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Balancing Proficiency and Growth in School Accountability

• Patricia Levesque



This is the third installment in a series by ExcelinEd CEO Patricia Levesque, designed to give states guidance on how they can use the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to advance student achievement.

Read previous posts: 

  1. School Accountability Under ESSA
  2. Focus School Accountability on Results

How do you define a successful school?

One obvious answer is the percentage of students achieving proficiency in core subjects.

If that percentage is high, then obviously, the school has most its students on track not only for graduation, but for life after graduation. And so, it seems we could deem it a success.

But what if those students aren’t making much progress in moving beyond proficiency to a more advanced level? Is the school still successful if high achievers are not being elevated to their full potential?

And now let’s consider a school with a disproportionate number of challenging students, those entering the classroom far below grade level. It goes without saying that most would not earn proficient scores on state tests.

So an accountability system based entirely on proficiency would deem that school a failure. But what if the students were making strong progress, maybe not achieving proficiency but headed quickly in that direction. Is it still a failure?

And so here we have two very different schools, one scoring well on the percentage of students achieving proficiency but not so well on growth. And the other school does not score well on proficiency, but does score well on growth. Whether they are deemed successes or failures in an accountability formula depends wholly on whether that formula is based on proficiency or growth.

So, what to do?

We believe you should balance both measures in an accountability formula.

The right balance is crucial.

If you have a calculation that’s over-weighted toward growth, then you could have schools with higher percentages of proficient students earning a lower rating than schools with higher numbers of struggling students. To parents and the public, that simply will not make sense. And as a result, it will raise questions about the credibility of the accountability system.

If the calculation is over-weighted toward proficiency, then you are forever locking in lower scores for those schools with larger percentages of struggling students. You also aren’t providing schools serving students who enter at the proficient level much incentive to improve.  The growth component levels the playing field for all schools by recognizing the good work of administrators and teachers in elevating these children.

The right balance of growth and proficiency, therefore, meets the needs of students at all achievement levels. It recognizes the good work of educators in all schools.

Florida adopted this approach and witnessed a profound improvement in many once-failing schools. The state’s low-income fourth graders now top their peers in every other state in reading achievement, according to results of the National Assessments of Educational Progress. And while elevating the low performers, Florida also became a national leader in advancing students to the NAEP-level of proficiency.

For more resources and information concerning the Every Student Succeeds Act, visit ExcelinEd’s Policy Library.

About the author

Patricia Levesque @levesquepat

Patricia is the Chief Executive Officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She served as Governor Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education, enterprise solutions for government, minority procurement, and business and professional regulation. Previously, Patricia served six years in the Florida Legislature in the Speakers Office and as staff director over education policy. Contact Patricia at