Indiana education officials took a step forward by deciding in 2015 to count growth as equal to proficiency when using test scores to calculate school A-to-F school grades. Now it sounds like members of the State Board of Education want to turn back the clock.
At least five of the 11 members said last week that they favor giving more weight to proficiency – the number of students who pass state-mandated tests – than to year-to-year growth.
“I think we reached some consensus on some core values. Proficiency is more important than growth,” board member David Freitas said, according a story in to the Indianapolis Star.
“Growth, to me, is much less important than proficiency,” added B.J. Watts, another board member. Members Tony Walker, Byron Ernest and Kathleen Mote agreed, according to the Star.
Freitas and Watts made the same argument but didn’t prevail when the board approved the current A-to-F formula. Mote and Ernest weren’t on the board in at the time. Walker missed the meeting.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick favors keeping the equal weight for growth and proficiency, said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. But she would probably agree to a formula that gave a little more weight to proficiency than to growth, he said.
Until 2014-15, Indiana relied heavily on test-score proficiency in determining grades; growth wasn’t a factor. The result was what you’d expect: Low-poverty schools reliably were rewarded with As. High-poverty schools struggled to avoid getting Fs. Schools with poor students were labeled as failing schools.
The switch to counting growth as equal to proficiency made a difference, but not as much as you might hope. There were fewer As and fewer Fs overall, and schools with a lot of poor students had a chance to rely on growth to improve their grades. The system still favors affluent schools, however.
Now, after just two years under the current grading formula, Indiana will be making changes to comply with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. It was in the context of a discussion of the federal law that five board members called for giving more weight to proficiency.
The problem with relying primarily on proficiency is not that it’s unfair but that it doesn’t tell us anything about whether schools are doing a good job. Researchers have shown time and again that students’ test scores reflect family income and education more than any other factor. For example, Seton Hall University professor Christopher Tienken and colleagues predicted test scores 75 percent of the time by looking at characteristics of the communities that schools served.
Tienken also argues there’s too much noise in the data to accurately measure student growth via improvement in test scores. “The bottom line is this: Whether you’re trying to measure proficiency or growth, standardized tests are not the answer,” he writes.
But if we’re going to grade schools using tests – and in Indiana, state law says we must – it stands to reason that growth will tell us more than proficiency about whether schools are helping students learn.
Educators know that, and most people probably know it too. When the State Board of Education adopted the current grade-formula system, with its 50-50 weighting of proficiency and growth, it did so through an extensive rule-making process that included opportunities for the public to submit comments. The comments were overwhelmingly in favor of giving more emphasis to growth.