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Measuring Student Academic Growth in Personalized and Adaptive Learning Models

Friday, February 17, 2017 -- Dave Adams

School reform is a critical, complex, and constantly changing part of our overall education environment. As state standards, tests, and accountability all continue to evolve toward higher expectations of student performance, so do our methods of evaluating and reporting student performance.

In recent weeks, education policy and accountability has made frequent headlines; implementation of last year’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) remains top-of-mind, and we’ve watched incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos be challenged by questions about using growth or proficiency in state accountability systems. The reality is that all educators are grappling with difficult considerations about how to improve our systems of accountability and put future-focused systems into place.

In this blog, I’d like to approach these questions from a slightly different angle. As districts, schools, and classrooms across the country move away from traditional models of standardized learning towards more individualized and adaptive paradigms, is growth a better measure than proficiency for evaluating student performance? Let’s start with a clear definition of each:

What is proficiency, and why is it limiting?

Proficiency levels have been the most common means of reporting state test data since the enactment of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). With proficiency data, students are grouped into cut-score ranges based on their performance on the grade-level state tests. Most states recognize three to five performance levels. For example, a state using five performance levels might categorize students as follows:  

1) Advanced

2) Proficient

3) Approaching Proficient

4) Basic

5) Unsatisfactory

Even as states continue using proficiency levels in their assessment systems, there is a growing movement to shift to new models of data reporting and accountability that are focused instead on measuring student growth. Proponents of these systems cite the limitations of a proficiency model, including: 

  • Proficiency is most commonly derived from grade level tests that only tell us how a student performed against the set of standards for their grade. It doesn’t provide information for students above or below grade.
  • Proficiency offers a single snapshot of student performance on a single test, so it only tells us how the student did at the time the test was given.
  • Because proficiency is a single snapshot of learning, it doesn’t tell us how much learning has occurred.
  • Proficiency doesn’t provide information about a student’s ability to learn or their individual pace of learning.

How is growth different and could it be a better measure of student performance?

As opposed to the single snapshot of proficiency, student growth is derived by administering multiple assessments over time and measuring the amount of learning that takes place. Because growth is a multidimensional measure that provides expanded insight into learning, it helps us understand questions such as: 

  • How much academic progress is occurring over time?
  • Are individuals and/or student populations achieving a year’s worth of learning each school year?
  • Are students that are behind academically catching up or falling further behind? 
  • Are subgroups making adequate progress in closing achievement gaps?
  • Are our systems (instructional staff, curriculum resources, etc.) making adequate progress on school improvement goals?

How might growth be a better measure for individualized and adaptive learning models?

Before answering this question, let’s agree on some simple definitions of individualized and adaptive learning. Individualized learning meets each student where they are at academically (regardless of whether they are on, above, or below grade level), and moves the student through instruction at a pace appropriate to their ability. Adaptive learning also accommodates each student’s individual skill level and pace, in addition to continuously adjusting the instruction as the student interacts with the curriculum. 

As we move towards a paradigm where each student is learning at different levels within a skills progression and at their own pace, it becomes less and less meaningful or even practical to measure students solely within traditional proficiency models. Proficiency can still have a place in helping us understand whether our students are mastering the required set of standards at each grade level, but growth provides increasingly more meaningful data about each student’s progress through the learning continuum. For students that are behind, growth provides a time-based component to help us understand if a student is making the necessary progress to get back on track to mastering the grade-level standards. On the other hand, for students that are advanced, growth data provides information to help us understand whether that student is being appropriately challenged and continuing to excel. In an individualized or adaptive learning environment, growth is a critical dimension to help us understand whether students are making adequate progress over time regardless of their current status on, above, or below grade.

Does ESSA support individualized learning and growth as a means to measure student performance?

Where NCLB strictly limited the type of assessments to only include fixed grade-level tests that measured proficiency, ESSA provides more flexibility for states to move beyond this standardized approach and opens the door for new types of tests and accountability, including: 

  • Adaptive assessments that place students in a learning continuum spanning multiple grade levels. 
  • Multiple assessments throughout the school year instead of a single end-of-year test.
  • Competency or performance-based assessments.
  • Using either proficiency or growth (or both) to report academic achievement. 

ESSA also supports individualized and adaptive learning models, and actually provides specific funding sources to help schools adopt and implement these new programs. In Title IV, Part A, Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG), ESSA carves out funding to help schools acquire and implement these programs under the sections of “Well-Rounded Education” and “Effective Use of Technologies”. This is an exciting step towards embracing new research and understanding of the learning process, maximizing advances in technology, and preparing students for success in the 21st century.

Edmentum Individualized Learning

The responsibility to move learning and accountability models forward extends beyond the classroom and school. Policy makers and publishers of educational content and technology also have an obligation to be part of the innovation that drives us towards the future. At Edmentum, we take this responsibility seriously, and we believe it begins with partnership.

That’s why in the past year, we’ve placed new focus on our four core commitments to educators, of creating quality content, developing simple technology, providing actionable data, and facilitating customer success. We’ve also taken the feedback we’ve heard from educators and students in the classroom and developed our entirely new Individualized Learning Solution that leverages a psychometrically valid growth measurement and placement to provide targeted, adaptive instruction along a rigorous progression of skills. We’re proud of the hard and thoughtful work that has gone into this new program, and we’re excited to see how teachers and students utilize it to support growth-based learning.

Interested in learning more about academic growth and individualized learning models? Check out these additional resources: