turn causes the African-American students to do worse.

Yeggins said, that “societal expectation for students” could be a factor.

The Renaissance Awards recognizes students for a level of proficiency, getting above a 3.5 GPA for two consecutive semesters. The group of students recognized is five percent black and school is 19 percent black; that is a percent error of 74 percent.

As well as celebrating proficiency, the Renaissance Awards celebrates a higher percentage of white students than African American students. All honorees also received a free shirt.

With the achievement of African-American students under-recognized in this ceremony and fewer African-American students received the shirt, this may exacerbate a lower expectation of success for black students if following the logic of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

WGHS also celebrates students nominated by teachers with the Top Hat Awards, non-proficiency based award.


Cole Schnell – Editor-in-chief

This is Cole Schnell’s third year on ECHO staff.  Last year, he was the junior editor, advertising/business manager his sophomore year, and he made several contributions while taking journalism class his freshman year.


Ethan Weihl – News Editor

This is news editor Ethan Weihl’s first year on ECHO staff. He is excited to begin his work on the ECHO. He has not decided on college yet, but he wants to major in Political Science and Journalism.


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