Monday, May 18, 2015


"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.


  1. can we talk about 20 year veteran teachers who are rated 'proficient'?

  2. I love the picture and caption to the Cleveland editorial. "Is Ohio too quick to call students proficient at school?" Under a picture of a bunch of black kids. Because we all know a bunch of black kids can't possibly be proficient, right?

    1. Yeah, little black kids who look astounded and perplexed.

  3. Efficient, deficient,sufficient, insufficient, proficient, antificient/contraficient or just inadequate. What is the matter with "competent"? Most people have a clue as to the meaning of this word.
    Here's one for you: It dawned on me that for every student that is "trained" suffciently to move into the proficient category there will be one who is pushed out of that category - a consequence of the % cutoff system that is being used.

    1. with wordpress this time - failed !
      not proficient at this task so here's my wordpress link

  4. Peter,

    Surely, something as important as the actual Standard itself, which drives instruction, curriculum and assessment, will set forth in a rigorous way exactly what it means to be proficient, and what level of proficiency is required to meet the various standards.

    Oh, wait. Ummm... my bad...

    So, the CCSS ELA standard mentions proficiency in exactly one context. Anchor Standard #10: "Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently." That's it. No where in the standard does it define or describe what "proficiently" means.

    A minor omission that I'm sure will be fixed up in the next release.

    Of course, in keeping with the landscape-vs-portrait difference between the two standards, the Math standard does just the opposite. Nowhere in the Math standard does it actually call for proficiency. The word "proficient" doesn't appear in any standard anywhere in the document. In fact, the word only appears up front, where the document goes into great lengths to describe what it means. So in this rigorous standard, they define it but don't require it.

    Mathematically proficient students:
    • Start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution.
    • Analyze givens, constraints, relationships, and goals.
    • Make conjectures about the form and meaning of the solution.
    • Plan a solution pathway rather than simply jumping into a solution attempt.
    • Consider analogous problems.
    • Try special cases and simpler forms of the original problem.
    • Monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary.
    • Check their answers to problems using a different method.
    • Continually ask themselves, “Does this make sense?”
    • Understand the approaches of others to solving complex problems and identify correspondences between different approaches.
    • Make sense of quantities and their relationships in problem situations.
    • Make conjectures and build a logical progression of statements to explore the truth of their conjectures.
    • Justify their conclusions, communicate them to others, and respond to the arguments of others.
    • Reason inductively about data, making plausible arguments that take into account the context from which the data arose.
    • Can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.
    • Are comfortable making assumptions and approximations to simplify a complicated situation, realizing that these may need revision later.
    • Can analyze those relationships mathematically to draw conclusions.
    • Routinely interpret their mathematical results in the context of the situation.
    • Consider the available tools when solving a mathematical problem.
    • Are sufficiently familiar with tools appropriate for their grade or course.
    • Detect possible errors by strategically using estimation and other mathematical knowledge.
    • Are able to identify relevant external mathematical resources and use them to pose or solve problems.
    • Try to communicate precisely to others.
    • Try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning.
    • State the meaning of the symbols they choose consistently and appropriately.
    • Are careful about specifying units of measure and labeling axes.
    • Calculate accurately and efficiently.
    • Express numerical answers with a degree of precision appropriate for the problem context
    • Look closely to discern a pattern or structure.
    • Recognize the significance of an existing line in a geometric figure and can use the strategy of drawing an auxiliary line for solving problems.
    • Can step back for an overview and shift perspective.
    • Can see complicated things, such as some algebraic expressions, as single objects or as being composed of several objects.
    • Notice if calculations are repeated, and look both for general methods and for shortcuts.
    • Maintain oversight of the process, while attending to the details.
    • Continually evaluate the reasonableness of their intermediate results.
    [list truncated]