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In Senate hearing, DeVos shows ignorance of central debate over how to measure schools

Jan 18, 2017

President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to head the U.S Department of Education went before the Senate education committee yesterday for her confirmation hearing.

Senators asked many questions of Betsy DeVos – some about her Michigan family’s donations of millions of dollars to Republican candidates, others about whether she would mandate that public schools become charter or private schools.

Yet, it was an exchange between Minnesota Senator Al Franken and DeVos that caught our attention.

Take a listen:

In that exchange, Franken asked DeVos to provide her views on the “relative advantage of doing assessments and using them to measure proficiency or to measure growth.”

DeVos didn’t seem to understand the question.

“This is a subject that has been debated in the education community for years ... it surprises me that you don’t know this issue,” Franken said.

Joshua Cowen, associate professor at the Department of Education Administration at Michigan State University, joined Stateside to help us understand the exchange.

First, he defined the terms.

Proficiency, he said, “is a target that sets a minimum level of achievement, where all students are expected to meet a certain threshold, essentially, that defines them as, by definition, at proficiency in that particular subject.”

Growth, on the other hand,is basically customized for individual students based on what they scored before. So, what we’re doing is measuring distance from point A in the student’s academic career to point B.”

Cowen said the growth vs. proficiency debate can “become particularly heated” within the education community.

“It has, particularly when we are thinking about what the best way to measure school progress is and to identify why schools are struggling and which are doing really well,” he said.

In terms of how much a nominee for Secretary of Education should be familiar with this debate, Cowen said it’s not for him to say.

“I’ll just say this,” he said. “In the future, if she’s successful in her confirmation, she will become very familiar with this, because it’s an important debate and it’s going to continue to be.”

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