Database: Accountability Plans

Proficiency and growth are part of ESSA’s accountability requirements

Right now, state education departments are working to come up with a plan that meets all the requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). One area that has received a lot of attention is the student accountability section and the required indicators that hold schools accountable for student learning. 
ESSA identifies five indicators, which the Education Commission of the States lists as:

  • Proficiency on assessments, which may include growth in proficiency in high school;
  • Growth in proficiency in grades below high school or another academic indicator;
  • High school graduation rates;
  • Progress of English language learners toward proficiency; and
  • A nonacademic indicator of school quality and student success, such as school climate or chronic absenteeism. 

This article will highlight academic proficiency and academic growth, and explain their role in accountability systems. It also will describe how states with approved ESSA plans propose to implement them. 
State plans
First, under ESSA, states still are required to annually measure English/Language Arts (ELA) and math proficiency using statewide assessments that gather data on achievement of all students and subgroups. To simplify, this academic achievement indicator measures whether a student is proficient or performing below, at, or above grade level as determined by the state. 
Schools can report their academic proficiency as the percent of total students and the percent of student subgroups that meet or exceed the expectations for their grade level. This holds all students throughout the state to the same bar, regardless of their individual circumstances. 
The 15 states that have approved ESSA plans all use their annual state standardized test to measure ELA and math proficiency for grades three to eight, or for at least one elementary school grade and one middle school grade. However, these states vary when it comes to assessing academic achievement for high schoolers. 
States are required to measure academic achievement in ELA and math at least once while students are in high school. According to ESSA, states can decide on the statewide assessments that are used. The approved plans show that some states are now using national assessments like SAT or end-of-course exams. Whichever test is chosen must measure ELA and math proficiency at least once in a student’s high school career. In addition, the tests must be shown to be reliable, valid, and aligned with approved state standards. Like the standardized tests that are used for grades three to eight, the high school test also must measure a student’s performance to see if he or she is performing below, at, or above the corresponding grade level. 
The second indictor in ESSA also measures academic performance, but instead looks at the growth or progress that an individual student or subgroup of students has made. ESSA requires this growth indicator to be measured annually for elementary and middle school students, although some individual states have extended their plans to include measuring growth during high school as well. 
Unlike the first indicator, the state growth measure must consider a student’s starting performance level and evaluate how much that student is learning in an academic year. This indicator is more individualized than the first academic indicator or proficiency indicator, and aims to motivate and reward growth for students who progress from one level to the next, even if those levels are below or above proficiency. Growth can be averaged and reported for all students in a school and for student subgroups as well. 
Because growth can be measured in a variety of ways, the states with approved ESSA plans have developed different strategies to meet the requirements, with three major patterns emerging:

  • Strategy 1: Evaluate student growth based on how a student performs compared to other students with similar demographics. Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., all aim to use a student growth percentile to measure annual student growth. 
  • Strategy 2: The state departments of education in Arizona, Maine, and Nevada decided that a student’s proficiency level should be a part of the calculation for student growth. For example, in Maine the equation for ELA progress is: 

Progress in ELA = (proficiency in ELA * weighted proficiency percent) + (growth in ELA * weighted growth percentage) 
The two weighted percentages equal 100 percent for each student, but they depend on the level of proficiency the student achieved in the subject on the state test. If students scored well on the state test, their proficiency is counted more in their overall progress, but if the students do not perform well and are below proficient, then their growth will count more. The reasoning behind this is that students who do not reach proficiency may still grow a significant amount during the academic year depending on the level they started at in the beginning of the year. This growth should still be rewarded. At the same time, students who do not have a large amount of growth, but tested at or above grade level should also be rewarded for their level of performance. 

  • Strategy 3: Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Tennessee use a student’s previous year’s state assessments scores as a starting point and then map out a long-term plan to proficiency for each individual student to eventually perform on grade level. Some states have their proficiency goals cut off at eighth grade, like Louisiana, or 12th grade, like Connecticut. But they all recognize that the goal is for students to eventually perform at or above grade level before they graduate high school.  

Measuring indicators
Three things about these two academic indicators should be clear. First, the two indicators are measuring different aspects of student learning, and they are both important to evaluating student performance. The first indicator focusing on proficiency provides a benchmark to ensure that all students in the state are held to the same standard. This helps to enforce equity in the state’s education program by defining a standard for performance at each grade level that applies to all students. 
Second, the measure of student growth, adds an important element because it recognizes student learning that occurs above and below the proficiency line. If a student is three grade levels behind at the start of the year and grows two grade levels, that growth should be recognized. However, for that same student, their growth needs to be put in the context of grade-level expectations, or proficiency levels to know that they are still behind academically. 
Third, states are measuring growth and proficiency in very different ways. However, according to ESSA, the aggregated weight given these and other academic indicators in the state formula should be “substantial” compared to the weight given to nonacademic measures.

There are pros and cons to each strategy. But the state’s approach to measuring these indicators must be considered when comparing student proficiency and growth. This is particularly true when looking at performance between states to avoid comparing apples to oranges when we ask which states met their academic proficiency and academic growth goals. However, both proficiency and growth work best together. 

Annie Hemphill ( is a research analyst with NSBA’s Center for Public Education. 

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