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DeVos Revisits Proficiency vs. Growth on Tests, But Does She Clarify Her Views?

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 06, 2017 4 min read
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In a recent radio interview, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos got the chance to clarify her views on a debate that caused a lot of controversy in the education world during her confirmation hearing: Does proficiency or growth matter more when it comes to measuring student performance. But did she dispel any misconceptions about her views?

Quick background: In DeVos’ confirmation hearing in January, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked her whether she considered proficiency or growth in student learning more important. DeVos responded that she would connect proficiency to competency and mastery, “so that each student is measured according to the advancement that they’re making in each subject area.” Franken cut her off and expressed dissatisfaction and surprise with her answer. (It’s worth emphasizing that Franken himself was a little muddled in how he teed up the topic—he linked the debate over proficiency and growth to computer-adaptive tests, when in fact the issues aren’t necessarily related.)

The extent to which states measure academic proficiency and academic growth is one of the key features of states’ plans for schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which kicks in for the upcoming school year. Under ESSA, states must include proficiency on state tests in school accountability measures, but they can choose to add student growth as a factor too. And many states plan to do so.

So how did DeVos handle the issue more recently? In a May 23 interview, Tony Katz of the Indiana radio station WIBC asked DeVos to discuss proficiency and growth and whether the debate was a useful “yardstick” for discussing education. (Hat-tip to Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat for highlighting Katz’s interview.)

Referring to proficiency and growth, DeVos said, “I would argue both of which have some validity and merit in the discussion.” The secretary then continued:

“But I believe the more important measure is whether the student masters the material that they should learn, and puts that all into their backpack of knowledge and then continues to move on to the next level of mastery. We do not orient around that currently. ... If I have a student in a class who passes a test with 70 percent, that means that 30 percent of the material that student likely hasn’t learned. How much better to ensure that that student learns 100 percent of the material and then moves on to the next level?”

She also referred to pilots “in limited areas” around measuring student mastery compared to “the time that they sit in a seat,” but added that’s not the general focus of schools right now. Watch the DeVos-Katz interview below—the exchange about growth and proficiency begins at about the 6:45 mark.

The secretary did not use the word “proficiency” in her response to Katz, instead choosing to emphasize “mastery.” That term is typically used in reference to grades and other in-class measures of knowledge rather than when talking about large-scale tests. And her emphasis on a student’s grasp of a subject, rather than seat time, seemed to be a reference to competency-based (also known as mastery-based) education programs. Such programs, like a competency-based program in New Hampshire, are concerned with the pace of classroom learning, allowing students to move on in the curriculum only when they are ready. And such programs don’t ultimately illuminate the test-centered question of whether proficiency or growth should count more when judging student performance.

In addition, DeVos’ implication that mastery means you know 100 percent of a given set of material, whereas proficiency means you know something only partly, might surprise some education researchers and testing experts.

Back in January, a spokesman for the American Federation for Children (the school choice advocacy group DeVos formerly led) said that with respect to state accountability, “Betsy has long advocated for measuring students by growth rather than proficiency,” and referenced AFC’s work with several states on the issue. But she didn’t seem to reiterate that here.

Proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “gold standard” of U.S. tests), for example, is a pretty high bar. Being proficient on NAEP means that a student has “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter, including subject-matter knowledge, application of such knowledge to real world situations, and analytical skills appropriate to the subject matter.” But although being proficient on NAEP is tough to attain, attaining it doesn’t mean a student answered 100 percent of test questions correctly.

Jon Valant, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who’s studied this issue, said DeVos’ remarks aren’t entirely clear to him, but that she seemed to be rejecting that only a binary contest between proficiency and growth is what matters.

He noted that there’s been a long-running debate about whether bars for proficiency on state exams have been set too low, along with the contrast between seat-time versus demonstrated mastery. (Louisiana, he noted, plans to raise its proficiency standard on tests while also increasing its emphasis on student growth.)

However, he added, “In no way does that get at the heart of the growth versus proficiency question, except insofar as kids would have to grow to get to mastery.”

DeVos also seemed to be communicating, Valant noted, that in her view, “Proficiency isn’t enough.”

Image: Screengrab from a video of an interview Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos conducted with Tony Katz of an Indiana radio station last month.

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