What Educators Already Knew about Al Franken’s “Growth vs. Proficiency” Question

The recent confirmation hearings for Secretary of Education brought the ongoing debate about proficiency and growth squarely into the spotlight. U.S. Senator Al Franken posed a seemingly simple question to now Secretary DeVos:

“I would like your views on the relative advantage of assessments and using them to measure proficiency and growth.” 

As a long-time educator, I can assume Senator Franken’s intent was to draw out a discussion comparing the impacts of proficiency-based testing during the No Child Left Behind era to the movement toward growth under the recently adopted Every Student Succeeds Act. Rather than a robust discussion on the complexities of assessment in education, the Secretary’s response became the foundation for a political firestorm:

“I think if I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.”

Senator Franken’s response was quick and to the point, “Well, that’s growth. That’s not proficiency.” Secretary DeVos was obviously a little rattled and may well have understood the difference between proficiency and growth, but clearly wasn’t proficient in her explanation. Many watching the confirmation hearings were probably hoping for a little bit of drama and, given the contentious history of using test results to evaluate teachers and schools, it was probably fitting that much of the drama centered around the “proficiency vs. growth” debate. While Franken’s question ended up being a bit of an unexpected gotcha moment for the Secretary, rather than a philosophical discussion on the use and value of assessment in our modern schools, it also became the single most discussed issue after the hearing. 

When Senator Franken referred to proficiency-based tests as “autopsies”, he was highlighting what educators all around the country have known for years: Proficiency-based tests provide little or no opportunity for teachers to use the data from these tests to help improve outcomes for the students who took them. Assessing growth, on the other hand, is a completely different scenario.

Measuring growth requires teachers to continuously monitor student performance using a variety of formative assessment strategies. While this idea may be new to some politicians, it has always been a fundamental part of what teachers do everyday. It comes down to a relatively simple concept: In order to help students learn, teachers must first know what their students know and don’t know. We have spent the last nine years working to help teachers identify what students know so that they can provide immediate supports for all students, ensuring individual student growth. 

This has been our passion, and we were incredibly excited to see the work we do become the single most discussed issue related to the confirmation of our new Secretary of Education. We really aren’t much for politics, but we are wholeheartedly about working to help educators across the country improve outcomes for all students. I guess one could argue that there is a place for proficiency-based tests, but when it comes to improving outcomes for students every day in every classroom, we’re going to keep our focus on helping more students continue to grow.

Keep Learning,

Trenton Goble
Chief Academic OfficerMasteryConnect