Parents Must Understand Growth Scores to Make Sense of Student Progress

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by James Robinson
Principal, Rocketship United Academy

This op-ed originally appeared in The Tennessean on September 26, 2017.

Most schools across Tennessee recently learned how much academic progress their students made last year. But elementary schools in Davidson County will have to wait another year to see how much growth their students achieve in a school year.

This means when the rest of the TNReady results are finally released this fall, the focus on our elementary schools will be solely on student proficiency.

But there is another assessment that most Nashville public schools are now using to track student progress – the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) – which can tell us how much individual student growth has occurred during the school year.

Proficiency scores are important, but they only tell us if a student is on grade level at a specific point in time. Growth scores, which are also called “value-added” scores, tell us how much a student is learning over a period of time, regardless where they’re starting from.

To put it another way, the difference between proficiency and growth is like the difference between asking “are we there yet?” and “how far have we gone?”

MAP assessments are used by more than 7,400 schools and districts throughout the world. At Rocketship Public Schools, we have been using MAP since we opened our first school and we applaud Metro Nashville Public Schools and Director Joseph for implementing the MAP assessment across Metro Nashville Public Schools last year.

Growth matters for all students, but it is especially important for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

National data shows us that many students born into poverty start school behind and never catch up. In Nashville, where the majority of public school students are economically disadvantaged, there’s an achievement gap for every subject tested. A good public school will close this gap and level the playing field for all students.

This is why we need to pay attention to growth. For a student performing significantly below grade level, his rate of academic growth will ultimately determine if he ever catches up.

Here’s how it works:

Consider a kindergarten student who achieves in the 10th percentile on a nationally standardized test, which means she’s performing below 90 percent of her similar age peers. If this child stays in the 10th percentile, she has a high likelihood of dropping out of school and little chance of reaching college.

For this student to catch up to grade level by fourth grade she would need to grow 1.3 years academically during each year of elementary school.

Growing more than a grade level in one year may sound difficult, even impossible for children in disadvantaged communities. But the students I have the privilege to lead at Rocketship United Academy, where 70 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged, prove that zip codes do not define student potential.

Last year, 146 of our Rocketeers started the year behind and ended the year at or above grade level. That is 146 achievement gaps closed in just one year. Based on our MAP data, our Rocketeers grew on average 1.35 years in math and 1.2 years in reading last year alone.

Achieving gap-closing growth requires effective teaching and effective teaching requires regularly measuring and monitoring student learning with a benchmark assessment tool, like MAP. If we only measure how students do at the end of each year, there’s no room to course correct along the way.

To all Nashville public school parents: I urge you to ask about your child’s growth scores on MAP, no matter where they fall in terms of proficiency. Paying attention to where your child is headed, and not just where he’s at right now, will help you be a stronger advocate for his learning and long-term success.


James Robinson is the founding principal of Rocketship United Academy, a public charter school serving elementary students (grades K-4) in South Nashville. Rocketship United Academy is one of three public charter schools operated by Rocketship Public Schools in Metro Nashville-Davidson County.

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