Considerations on proficiency & growth in Louisiana

by Eva Kemp, State Director

In a recent op-ed, Mike Petrilli paints a very misleading picture of the debate over how to assign grade letters to schools in Louisiana. The state is proposing assigning letter grades to schools based both on students’ actual attainment of academic benchmarks and their progress toward that goal. We believe that progress should factor in to a schools rating, but that weighting it too heavily would provide misleading information to parents who are trying to choose the best school for their child. This is a particularly important dynamic in a school district like New Orleans, where parents have a broader array of choices than in any large school district in the country.

We believe that progress should factor in to a schools rating, but that weighting it too heavily would provide misleading information to parents who are trying to choose the best school for their child.

One problem with Petrilli’s critique is that he lumps together several important, albeit separate, functions of school rating systems. Here, it’s helpful to think about proficiency and growth in a simplified 2 x 2 matrix where there are four categories of schools based on whether they are high or low on academic proficiency and student growth.

Most everyone can agree about the two extreme scenarios in this matrix. A low-growth, low-proficiency school is one in which: parents would want to avoid enrolling their child; those overseeing schools need to communicate the need for drastic improvement to school leaders and educators; and, policymakers should consider requiring fundamental reforms and investing additional resources targeted at the school’s key deficiencies.

In the opposite scenario, a high-proficiency, high-growth school is one in which: most parents would aspire to enroll their child; school leaders and educators should be told they’re doing a fantastic job; and, policymakers should let continue doing what’s worked to lead them to such great success.

It’s the low-proficiency, high-growth school that Petrilli focuses on, arguing that it should receive an A or at the least a B grade and it’s here that he blurs the lines between what should be at least 3 distinct purposes of an accountability systems. Petrilli argues correctly that school leaders and educators in such schools should be applauded for the work they’re doing to improve outcomes for students. Similarly, these are likely not the schools that policymakers should prioritize for intervention.

For parents, however, mixing student achievement and student progress paints a misleading picture of the quality of education that their son or daughter is likely to receive in such a school. Yes, their child will probably, in statistical terms, make academic progress in such a school. But whether or not that progress is sufficient to bring their child to, for example, grade level proficiency, is anyone’s guess. Telling that parent that a school rates a “B”/above average rating when their child could go on to college to do C or D level work is quite simply false advertising.

If percent proficient, or something like proficiency that focuses on meeting a particular standard rather than merely making progress anywhere on the continuum between abject failure and absolute superiority, is not the ultimate goal of our public education sytem, what was the point of the past decade’s mantra of “college and career readiness?” If a student progresses, for example, between ninth and twelfth grade from “not being at all college and career ready” to some improved level that’s still well short of “college and career ready” is that really success for that student? If we’re to take “college and career ready” literally, and “proficiency” or “grade level” as synonymous with such, the long-term prospects for twelfth grade students short of those goals would seem to be just a lighter shade of grey than when they started high school. It may tell us nothing about whether a student is likely to need remedial coursework in college or whether they will be more or less likely to attain a college degree.

Petrilli, who is President of the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank located well within the DC Beltway, frequently chastises his colleagues for a “Washington Knows Best” attitude toward education policymaking. Petrilli and Fordham are also staunch advocates for school choice. Thus we find it odd that he summarily dismisses the work we’ve done over more than a year with state and local business and civil rights groups in Louisiana on ESSA implementation to ensure that, when making choices, parents have clear, accurate, and actionable information on the best school for their child.

We offer here a friendly reminder to Petrilli that, as we all agree, their interests should be first and foremost in the decisions made by state policymakers when it comes to rating Louisiana schools.