The exchanges stemming from Mike Petrilli's recent op-ed and concerns about school-grading systems appear to reflect some confusion about poverty, performance, proficiency, and growth.  Much of the prevailing discourse seems more focused on finding someone (or something) to blame rather than marshaling a consensus for change.

The inconvenient truth I describe below is that when we benchmark academic growth rates, the best velocity is often not adequate to catch kids up to college and career readiness within a reasonable time. It is why next-generation delivery models that fundamentally change the use of time are so important and why getting kids off to a better start is essential. It is also why next-generation accountability systems that use multiple measures to create a balanced body of fair and useful evidence are needed.

Poverty and Proficiency

First, let me be clear: Poverty matters. It impacts children’s starting point in terms of early learning. This is why proficiency is correlated with poverty. Proficiency is a performance standard; it is a destination, a mile marker of attainment in the context of a content standard. It is one of several important indicators of "performance" and it is a lagging indicator. It does not imply academic effectiveness. Policy makers and pundits do a disservice to the public when they conflate "performance" and proficiency. If an accountability system weights proficiency highest, then it creates an incentive for schools to maximize starting point and focus on kids on the cusp of proficiency—not all kids. This is a major problem with NCLB's AYP measure and some states’ ESEA waivers.

Poverty and Velocity 

Too often, poverty and velocity (i.e., individual student longitudinal growth, value- added, speed) are negatively correlated. The speed of learning, the longitudinal academic (normative) growth of students from where they start is one indicator of performance and a key indicator of academic effectiveness. If an accountability system weights growth highest, it creates an incentive to maximize the velocity of learning. Growth need not be negatively correlated with poverty and to close an achievement (i.e., proficiency, attainment) gap, the correlation needs to become positive, not remain negative. Students that start further behind need to grow faster than students that start proficient.  There is no other way to close our achievement gaps. It simply comes down to rate, time, and distance.

Growth to Standard: Rate, Time, and Distance

Is the student's sustained velocity good enough to reach a destination (i.e. proficiency or college and career readiness) within a certain amount of time? Are they on track to proficiency? States that measure Adequate Growth (criterion-referenced growth) usually determine whether a growth rate is good enough for a student to catch up within three years, and Colorado, for example, also determines whether a growth rate is good enough for a proficient student to keep up over three years. Growth to standard is an important indicator of performance. However, it is highly correlated with starting points, and thus not a good measure of effectiveness at the teacher or school level. But it is a useful measure of the effectiveness of a system of schools at a state, district, CMO, or feeder-pattern level.

At the state level, the news about adequate growth among students that start behind is not good. Among students that score in the bottom performance level in Colorado, the percent making adequate growth is in the single digits. The statewide goal is 100 percent. Schools with top statewide velocity for low-income students are not moving kids to proficiency within three years—and Colorado is not alone.  

We need to be honest and transparent about the percentage of students on track at each performance level. This reflects an important benchmarking exercise that states should conduct. And it points to the limits of a dated delivery system, which appears unable to meet the needs of children in poverty within conventional allocations of time, people and money. However, far too many schools also have students in poverty making low-growth rates, where they progress more slowly than their advantaged peers and that is not acceptable. There are also many schools—both charter and district-managed—that ensure students that start behind grow faster. These are effective schools and it is a disservice to their educators to receive low grades in proficiency-weighted accountability systems. It is also a profound disservice to children to blame poverty for low-growth rates.

Richard J. Wenning is the executive director of BeFoundation and former associate commissioner of the Colorado Department of Education where he led the redesign of the state’s school and district accountability system.

Richard J. Wenning