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Should ESSA Jettison Proficiency Rates in School Accountability?

More than 40 testing researchers and education officials have signed onto a letter to Education Secretary John B. King Jr., calling for the Education Department to move away from using proficiency rates as the key measure of school accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

The researchers, led by Morgan Polikoff, an associate education professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, argue the Education Department should allow to use more nuanced methods to evaluate schools' effectiveness.

"A proficiency rate throws out all the data except 'yes' or 'no,'" Polikoff said. "A kid who is proficient plus one looks exactly the same as a kid who is proficient plus 1,000."

The law itself doesn't require districts to measure proficiency using rates, but the Education Department's proposed regulations would do so. Using proficiency rates, Polikoff and the others argue, makes schools and teachers focus on so-called "bubble kids"—students near the proficiency cut-off, rather than ensuring students at all levels make academic progress. It can also put at a disadvantage schools that serve high concentrations of very low-performing students, because they do not get credit for students who make significant progress but still fail to meet the proficiency benchmark. 

What does ESSA say about using proficiency rates for school accountability?

The law requires states to evaluate schools in part based on measures of proficiency on statewide tests in reading and mathematics. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, ESSA's predecessor, this meant measuring the percentage of students who reached a state-set cut-off score on each test. Those cut-offs varied from state to state and over time, and many states have also written the use of proficiency rates into their state accountability systems.

However, ESSA does not specifically require states to hold schools accountable based on proficiency rates.

In the letter, the researchers argue the Education Department instead should focus on two accountability measures that have been used to varying degrees under the flexibility waivers provided to states before ESSA was passed: average scale scores and proficiency indexes.

Polikoff said he favors tracking schools' effectiveness by tracking the average test scores in each subject and grade. Schools would report both the average scores of the overall student population and those of individual student groups, such as English-learners or students with disabilities. Using average test scores would allow more detailed comparisons of how effective different schools are at educating different groups of students.

Alternatively, the researchers suggested states that cannot use scale scores could create an index to track students at several different proficiency levels, from well below proficient to very advanced. This method would still measure the rate of students reaching a cut score, but it would use more than one cut score to provide a broader picture of student achievement at each school.

Test score averages and proficiency indexes "address far more effectively than proficiency rates the core purposes of ESSA, including incentivizing more effective efforts to educate all children and providing broad discretion to states in designing their accountability systems," Polikoff and the others wrote.

The letter has not yet been formally submitted; Polikoff said researchers and school accountability officials are still signing on. He plans to submit it on Friday.

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