Growth vs. Proficiency

I usually take copious notes when attending conferences. It’s more of a self-discipline gesture to make me sit up straight and pay attention. I even try to sit in the front row. (The only time this backfired was in Psychology 101 when the professor had to talk about herpes and I was sporting a gargantuan one of the simplex 1 type on my upper lip. Not cool.)

I’m sharing the following notes from last year’s SDB Conference because we passionately voiced and argued — and confirmed and challenged — one another’s thinking and teaching practice.

Before discussing the topic of “growth vs. proficiency” within our small groups, we were asked to answer these two questions individually:

  1. What is the difference between growth and proficiency?
  2. How can we measure both accurately?

I wrote:

  1. Growth is individual progress, whereas proficiency is achieving some set of standards. One can grow but not achieve proficiency.
  2. Not sure. Can we ever measure these two things accurately?

Then the conversations began, and I jotted down some stuff:

  1. Growth is more social, proficiency is more academic.
  2. Both must be motivated.
  3. Both cannot be fostered if the classroom culture and teacher mindset are not in sync.
  4. Both must address how a kid learns best.
  5. A young child appreciates nature, but knowing the golden ratio is cool and requires knowing division.
  6. No one is born proficient, without growth, there’s no proficiency.
  7. We need to let growth and proficiency be time independent.
  8. It’s wrong that a kid can’t get a high school diploma when she’s a brilliant artist and can’t do algebra 1.
  9. We need to teach kids to reach their own goals instead of ours.
  10. To achieve proficiency, we should have standards, and we should agree on them.
  11. Types of tests should not be designed for the ease of testing.
  12. Proficiency: report card for the school, reputation of the institution, snapshot at that time. Growth: distance traveled over time, point A to point B can be a dramatic growth.
  13. Story archived on NPR: A teacher brought up a low group of kids to meet standards and was awarded, but she was penalized when she had a high group of kids and they didn’t see growth.
  14. Students think they are what their grade is.
  15. When you measure proficiency, you can see growth over time.
  16. Proficiency ≠ Excellence
  17. Setting the bar is not a teacher thing, it’s an admin thing — if you don’t make proficiency, you go to PI, and PI is hell.
  18. We teach to a bell curve, and we teachers are a bell curve. One size does not fit all.
  19. Growth is more individual, many different aspects of that kid, such as attitude, mindset, social behavior. Proficiency is more measurable, toward a whole group, show mastery, attach a number to this measure.
  20. Suggestions: students track their own progress, journaling, blogging; teacher is transparent in their expectations.

Some questions:

  1. What about teacher proficiency?
  2. Can we combine growth and proficiency? Can they be quantified?
  3. Growth is effort, how do you measure that?
  4. How do we strike a balance between growth and proficiency?
  5. How do get politicians out of this process?
  6. Who decides what proficiency means? Do students have a voice in this? (Teachers grade differently.)
  7. How can we communicate with everyone else to put equal weight between growth and proficiency? (We’re on a constant treadmill to keep up with the changes.)
  8. Portfolios are good, but how do you implement and grade them?
  9. Project-based learning has pros and cons, how do you give a grade for that?
  10. Are students learning social interactions, problem solving, communication, collaboration?

Two thoughts precipitated from this discussion for me, then and now. It might be that our schools are set up to measure proficiency, but they misinterpret those scores as measures of growth. And however we choose to define growth vs. proficiency, how do we ensure equal access to promote growth and proficiency? Professor William Tate, earlier in April at NCTM Annual Meeting, gave the Iris M. Carl Equity Address, he said, “The greatest threat to math instruction is the empty seat problem.”

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  1. Gary Liniger
    Posted January 17, 2017 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Growth vs proficiency. Now I know they the teacher colleges are so screwed up. Pure gobbledygook.

    • Gary Liniger
      Posted January 17, 2017 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

      Should be why not they.

    • CL Turner
      Posted January 18, 2017 at 1:07 am | Permalink

      Completely agree. After thirty-five years I am happy to leave the world of mainstream education behind.

      • LisaLisaLisa
        Posted January 18, 2017 at 7:42 am | Permalink

        Yeah…. Who needs continuing education?

        • PatPatricPatrick
          Posted May 19, 2017 at 2:02 am | Permalink

          Yeah…who needs continuing edukashun, common core for the asheep nation, baaaa to be sure, LisaLisaLisa.

  2. Jenology
    Posted January 17, 2017 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Gary, it looks like education failed you on both proficiency & growth. You poor ignorant bastard.

    • Posted January 20, 2017 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      Oh, Jenology, it looks like you have a great grasp of how both proficiency and growth can fail people. I am not convinced Gary is ever going to not be an ignorant bastard, but it shows an obvious, continual failure in the educational system in which he was likely ma(l)-triculated -or- he might have had an original thought come to mind just as he was typing and become grossly confused. ‘Tis difficult to know. I cannot attribute Gary’s use of the personal pronoun “they” in the sentence as a typographical error, but I must say it probably was simply that he had more than one sentence in his statement and while editing it, he left it as-was, then posted it. I would not say that makes him ignorant, per se, but it does make him careless. Meaning he knows better; but, needs to improve his writing skills. It’s hard to know which one is worse: ignorance vs. carelessness, if either is chronic.

  3. CL Turner
    Posted January 18, 2017 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    It’s been years since I’ve read such ridiculousness. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  4. S Sandberg
    Posted January 18, 2017 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Is there any wonder why our public schools are failing our kids? Not to me. It is really sad that a teacher (educator) spends so much time and recourses to be ridiculed by the likes of the so called “smart ass” from Minnesota.

    • LisaLisaLisa
      Posted January 18, 2017 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      Franken is a US Senator, not a smart ass. He asked a legitimate question about ensuring kids and people reach the requirements needed to go into the world and at least have the tools to be successful. At least he’s not a reality TV host.

      • Double Nickle
        Posted January 18, 2017 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

        What did Senator Franken do before he ran for office?

      • Vincent C. Xenakis
        Posted January 18, 2017 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

        No, he is not a reality host. He’s a comedian. I love ho so called educators call people names. Sounds a ton like a bully mentality.

    • Ludowici
      Posted January 18, 2017 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      She’s not a teacher … she’s one of the creators of the failed charter school system in Detroit. No experience in the classroom … just a rich woman that thinks her way is the best way.

  5. Claudio Tiblier
    Posted January 18, 2017 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    Was Franken a comedian at one time? What causerf him to stop doing that?growth? A fat head

  6. Peter Stadomomyer
    Posted January 18, 2017 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Al Frankin was a sorry comedian on SNL. He got to where he did bc he sucks up and kisses ass. He ran for political office bc he has money and access to a lot of rich celebrities who are happy to donate so they can have one of there own in politics to control things. They ridicule Trump by saying everything Al is. That’s hypocracy. Proficiency is how good is someone at what they do and can they do it constantly. Growth is growth. How big does it get have they increased in size. In this case knowledge aptitude abilities. I don’t have a PhD not bc I’m stupid but bc I don’t have the opportunity and this rigged system in America keeps minorities down. No you can’t point to a few that they let slip to justify equality. They intentionally keep minorities in certain places not allowing them to go where otherwise a white man can go. There is no urgency or the same level of respect. A white guy who owns a business gets accolades and showers of respect and admiration from everywhere as a person of value prestige. Whereas I as an Asian American owning a dozen businesses is looked at and treated no better than uneducated street hustler. I deserve more respect. And it ain’t just white people who are disrespectful. It’s across the board.

    • JM ORTIZ
      Posted January 18, 2017 at 10:30 am | Permalink

      AMEN , PETER, AMEN.!

    • Smith
      Posted January 18, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      You need someone to copy-edit and proofread your work. Maybe go back to school to
      get a little more proficient.

    • Craig Morris
      Posted January 18, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      I am not a big Al Franken fan but his career as a comedian has nothing to do with his abilities as a legislator. I didn’t much like Sonny Bono as a singer but thought he was a good Representative. (I am however fond of “I got you, babe” because it was the song that started every morning in Groundhog Day)

      Proficiency and growth apparently have specialized definitions in this debate. The same thing happens for example in physics where ordinary words get special, technical meanings (e.g. work, power and force). The dictionary definitions may not be useful.

      The idea that Asians are kept out of PhD programs in the US is laughable since many PhD programs have more Asians than whites. At my University ALL the PhD candidates in physics were Asian.

  7. Derek
    Posted January 18, 2017 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    It is funny that this debate of growth and proficiency has been going on for years (even this article was posted in August 2016) and folks are just now commenting here. This isn’t a new thing that was meant to trip up DeVos. She should know about a conversation that has been going on in education for decades. This isn’t gobbledegook just because you don’t understand the question. It is only jibberish to you if you don’t know what you are talking about.

    Attacking the person asking the question doesn’t mean you win the argument. He was voted into his position. She is trying to get their votes now for her position. She needs to win them over. If she can’t give an answer to their education questions, then she may not get their vote. That is how it works.

    I don’t even know why I’m writing this. The people I want to educate on this matter won’t understand what I’m saying, and the ones who understand will already agree with me.

    • Brink
      Posted January 18, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Permalink


      You liberals get more and more self righteous the more you lose. It’s crazy really, the hole you are choosing to dig for yourself. The person you replied to is tossing the legitimacy of the argument aside, not because he doesn’t understand it, but because he sees it as grading children who don’t meet standardized testing requirements the same as those who are proficient at those requirements. When you are testing in Math, it does in fact matter how good you are at Algebra, and not whether or not you can name all 5 genders you learned in Gender Studies (which means wow you are showing growth in your social skills!). Pretending that is the case does seem a bit backwards.

      • Mark
        Posted January 19, 2017 at 3:58 am | Permalink

        Apparently you don’t understand it either, because naming 5 genders you learned in social studies would be an example of proficiency

    • Ronald Thrush
      Posted January 19, 2017 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      Growth is exhibited if a student who used to think 2+2=6 now thinks it’s 5. Proficiency is when he/she knows that 2+2=4! Since everyone starts out not knowing, growth always precedes proficiency, but growth is not sufficient for success. That a debate exists is purely academic- pun intended.

  8. john riehle
    Posted January 18, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    In education, proficiency is the standard of skill one expects people to achieve by the end of the educational process; growth is evidence of how well people’s abilities are improving over time by measuring their actual proficiency in snapshots at discrete points in time. In this sense, people can be improving dramatically over time – their abilities are growing – without fully achieving the desired standard of skill at any one snapshot point. Obviously both things are important without being the same thing, since without growth there can be no proficiency.

    • larua
      Posted January 18, 2017 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      I love that you actually KNOW the difference and therefore shared it, as opposed to the bickering of those who clearly don’t but only choose to belittle others. I appreciate the explanation, thank you!

    • Craig Morris
      Posted January 18, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      So for example a student could have proficiency but not growth if they were reading at a 5th grade level in 3rd grade but didn’t improve by 5th grade. Or a student could have growth without proficiency if they were reading at the 1st grade level in the 3rd grade, 2nd grade level in 4th grade and 3rd grade level in 5th grade. Is this a correct understanding?

      I am not sure of the merit of the debate. It would seem that concentrating on proficiency would also improve growth but there may be nuances I haven’t considered.

      I do find it surprising that someone nominated to run the department of education doesn’t know about the debate if it has been going on for years. Maybe her real job is to get rid of the department of education in which case it doesn’t matter. If that is what she is doing then I support her and don’t care if she doesn’t know the difference between proficiency and growth. I would like them to take the money given to the department of education and give it directly to local schools. If their job has been to improve education in the US I think all can agree that the department has failed on both proficiency and growth. One might claim things would be even worse without them. Let’s get rid of the department for a few years and see.

      • Craig Morris
        Posted January 18, 2017 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

        Since I wrote this I talked with teachers at my kids’ high school. They explained why growth is a better metric than proficiency. If you have 10 above proficient student, 10 almost proficient students and 10 way below proficient student and proficiency is the metric then the best way to maximize the number of proficient students is to put all your resources on the 10 almost proficient students and ignore the others (since the first 10 are already proficient and the last 10 may never be proficient). On the other hand if growth is the metric then you need to use your resource on all 30 students.

        The department of education can skew educator behavior in this way because it costs schools money if they don’t pursue the department’s goals.

        • Robert J Borer
          Posted January 19, 2017 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          Craig – that may be an argument for the school, but not for the student.

        • Robert J Borer
          Posted January 19, 2017 at 8:31 am | Permalink

          Disregard, Craig! Lol

  9. Posted January 18, 2017 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    Dawn, it looks like many people would rather argue about the politicians themselves rather than discuss proficiency versus growth. It was interesting that Dr. Jo Bowaer talked about growth in mathematics versus striving to achieve proficiency. During a small group session in Sacramento she mentioned that there were many things wrong with math education in the United States. Under her breath, she also said that she did not fully agree with the proficiency levels. In my understanding, proficiency levels do not coincide with the growth mindset. Dr. Carol Dweck said it best when she said that we should give a grade of a “not yet” rather than the label of an F.

    • Posted January 18, 2017 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

      That’s not very consistent on Boaler’s part. If you’re going to argue that everyone can achieve Mathematics at the highest levels then everyone by extension must be able to reach a set of proficiency levels. If you don’t believe in proficiency levels then everyone is most likely not going to end up at the same point (or at least minimum threshold) at graduation. Worse, proficiency is often cumulative. So if students are gaining skills and maturity and different rates i.e. hitting proficiency targets at different points in time it becomes harder and harder to justify heterogeneous classes. At some the students would end up at two completely different points in the curriculum.

    • Posted January 19, 2017 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      Ha, Siri used Dawn instead of Fawn. My apologies Fawn.

  10. Jemal
    Posted February 2, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Proficiency is an achievement of an expected standard for the level at which the child is studying.It measures:
    A,The lesson of the past years,thus we also measure a student back ward so that a student is synthesising the fusion of the past lesson with the current year .A student who does not know what he has passed through and can not connect back is not proficient.
    B,Is he connecting,the past,the present and thinking of what is coming in his future,is he developing a broad picture of what he or she is learning.Is he looking forward backward and side ways at what he is learning.If he doing that he or she is proficient.
    C,If a student is playful with the subject matter at hand and make a sense he is proficient for one can not be playful with out good insight at the subject at hand.

    Growth is a measure to test an exam or what ever evaluation system for that year.A change between the beginning and end of the year. He might pass the test but he might not be proficient.He might not connect with what was in his past and only focussing to pass the test.

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