Before Signing Morgan Polikoff’s Letter to the U.S. Department of Education, Read This

Charles Barone

July 19, 2016

Part 1

By Charles Barone

Morgan Polikoff, Associate Professor of Education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, has posted a sign-on letter to the U.S. Department of Education that has gotten increased visibility following coverage yesterday by NPREd. Some prominent education leaders and experts have already signed on.

The letter, addressed to Secretary John King, states:

We write this letter to argue that the Department of Education should not mandate the use of proficiency rates as a metric of school performance under ESSA [The Every Student Succeeds Act]. That is, states should not be limited to measuring academic achievement using performance metrics that focus only on the proportion of students who are grade-level proficient—rather, they should be encouraged, or at a minimum allowed, to use performance metrics that account for student achievement at all levels, provided the state defines what performance level represents grade level proficiency on its reading/language arts and mathematics assessments.

It sounds good. Polikoff makes cogent arguments in favor of his proposal, including the citation of research that shows the drawbacks of focusing on proficiency. I can see why people find it compelling. There’s much there to agree with. The problem isn’t with what’s in the letter, however, but in what’s left out. Here’s a rundown.

Bubble Kids.” Polikoff cites research that finds that accountability based on “percent proficient” incentivizes schools to focus only on students around the proficiency cutoff rather than all students in a school.” This is known as “educational triage.” Not all studies, however, agree with that assertion. These dissenting opinions are not cited in Polikoff’s letter.

In a 2008 study of 300,000 students in a “large western state,” Matthew Springer of Vanderbilt found no evidence whatsoever of education triage, stating that the schools he studied “focused instruction on the entire range of low-performing students in the subsequent school year, and did so without negative impact on high-performing students.” A subsequent, larger scale study by Dale Ballou and Springer (2011) of four states reached similar conclusions.

One of the two publications cited by Polikoff (Booher-Jennings, 2005) with regard to triage was a qualitative study of one school in Texas (more of a case study, really, than a research paper with generalizable findings) and the author’s definition of “triage” was expansive, beyond just the question of percent proficient. For those newer to the scene, Booher-Jennings was the formerly-masked blogger “Eduwonkette” who, it can be safely said, was no fan of accountability in any form whatsoever. Diane Ravitch called Jennings’ work “brilliant.”

The other – Neal & Schanzenbach (2010) – was a quantitative study of students in Chicago. So, on the issue of “incentivizing” we have 2 studies covering 4 states that say educational triaging does not happen vs. a case study of one school in Texas by a clearly biased researcher and a real research study based solely in Chicago. Even so, let’s concede, both for sake of argument and because its probably true, that educational triage happens in some places and not others when accountability systems focus on percent proficient or that methodological differences explain these differing findings. There are still other blind spots in Polikoff’s treatise.

Growth To Nowhere? If percent proficient, or something like proficiency that focuses on meeting a particular standard rather than merely making progress anywhere on the continuum between abject failure and absolute superiority, is not the ultimate goal, what was the point of the past decade’s mantra of “college and career readiness?” If a student progresses between ninth and twelfth grade from “not being at all college and career ready” to some improved level that’s still well short of “college and career ready” is that really success for that student? If we’re to take “college and career ready” literally, and “proficiency” or “grade level” as synonymous with such, the long-term prospects for twelfth grade students short of those goals would seem to be just a lighter shade of grey than when they started high school.

Non-Linear Urgency. For young children who lag far behind “proficiency” or “grade” level, the goal of incremental and linear progress may be too little to late. A 2010 review of the literature entitled “Early Reading Proficiency” by The Annenberg Institute for School Reform – not known generally as hawkish on accountability by any stretch of the imagination – concluded:

Throughout the K–12 school experience, children continue to build upon prior knowledge to develop grade-level academic skills and knowledge. However, students who fall behind in the early grades have a harder time catching up, making it particularly important to identify struggling students early. Reading improvement changes most dramatically in the early years and slower in later years. In other words, there is greater potential for learning reading skills in the early grades. With each additional year, gains in reading are smaller and smaller.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the regulations for which Polikoff is seeking to impact through his letter, assessments in reading do not even have to begin until third grade. How long should incremental progress be deemed acceptable short of proficiency or grade level to ensure kids learn to read at an age that puts them on a clear path to educational success? Three years? Five years? Polikoff’s letter is silent on those points.

Again, there is a lot of merit to what Polikoff is arguing in his letter, but many equally vital considerations are nonetheless left out. Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon.


A Capitol Hill veteran, Barone was a top education advisor to the late Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) and to Congressman George Miller (D-CA), under whom he acted as lead negotiator for House Democrats on the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Before his entry into Washington politics, Charles was a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at Yale University. He has a doctorate in clinical/community psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park.