The problem with proficiency

Proficiency rates are terrible measures of school effectiveness because they “mostly reflect a school’s demographics,” writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. Schools should be evaluated on growth measures, he argues.

Our school—let’s call it Jefferson—serves a high-poverty population of middle and high school students. Eighty-nine percent of them are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch; 100 percent are African American or Hispanic. And on the most recent state assessment, less than a third of its students were proficient in reading or math. In some grades, fewer than 10 percent were proficient as gauged by current state standards.

That school deserves a big ole F, right?

But there’s more.

According to a rigorous Harvard evaluation, every year Jefferson students gain two and a half times as much in math and five times as much in English as the average school in New York City’s relatively high-performing charter sector.

.  . .Jefferson is so successful, the Harvard researchers conclude, because it has “more instructional time, a relentless focus on academic achievement, and more parent outreach” than other schools.

Now how would you rate this school? How about an A?

“Jefferson” is Democracy Prep Charter High, a New York City school whose high school seniors earn high test scores. It takes at least five years to get them there, says Seth Andrew, founder of the DP network.

Proficiency matters too, responds Checker Finn.

Kids can show plenty of “growth” in school—and yes, we should laud schools that accomplish this—but still not be ready for college because they aren’t actually proficient. This is why absolute levels matter, too, and why schools should be judged in part by how many of the students emerging from them have reached true proficiency or, in today’s parlance, are truly college and career ready.

Let’s concede that both matter, but growth is a better measure of school effectiveness.

Petrilli’s piece has sparked an avid e-mail discussion including American Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten, Diane Ravitch, Rick Hess, Robert Pondiscio and a host of others.  (I’m on vacation with unreliable wireless access — I typed part of a post on a smart phone! — so I haven’t jumped in.)

About Joanne


  1. Part of the problem is the idea that “Proficient = Ready to excel in college.” Realistically, we’re not going to send more than the top 1/3 of students on to 2 year or 4 year college degrees. And yes, the number of students who are ‘proficient’ at a school will reflect demographics, especially since the ‘college families’ tend to live in different areas than the ‘non college families.’

    So – what do we want a high school degree to mean? What should a high school graduate who does NOT want to go to college need to know in order to find work, manage a household, and live as a citizen? This should be what ‘proficient’ means.

    Maybe we need separate breakdowns: How well a school serves the college-bound (who reach proficiency around 7th or 8th grade), how well does it serve those who want to go into trades, how well does it serve those who come in far behind, how well does it serve those who come in far ahead?

    It seems likely that NO SCHOOL would be an ‘A’ for all groups. Which is why we need more information, and ways for parents to choose the school that’s the best fit for their children.

    • DM, that’s heresy! The idea that the ed world’s beloved one-size-fits-all approach does not, can not and should not fit everyone must never be mentioned! I’ll second the motion, nevertheless.

      In the pursuit of that fantasy, the state of SD has decided that its existing requirements of bio, algebra I and geometry are insufficient, so this year’s incoming sophomores must also take algebra II, chem and physics. The lady who does an excellent job of cutting my hard-to-cut-well hair says that she never would have been able to graduate, under those rules. Idiocy; is it any wonder that the ed world gets little respect?

      • DM/Momof4,

        It won’t matter if the school districts want to require ‘X’ in order to graduate, because without actual
        knowledge of the necessary material to actually complete ‘X’, they won’t be able to pass ‘X’.

        Unfortunately, many parents see nothing wrong
        with the school their children attend, but in reality,
        by the time the student graduates, they’re woefully
        behind middle school students in the rest of the
        world, and usually have no skills other than a
        piece of paper stating they graduated from high

        There are plenty of high school graduates today
        who cannot even score the necessary minimum
        on the AFQT/ASVAB to join this nation’s armed
        forces. When I attended high school, that was a
        good alternative to students who dropped out,
        but today, it doesn’t exist, due to the fact that the
        military now has about 2 applicants to every position

        • I’m predicting that the biggest schools (a small minority of the total) will offer a “lite” version, which meets the minimum state standards, and a “real” version, for the prepared and motivated kids. The small schools won’t have that option, so I’m hoping that one of those groups will have access to an online class.