Blog: The Educated Reporter

Word on the Beat: Proficiency

As a regular feature, The Educated Reporter features a buzzword or phrase that You Need To Know (yes, this designation is highly subjective, but we’re giving it a shot). Send your Word on the Beat suggestions to

Word on the beat: Proficiency

What it means: In education circles, proficiency typically refers to whether a student’s academic achievement is on par with grade-level expectations. However, statistics can vary widely among schools, districts, and states because of the wide range of tests and benchmarks that are currently in place. Proficiency can also refer to whether a teacher is meeting expectations of on-the-job performance.

Why it matters: When students in the United States are compared to their peers in other countries, it is often based on the percentage of them who are meeting or exceeding the standards for proficiency on international exams in core subjects like reading, writing, math and science. Having a national concept of “proficiency” is a key element of the new Common Core State Standards, which were initially approved by 46 states and the District of Columbia. With a common set of expectations, it would theoretically make it easier to compare student performance from state to state.

Who’s talking about it: Mike Petrilli, a vice president at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., is wondering whether it’s time to retire proficiency as a measurement of a school’s achievement and replace it instead with a more flexible model that recognizes growth – that is, how far students progress over the course of an academic year compared with where they started. (It’s worth noting that after hearing complaints from educators that No Child Left Behind’s proficiency demands were too rigid, the federal regulations were expanded to allow some states to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” based on a growth model.) From Petrilli’s post:

“To be sure, proficiency rates should be reported publicly, and parents should be told whether their children are on track for college or a well-paying career. (That’s one of the great benefits of a high standard like the Common Core.) But using these rates to evaluate schools will end up mislabeling many as failures that might in fact be doing incredible work at helping their students make progress over time.” 

(Update: The Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn pushed back on Petrilli, arguing that proficiency still has a place in a well-balanced system of assessment: “Do you want the pilot of your plane to be proficient at take-offs and landings or simply to demonstrate improvement in those skills?”)

Education reporter Beth Fertig of WNYC also explored the proficiency question in the context of New York ’s new state exams, which are having a rocky rollout. You can listen to her interview with testing expert Daniel Koretz of the Harvard Graduate School of Education here.

Want to know more? “Proficiency“ is the latest addition to the new Glossary of Education Reform. (The glossary also has definitions on everything from academic acceleration to weighted grades. ) You’ll find a thoughtful explanation of the politics of proficiency, and some of the problems that can arise when such measurements are misapplied, or given too much weight against the myriad other factors that impact student learning.