The Power of Two: embracing both proficiency and growth

January 27, 2017
school garden

School garden at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, June 4, 2014.

The CORE Districts began in 2010 as a collaboration across school districts exploring ways to improve teaching and learning. In 2013, several school districts in the CORE consortium received a federal waiver from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind law and are working together to develop and maintain a new School Quality Improvement Index to provide more and better information about schools and the learning needs of students. The process for creating the Index has been challenging and complex, including finding the best way to evaluate student success using both proficiency and growth. In this piece, Executive Director Rick Miller explains how they addressed this issue.

Rick Miller

As surreal as it was, the recent confirmation hearing for Betsy DeVos, the likely next secretary of education, raised a critical policy question even here in California – and I’m not talking about grizzly bear protection.

While I think we can all agree that she did not have a sufficient answer to Sen. Al Franken’s question regarding the choice between using student proficiency or academic growth to gauge school progress, I would actually argue the senator’s question implied a false choice.

This “choice” is an issue the CORE Districts debated at length in creating our shared school improvement and accountability system – and we concluded the answer was both.

To measure achievement in the CORE Districts, we chose to take into account both the number of students meeting standards and how much academic growth students are making each year. We call this the “Power of Two.”

In the CORE Districts’ data system, educators have access to test score measurements that are clear and easy-to-understand, and are uniquely helpful by highlighting how schools are improving student learning. School reports – highlighting academic growth as well as academic performance and other school progress measures – are available online.

With two consecutive years of test results available to compare locally, the “Power of Two” is taking hold within the CORE Districts’ data network. At the district and county level, data are being shared with local educators to raise awareness about the range of academic growth within each system. The data are reassuring and motivating to educators working hard to change trajectories for the large number of traditionally underserved students in California’s public schools. This approach also provides a more finely-tuned road map for school and systemwide improvement.

Our data network and our learning continues to expand in large part because this growth model is so powerful. Test results no longer stand alone, and we can now also examine how students are improving from year-to-year.

In our data system, state and locally-driven measures of school progress are connected and can better inform what we know about student achievement. Since we opened our data network to all educational agencies at the beginning of this school year, it has doubled in size, with 37 school districts, three county offices of education and two charter management organizations now sharing data.

In order to evaluate academic growth fairly, we worked with our statistical research partners to ensure our data system accounted for differences among individual students. At its core, a growth model is intended to gauge whether individual students grew more or less than what could be expected from students like them – what we call “like peers.”

But what is a “like peer”? Determining that is the heart and soul of a growth model, and where the difficult policy decisions lie. After much debate, the CORE Districts decided to take into account students’  prior test history and their status as economically disadvantaged, disabled, English learner, homeless or in foster care.

Not only are these adjustments made at the student level, but our growth model also adjusts for concentration of these characteristics within the school.

As a result of these decisions, schools with high concentrations of youth in poverty have an equal chance of being viewed as “high-impact” schools – those having a major impact on students’ learning outcomes – as those with mostly well-to-do students.

If we had just considered prior test scores and none of the other attributes, a high-poverty school would have had almost no chance of showing that they had considerable impact on learning. Conversely, a low-poverty school would almost assuredly not be viewed as a “high impact” school as measured by learning outcomes.

Our growth model is helping us pinpoint where outcomes are improving for specific groups of students so we can apply what we are learning to better support all of California’s 6.2 million students.

Yet this decision didn’t come easily for the CORE superintendents; they wrestled with these policy choices. Especially challenging was acknowledging schools for the academic growth their students were demonstrating, even when few students “met standards” as measured by their scores on the Smarter Balanced assessments.

This was a particularly difficult choice in light of the pervasive achievement gap, especially in math for African American and Hispanic/Latino students across the CORE Districts. But in the end, we felt that because we were using the “Power of Two” and would always highlight overall proficiency as well as  growth, it was important to include exceptional progress as measured by improvements in learning outcomes even if a school and its students still had a long, long way to go as measured simply by the number of students who “met the standards.”

CREDIT: CORE Districts

The growth model takes into consideration factors that affect student achievement and measures how much the students improved, not just their test scores.


CREDIT: CORE Districts

The “Power of Two” helps identify schools where students are learning significantly faster or slower than their academic peers.

Our growth model highlights the impact of educators at each school in a different way than scores alone. The “Power of Two” helps us identify schools where students are learning significantly faster or slower than their academic peers, and it provides key information about which schools need the greatest support and intervention.

It is encouraging that the California State Board of Education is discussing adding a student-level growth measure to California’s soon-to-be-released school accountability dashboard. We strongly believe “the Power of Two” helps capture the true nature of our schools’ academic achievement, and it furthers California’s overall educational mission of continuous improvement for schools and students. This work is the closest we have to a guarantee that we continue to view all work through the lens of equity and access for all students in California public schools.

Through our partnership with Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), we will also continue to share our quantitative and qualitative findings with state and federal decision makers to inform policy. Most importantly, our data network is now open to all local educational agencies to provide a finely-tuned look at student-level academic growth and a more complete picture of school progress. And if ever faced with a similar question at a congressional hearing, we’ll know to say: “Both!”


Rick Miller is the executive director of the CORE Districts, a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve student achievement by fostering collaboration and learning among its members, which include some of California’s largest districts.

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