"Proficient" is having a moment right now, so perhaps this is an opportune moment to stop and reflect, to sit and think about how the term, like "all natural" and "college and career ready," doesn't actually mean a thing.
Okay, that's not entirely true. "Proficient" does have one very specific meaning-- "having scored above an arbitrarily set cut score on a Big Standardized Test." But like "student achievement" (which actually means "test scores"), it has been carefully chosen because it suggests so much more than it actually means. Like much of education reform rhetoric, it is that smouldering hottie that gives you a look across the room that promises all sort of soft, sweaty delights but who never delivers so much as a friendly peck on the cheek.
What could it even mean to call someone a proficient reader? Does it mean she can finish an entire novel? Does she have to understand it? Does she have to finish it in less than a month? A week? A year? Can it be any novel? Does it have to be a modern one, or can it be a classic? If I can get through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but not Moby Dick, am I still a proficient reader? If I read Huck Finn, but I just think it's a boy's adventure novel, and I proficient, or do I have to grasp the levels of satire to be proficient? Must I also be able to see symbolism tied to the search for identity in order to be proficient? What about poetry? Does someone have to be able to read poetry to be proficient? Any poetry? From any period? Is a proficient reader moved by what she reads, or does reading proficiency have to do only with the mechanics and thinky parts? And should proficient reader be able to read and follow instructions, say, for assembling a new media center? Would a proficient reader be able to follow the instructions even if the writer of the instructions was not a proficient English language writer? Can a proficient reader deal with any non-fiction reading? How about, say, Julian Jaynes Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? Can a proficient reader read a whole Glenn Beck book and spot which parts are crap? Because that was some pretty heavy stuff! How about legal documents? Does a proficient reader read legal documents well enough to understand them sort of, or completely, or well enough to mount a capable counter-argument to the legal document? Would I count as proficient if I only ever read chunks of reading that were all 1000 words or less (like, say, blog posts), or does proficiency mean dealing with longer, more involved stuff? If college readiness is part of proficiency, does that mean a proficient reader is ready to do the assigned reading for a class on Italian Literature at Harvard or a class on Engineering at MIT or How To Talk Good at West Bogswallup Junior College? Will a proficient reader get A's? C's? And speaking of levels of ability, would a proficient reader read all of a Dan Brown or Stephanie Myers novel and know that it was terribly written? Would a proficient reader have made it all the way through this unnecessarily lengthy paragraph, or would a proficient reader have figured out that I was using bulk to make a rhetorical point and just skipped to the end?
Or does "proficient" just mean "able to manage the dribs and drabs of reading-related tasks that we can easily work into a standardized test"?
Because not only do we have to pretend that we actually know what "proficient" means, but we after we have drawn our lines around all of the complicated questions above, we have to go on to claim that we can glean a clear and accurate picture of that constellation of complex skills with one standardized test. In Pennsylvania, we are going to assess your proficiency with fifty-four questions, half of which are just plain old multiple choice bubble questions.
So the next time you read a piece like this thinky tank piece or this piece of ridiculous editorializing, keep in mind that all these people waxing philosophic about "proficient" might just as well be discussing the hair care preferences of yetis.