With the recent debate over measuring student growth versus proficiency making headlines, it seems like a good time to explore how these two concepts relate to the educational experiences of Austin public school students.

First, some definitions: student growth refers to how much a student improves, while proficiency refers to whether a student can demonstrate certain knowledge or skills at or above a specified level.

Let’s start with the Texas testing regimen, which is largely driven by state and federal requirements. From TABS to TEAMS to TAAS to TAKS and currently STAAR (or the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness), Texas students have been tested under a series of standardized systems since the 1980s. These tests assess proficiency, and to the extent that they are comparable over time, they provide some information about growth.

Here’s an example: let’s say that proficiency means earning 70 percent on a math test. The students who score 70 percent or higher would be considered proficient, and the rest would not. Students either pass or fail.

However, when we look at student growth, we find out how much students have gained. A student who scored 40 percent on a previous test and 65 percent today is showing great progress. On the other hand, a student who scored 90 in the past and earns just 70 today might trigger concern.

Put simply, proficiency levels are snapshots of ability, while measures of growth help us understand the full continuum of a student’s achievement.

STAAR tests measure proficiency— mostly in reading and math, but they also assess writing, science, history and geography in some years. Testing begins in 3rd grade and can extend through 12th. The state establishes scores for each test that are satisfactory (proficient).

The STAAR test can be useful in flagging issues and helping students and teachers set targets for future achievement. But it’s important to note that teachers can’t and don’t rely on tests given once a year to tell them what students need. Moreover, these tests don’t communicate how educational goals can be achieved or which types of educational support might be appropriate. That kind of information, derived from what are known as formative assessments, must be collected as part of the day-to-day activities of teaching.

Debra Ready, Executive Director of AISD’s Office of Accountability and Assessment, explains it this way: “It’s conversation; it’s observation; it’s students working in groups and whether or not they are collaborating with their peers. It’s infusing vocabulary into their day and then, in turn, hearing them use that vocabulary. It’s that formative, ongoing assessment that is the most important assessment that we have.”

STAAR data is also used by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to promote accountability at the school and district level. But fairly assessing schools based on student performance is tricky. Poverty, lack of extra-curricular resources and support, stress and high absenteeism are just a few of the things that can affect student performance and that neither teachers nor schools can easily change.

So it’s no surprise that schools with higher percentages of poor or otherwise disadvantaged students tend to perform less well in TEA’s measures of student achievement and post secondary readiness, even when they show high levels of student progress.

“Growth is the stronger measure around teacher effectiveness,” Ready says, because it takes a really effective teacher to help students with educational deficits and other disadvantages gain ground.

As parents, we care about our children’s proficiency and growth in academics, and want to know that our teachers and schools are working to optimize both. Public schools send home confidential reports to tell you how your child is doing on the STAAR, which—in addition to report cards, conferences and other interactions with teachers—should give you a good sense of how your child is doing. If you have concerns, Ready suggests that you talk to your child’s teacher or principal. But remember, too, that every child develops differently. Sometimes more time is all that is needed, she says.

Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom who covers public affairs, public health and the well-being of children.

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