Not everyone in charge of education in our country understands how student achievement is measured. Gain deeper knowledge of growth vs proficiency to become a stronger advocate for students.

It was the gaffe that launched a thousand memes. During her confirmation hearing to become the United States’ Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos was unable to explain growth vs proficiency, nor could she outline the role each played in the lives of students.

There has been some confusion regarding growth vs proficiency, yet educational standards are based upon proficiency and the role of student growth in the classroom is a major consideration in education. Teachers must understand the differences between growth and proficiency to engage in the conversation and influence the educational system. Be prepared and ready to help each other – and students – by learning more about growth vs proficiency.

What Does Each Term Mean?

growth vs proficiencyIt’s easy to think of the definitions of the words “growth” and “proficiency,” but what do they mean to the teachers and students whose success is being judged according to these terms? In education, growth is the progress a child makes in a subject during a certain timeframe. Proficiency is determined according to a level of competence established by education administrators. This set bar is the same for every student, regardless of the level of mastery at which he or she began. While a child could grow during a semester, they might not become proficient in a subject during that time, according to proficiency standards.

In a 2014 NPR article, “It’s 2014. All Children Are Supposed to be Proficient. What Happened?” Anya Kamenetz examines 12 years of No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush-era law that demanded all states elevate every child in the country to a “…proficient level of academic achievements on the State assessments.”

While it’s clear the administration’s goal was not achieved, the article makes an excellent point regarding proficiency. “[Proficiency] is a particular score of reading or math given by states to students each spring in grades 3 through 12,” explains Kamenetz. “Change the test, or the passing score, and you change the definition of proficiency.”

Growth vs Proficiency

growth vs proficiencyWhile both proficiency and growth can be used to measure student performance, they are two distinctive gauges. The nature of measuring proficiency according to set standards, or a fixed number that is the same for every student, distorts how children’s progress is monitored. Say you teach sixth grade and you have a student who reads at a kindergarten level. Thanks to your instruction and the student’s hard work and dedication, that same student is reading at a fifth grade level by the end of the school year, which is obviously an enormous accomplishment. According to proficiency standards, however, that student is still below the proficient level in reading and pulls down your school’s scores on state exams. If your district uses performance on standardized tests as part of a teacher evaluation score, that student who improved five grade levels in one school year will hurt your evaluation.

When measuring progress according to the growth model, every child is assessed according to changes in his or her own ability. Using growth to judge academics provides insight regarding improvements made in the classroom. This method is more inclusive, as it doesn’t alienate certain students who are deemed inept according to proficiency standards and it also allows students who are proficient to reach a greater level of education.

If average students are simply memorizing information to pass an exam that simply proves their ability to repeat data, or choose a correct multiple choice answer, there exists no proof that they have evolved academically from the last grade level. To accurately measure progress, it is most beneficial to recognize that students who understand and grasp concepts will show growth every year, as they build upon a strong foundation. When considering growth vs proficiency it is important to think about what type of future is most important for students. The future of education depends upon whether it is most important for students to be satisfied with reaching a fixed set of standards, or excelling beyond their best work.

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