Durham News: Opinion

Matt Sears: Look at growth when evaluating schools

The number and frequency of high-stakes tests makes understanding school performance challenging, but there are two measures the state provides that help us understand how well schools, teachers, and students are doing: Proficiency and Growth.

Proficiency is the bar we need to help every student leap over. It says how close students are to being on grade-level and graduating ready for college or career. State test results range from Levels 1-5, where scores of Level 3 or higher are deemed “at grade-level” and Levels 4 and 5 indicate that a student is “Career and College Ready.”

DPS’s results were that 44.1 percent of students were “at grade-level” and 34.8 percent were “Career and College Ready.” Those are not good numbers and they are below the state averages (56.3 percent and 46.2 percent respectively). We have much work to do and our teachers, principals, district office personnel and superintendent focus on that work every day. When it comes to the bar, we must get every student over.

Growth is the measure of how a school is doing in terms of teaching and learning within a year’s time – irrespective of where the bar is. A school’s growth status can be “Exceeded,” “Met,” or “Not Met.” This system uses statistical models to predict how well a student will do on their next test based on how well they have done on previous assessments. Students that enter a class ahead of their peers should perform very highly to “Meet” or “Exceed” their expected growth, and, conversely, students that start a class behind grade-level may “Meet” or “Exceed” growth even if they do not score a Level 3, 4, or 5 in proficiency.

Put simply, growth measures how well children do when you take into account their starting place. It is the best measure we have for evaluating teaching and learning. A school that Meets or Exceeds growth demonstrates, on average, that students are learning one or more year’s worth of content in one year’s time. And that’s what we want. We want schools that year after year teach students a minimum of one year’s worth of instruction in one year’s time. We want schools focused on: “Where is your child academically?” and “Are we getting your child to grow?”

Last year 38 of 52 DPS schools Met or Exceeded expected growth (73 percent). And the previous year’s results (2012-13) show 41 of 53 (77 percent) DPS schools Met or Exceeded growth. Nearly three out of four of our schools in each of the last two years demonstrated growth.

It is time for our community to stop using only one piece of the data to further drive a wedge between DPS and other school options. It matters that 73 percent of our schools last year demonstrated learning and growth. It matters that DPS accepts, feeds, transports, and serves all students who come to us, regardless of exceptional needs or limited English skills. This information can no longer be a footnote in the annual data release. Yes, the proficiency bar is critical, but because students don’t all begin school at grade level, the only way to make up ground is to focus on Meeting and Exceeding growth.

Matt Sears is a member of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.