Essence of ESSA: Growth versus Proficiency

Today’s guest post comes from the Real Learning for Real Life coalition, of which Illinois PTA is a member. The coalition helps families and communities understand how our education system is changing to provide the children of Illinois the best education possible. The article details how schools in Illinois are changing instruction as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) shifts the focus on student achievement from proficiency to growth. The coalition has also created a short 99-second video about the difference between growth and proficiency.

Academic Progress at Zion School Shows Promise of New System

Third and 4th graders at Beulah Park Elementary School in Zion are gaining crucial skills as they make inferences while reading books as varied as Junie B. Jones and a biography of 19th century scientist Mary Anning. Now that progress will be recognized in the way Illinois evaluates its schools.

Illinois’ plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan, the replacement for No Child Left Behind, provides a system for rating Illinois schools and for providing struggling schools with additional help. Illinois’ ESSA plan, developed by the Illinois State Board of Education, emphasizes academic growth in rating schools. Parents use the ratings to better understand their child’s school—or where to send their child to school—and the state uses the ratings to determine which schools will get additional assistance. The test scores of 4th graders improved by 17.5% last year, one of the largest improvements of any school in Illinois.

“It’s about closing the academic achievement gap, and growth really matters for that,” said Dr. Keely Roberts, Superintendent for Zion School District 6.

Lynn Butera (left), principal of Beulah Park Elementary School and Dr. Keely Roberts (right), Superintendent of Zion Elementary School District

No Child Left Behind emphasized academic proficiency, test scores from a single moment in time, rather than academic growth. Proficiency often correlates with a student’s race, income level or disability status and doesn’t provide a sense of a school’s academic progress. Schools have more control over academic growth. The vast majority of students at Beulah Park are minority and low-income, and 22% of students meet or exceed PARCC standards in 4th grade English language arts. ESSA will still take into account proficiency, which is particularly critical in the upper grades as it relates to college admission.

“We care about kids surviving in the world and getting into schools like U of I,” Roberts said. “The bar shouldn’t be lower for proficiency because that’s limiting to our children.”

A recent reading exercise in Valencia Samuel’s 4th grade class compared the biography of a 19th century scientist, Mary Anning, a famous fossil collector, with a modern story about saving porpoises. The concept of compare and contrast was reinforced in the classroom and in smaller sessions with individual students. Understanding the progress students are making helps the school make informed decisions about staffing individualized support sessions and the allocation of time during the school day.

“We look at every child and set goals,” said Lynn Butera, Principal at Beulah Park for the past 15 years. “We’re using data from our [assessment] scores and mastering skills and continuously growing to be more proficient.”

ESSA will provide a more nuanced picture of Illinois’ education system, funding for initiatives such as professional development of teachers and an updated plan for supporting schools. Its true promise is in the end goal of lifting achievement and helping prepare all students for college, career and a healthy life.

“Growth is what it’s all about,” said Julie Dobnikar, a 3rd grade teacher at Beulah Park for 16 years. “It’s about knowing when I have made a difference.”

The mission of the Real Learning for Real Life coalition is to close achievement gaps and prepare the whole student for college, career, and life after high school. In order to achieve this mission, we are working toward improving understanding of ESSA. Click here to receive email updates from Real Learning for Real Life.