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Here's An Idea: Change The Federal Definition Of Student Achievement

Morgan Polikoff, associate professor at USC's Rossier School of Education, wants the Department of Education to ditch its reliance on the "proficiency rate."
Steve Cohn
Courtesy of USC
Morgan Polikoff, associate professor at USC's Rossier School of Education, wants the Department of Education to ditch its reliance on the "proficiency rate."

Morgan Polikoff has a modest proposal.

The associate professor at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education has been looking over the new federal education law. He thinks the Department of Education should abandon what has been the central principle of school accountability for the last decade and a half.

He has submitted a public letter during the feds' open comment period for rulemaking and asked other researchers and education figures to sign on. So far, dozens have joined him.

What Polikoff wants the government to ditch is a reliance on the "proficiency rate."

Under No Child Left Behind, schools have been held accountable for the percentage of students who are proficient — meaning they meet a given cutoff score on a standardized test.

The tests have changed over the years and from state to state. So have the cutoff scores, which usually fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve. But the magic word — proficiency — has not.

Under the old law, proficiency rates were supposed to rise over time until they reached 100 percent, which never came close to happening.

Right now, the Department of Education is making rules to flesh out the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced NCLB. The new law abandons the 100 percent rule, but still refers to "proficiency" more than 60 times.

Judging schools on the percent of students deemed proficient, Polikoff argues, has a lot of problems.

"The most obvious is that systems that rely on percent-proficient only care about students right on the margin," he tells NPR Ed.

In other words, there's no incentive to worry about students who are years behind and unlikely to catch up. Nor are there reasons to fuss over the students who score well ahead of average.

Instead, schools are encouraged to focus heavily on those students who are just below the proficiency line.

Some researchers have termed this problem "educational triage," and shown that it actually affects how teachers in classrooms are allocating their time.

A second major problem arises from comparing achievement gaps among groups, such as high- and low-income students, using percent-proficient.

For complicated statistical reasons, analyses that look only at the percent-proficient, Polikoff says, "can sometimes give you the opposite answer to the truth as to whether the gaps are opening or closing."

You might think that gaps are closing, when in reality groups are moving farther apart.

Polikoff would prefer that all schools be held accountable solely for their students' growth on standardized tests. But that's not allowable under the law.

So the letter asks instead that the secretary of education favor a measure called average scale score.

This couldn't be simpler, actually. (Phew!) It simply means averaging the scores of every student at a school who takes the test.

If the lowest performers at the school improve by a few points, that will raise the average scale score. If the whiz kids improve by a few points, that will raise the average, too. The average includes everybody, so it gives teachers an incentive to work hard to help every student succeed, Polikoff argues.

"The average scale score is by definition the better measure" for achievement gaps, too, he says.

If the Department of Education doesn't want to abandon the magic word just yet, Polikoff and his signatories offer a second, less favored choice, called the proficiency index.

States already report how many students score at multiple levels on their tests, usually in the categories "below basic," "basic," "proficient" and "advanced." A proficiency index system could allocate, say, zero points for students who are below basic, half a point for students at basic, a full point for proficient students, and 1.5 points for advanced. This would again achieve the goal of incentivizing a focus on every student.

Polikoff's letter will continue to collect signers through Friday, July 22 — the deadline for public comment on the proposed regulations.

Among the names on the list are: Andrew Ho at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Joanne Weiss, former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; and Sean Buckley, former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.