Proficiency vs. Growth and Why Betsy DeVos Should Know The Difference

By: Sandra Almeida 

During Betsy DeVos’ recent confirmation hearing to become the next Secretary of Education under President-elect Trump, Al Franken presented DeVos with a simple task: Present your argument on whether students in America should be assessed to measure proficiency or growth.

To the average person who is not involved in matters of education, this may have sounded like a complicated question. For teachers, like myself, watching the hearing from all corners of the country, it was a familiar debate and one which we hoped would be presented during questioning. As most of us know by now, DeVos painfully stumbled as she attempted to answer the question before the Senate.

DeVos’ answer demonstrated a clear confusion between the two measures of school and teacher effectiveness. In simple terms, measuring students by proficiency entails measuring them according to their level of mastery of grade level material. For example, a Kindergarten student should know how to identify story elements such as character and setting by the end of the school year. Measuring students by growth entails evaluating them according to the learning gains that they make during a particular time period, which is typically a school year.

Given that assessment results weigh so heavily on school funding and teacher evaluations, and often determine which schools should be targeted for instructional improvement, it would be desirable for the potential Secretary of Education to know the difference between the two and have an informed opinion on which of the approaches would best serve the students in our country.

At first glance, the answer may seem obvious. Naturally, we want students in America to reach mastery, or proficiency, and to be on grade level by the end of the school year. However, given the complexity of American society, the answer is not that simple.

As a teacher in Miami, I have only worked in areas of high poverty. The disadvantages with which children in these at-risk population schools navigate the school system can be truly shocking to anyone who is not aware.

Imagine a child who is raised by a single mom with a minimum wage paycheck. This child attends a low-quality child care facility because it is the one that mom can afford, or it’s the closest one in the neighborhood and mom does not have a car to get her child to one of greater quality. Additionally, books are a luxury in their household, because money is tight and needs to be used for the bare minimum necessities. Access to a computer and the Internet is limited or nonexistent in the home. Fast forward to this child’s first day of Kindergarten. He is starting school with a limited knowledge of concepts of print, does not know his letter sounds, and cannot write his own name. Somewhere else in Miami, another student lives with two parents. She lives in a neighborhood with a quality VPK (Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten) program. Her parents have the resources and flexibility to take her to the museum on the weekends, and she has an entire bookshelf full of books in her bedroom. By the time she enters Kindergarten, she is reading beginner level books, can write a sentence, and most definitely her name.

If we lived in a country where these two students attended the same school, we might be able to fairly assess and compare schools according to proficiency. However, the reality is that well over half a century after Brown vs. Board of Education, our schools are drastically segregated based on race and socioeconomic status. As a result, some teachers begin the school year with a class full of students who are already on their way to proficiency at their grade level, while others begin the school year with students who are two or more grade levels behind.

Since we compared two students, let’s compare two teachers.

One second grade teacher reviews his students’ test scores after administering a pre-test at the beginning of the school year. Ninety percent of his students demonstrate mastery of middle of second grade concepts. By the end of the school year, after administering a post-test, his students test at a second-grade level, meaning they are proficient in grade-level concepts.

At another school, another second-grade teacher reviews her pre-test results and discovers that most of her students are still struggling with Kindergarten level concepts such as sounding out words, and thus score poorly on comprehension. By the end of the year, most of her students test at an end-of-first grade level, meaning they are not proficient in second-grade content but have made significant learning gains.

Which teacher is more effective? Assuming these two teachers represent the overall effectiveness of their respective school, which one would be considered a higher quality school?

If we are going to assess teacher and school effectiveness based on proficiency, the first teacher is obviously going to be considered as the most successful, because his students have demonstrated mastery of grade-level content by the end of the school year. The second teacher, who has managed to bring her students up almost two grade levels in ten months, is deemed unsuccessful because her students are not demonstrating proficiency, even though they started the school year with a massive deficiency which the other teacher’s students did not have to overcome.

If we were evaluating according to growth, we would recognize that the teacher in the first scenario has kept his students on grade level but possibly neglected to build beyond grade level expectations. The students with the teacher in the second scenario are much closer to closing the educational gap that they faced at the beginning of the school year.

Which of the two is the fairest way to assess schools and teachers is up for debate. But one thing is not: a potential Secretary of Education for our country should know the difference. Betsy DeVos does not, and I question whether her lack of experience as a student, teacher, or parent in public schools blinds her to the reality of everyday students and teachers in America; a country where, according to the National Center for Children and Poverty, almost half of children live in low-income families.

If you have concerns over Betsy DeVos’ nomination and choose to vocalize them, or simply want to find out more about where your elected officials stand on the proficiency vs. growth debate, you can find contact information for your state Senator at