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In recent interview, Betsy DeVos answers Al Franken’s confirmation question on growth vs. proficiency. Kind of.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is reportedly weighing whether to allow schools to pay for guns using federal money.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is reportedly weighing whether to allow schools to pay for guns using federal money.
U.S. Department of Education

Betsy DeVos famously struggled to address Senator Al Franken’s question on the difference between growth versus proficiency during her confirmation hearing. But she got another shot when Indiana radio host Tony Katz brought the issue up in a recent interview.

In response, the U.S. education secretary suggested that she believed both measures have merit — and that the long-running debate among researchers and policymakers is outdated.

“Can we discuss this idea of proficiency versus growth and is that something that is a worthy measuring stick, yard stick, regarding education of our kids?” asked Katz, a conservative media personality.

“This has been a debate within the education world for a long time. Measuring the growth of the student versus a student’s proficiency — those are two different measures,” DeVos replied. “I would argue both of which have some validity and merit in the discussion.”

DeVos continued: “I believe that the more important measure is whether the student masters the material that they should learn and puts that all into their backpack of knowledge and continues to then move on to the next level of mastery. We do not orient around that currently.”

Katz’s question gave DeVos a chance to suggest the direction states should take their new plans for measuring schools under ESSA, an opportunity she largely avoided. Instead, DeVos quickly pivoted to another topic — mastery-based learning, where students move to new concepts once they’ve demonstrated understanding of past ones.

“The whole notion of growth vs. proficiency is really a look backwards rather than a look forwards, which mastery and competence is focused on,” DeVos concluded.

To Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and who has written about some of the problems with measuring proficiency, DeVos was changing the subject.

“She’s dodging/dismissing/ignoring one question to answer another,” he told Chalkbeat in an email. “The question she’s dodging/dismissing/ignoring is, ‘How should we evaluate whether teachers and schools are making a difference, by proficiency or growth?’ The questions she’s answering is, ‘How should we promote students through curricula, grades, and programs, by achievement or time?’”

That idea of individualizing schooling is key to DeVos’s vision of improving education, though research on these programs have produced mixed results. She and her former advocacy group, the American Federation of Children, has embraced fully virtual schools as part of that model.

DeVos’s press secretary Liz Hill emphasized that the department will follow the law when examining how states consider the two measures.

“According to ESSA, student ‘proficiency’ rates in math and reading/language arts must carry substantial weight in state accountability systems,” Hill told Chalkbeat in a statement. “ESSA also provides states much-needed flexibility to include ‘other academic indicators’ … which could include student learning growth.”

“The Secretary encourages states and schools to aspire to help every student demonstrate mastery of content and skills,” Hill said.

Researchers generally advise that individual student growth is a more accurate and fair way to evaluate schools than proficiency, since it better isolates the impact of a school and doesn’t penalize schools serving students who start out behind.

DeVos was criticized earlier this year after she failed to immediately answer Franken’s question on the merits of measuring growth vs. proficiency. Her non-answer during the confirmation hearing became a symbol of her perceived lack of fluency in key education debates.

In her response then, DeVos began, “If I’m understanding your question correctly around proficiency, I would also correlate it to competency and mastery, so that each student is measured according to the advancement they’re making in each subject.”

“Well, that’s growth; that’s not proficiency,” interjected Franken.

In the recent interview with Katz, DeVos also indicated that she wanted to scale back the role of the federal education department, but not eliminate it completely.

“The Department of Education has played an important role in the past decades and continues to have a role to play with regard to students with special needs and civil rights,” DeVos said. “But the department, the federal government has also overreached its role in many cases, and we are very intent in ensuring that the overreach that has occurred in the last several decades is brought back.”

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