Since our current secretary of education can’t seem to understand the difference between proficiency
and growth, allow me to describe the difference and the terms.
Proficiency means an individual has a
minimum level of competence or understanding in a certain field. Growth means an increase in the chosen
measurement of understanding and competence in a certain field. This is akin to getting kids to be
able to tie their shoes. Proficiency means you have tied your shoes. Growth measures the increase
in the number of kids who have learned to tie their shoes.
After a certain point however, growth can only go so far, regardless of the overall proficiency. A
group of students can have 90% proficiency, and yet have oscillating, negligible, or even negative
growth, because the other 10% of the underlying population of students are affected by other factors
outside of the school system. Many of this subgroup move 2 or more times from age 8 to age 18.
Many of this subgroup go through the ordeal of parental separation and divorce, step-mothers and
step-fathers. Many of this subgroup have parents who are alcoholics. Many of this subgroup have
parents with low-income, disjunctive work history.
Both of the concepts — proficiency and growth — are beset by how they are measured.
Interpretation of data is always tied in to what the baseline is determined to be. Should this be
the same for all students and districts? How does one create a scale of measurable baselines? What
rubric should be used to measure the comprehension of the concepts? What specific language is chosen
to convey the
questions used to measure comprehension and understanding?
In these matters, proficiency measurement is completely dependent upon the measurements. Numbers
reflect a various quantity of different interpretations. Was the said student good at narrowing
down the 4 choices and guessing out of the remaining two possible answers? Was the said student
good at reverse
engineering, regardless of understanding? Is the student able to articulate or convey the
concepts, or merely just able to click correct answers on an app, or select the correct bubble on a
Education consists of engagement and discussion. The socialization aspects of learning are as equally
as important as the learning or information itself. People can only understand information in the
context of their environment, and for humans this means their fellow human beings. Tying in the
individual understanding with the views of other people’s understanding is critical to the
attainment of proficiency because most people only effectively learn when they get reinforcement and
feedback from other human beings.
The measurement of growth is always going to be subject to too many biases to be reliable. Going
from 40 percent ignorance to 60% ignorance results in a 50% increase of growth. Going from 95% to
96% however, is barely a 1% increase of growth. And in a common American population that has a
churn of more than 10% (students who move in and out of various schools) the measurement of growth is
inherently affected by incoming and outgoing student populations.
Hence a school that had 95% profiency could actually experience a negative growth merely because of
the 10% churn.