It’s grossly unfair to compare schools on the basis of proficiency only.

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I recently had the good fortune to see U.S. Sen. Al Franken at Town Hall Seattle, where he talked about his questioning of Betsy DeVos, now Secretary of Education. (If you haven’t seen this on YouTube, you should.) Franken is so clever he can make a subject like educational policy stimulating for a general audience. As I sat there in the crowd, I realized that even a layperson like myself can grasp the pedagogical controversy of “proficiency vs. growth,” although DeVos didn’t seem to.

In fact, I see it up close, in real life. I’m a literacy volunteer at a Rainier Valley elementary school (Hawthorne) with a high percentage of kids whose families are low-income and/or recent arrivals to the U.S. DeVos thinks our public schools are in terrible shape, which is not what I’ve concluded in my six years reading with first graders.

Here’s how success is measured currently: Each school must demonstrate what percentage of its students reach the designated reading and math proficiency levels for their grade. Imagine a sheet of plain paper and draw a horizontal line across the middle — that’s the expected proficiency level for that grade. Let’s look just at reading level.

In my class at the beginning of this year we had eight kids already reading well above that level. Put them above the line. Great! They all have educated parents with comfortable means and lots of reading at home. Technically, the teacher doesn’t have to teach them anything. They’ve already achieved proficiency.

We also had eight kids reading far below that level and most of them unlikely to meet it this year. Put them way below the line. Many have non-English-speaking parents, some have lived in shelters, many had not attended preschool. The teacher could ignore them since nothing she does will be credited if they improve but don’t reach the benchmark proficiency level.

We also had four students reading just a couple notches below level, and those kids really should be the teacher’s primary focus, the ones worth teaching.

As Franken understands and DeVos doesn’t, we should be measuring each child’s progress — their growth. Such testing data would show us how skillful a teacher is in moving students up in their proficiency regardless of where they started. Advanced students would show gains in the subtlety and complexity of their reading. Students below level would show their progress in phonics and comprehension.

It’s grossly unfair to compare schools on the basis of proficiency only. Give a teacher a classroom of kids from middle class, educated families with quality preschool and reading every night before bed, and sure, the teacher’s students will meet proficiency, no problem.

Give a teacher a classroom of kids without those advantages and standardized testing will show that the teacher is failing. But is she? We can’t know unless we track the growth of every student, Secretary DeVos. See? It’s not that complicated.