Why ‘proficiency’ in the Common Core era is misleading

On my resume, I write that I’m proficient in Spanish.  Do I have, as some would say, an embarrassing accent? Yes. Do I forget to use the subjunctive or misconjugate the presente perfecto? More often than I’d like.

Yet despite these shortcomings, I’m able to have enjoyable and successful conversations. Most of us would probably consider this ‘proficient.’

But in the world of the Common Core standards, I’d be assessed as “approaching proficiency”–or below the proficient level.

On my resume, I write that I’m proficient in Spanish. That’s to say: I can understand people and get my point across. Do I have, as some would say, an embarrassing accent? Yes. Do I forget to use the subjunctive or misconjugate the presente perfecto? More often than I’d like.

Yet despite these shortcomings, I’m able to have enjoyable and successful conversations. Most of us would probably consider this ‘proficient.’

But in the world of the Common Core standards, I’d be assessed as “approaching proficiency”–or below the proficient level. Student proficiency, once aligned with grades and bygone standards, is now subject to a more rigorous baseline of achievement. Not surprisingly, these new descriptors assessing students’ proficiency have alarmed many students and parents.

This brings us to a fundamental–and ironic–problem that teachers face in communicating what Common Core proficiency really means to parents, community members, and policy makers.

If my teacher told me my son was “approaching proficient,” I’d wonder why Liam was falling short. I’d ask, “What have we been doing wrong?”

But many educators would say: nothing at all. “Approaching proficiency” in the Common Core era doesn’t mean my son is failing or not working hard enough. It simply means that he hasn’t reached an expert level of proficiency.

The new standards are intentionally rigorous. While a grade of ‘C’ might have once represented proficiency, in the Common Core era, proficiency has become the intentionally hard-to-achieve “A.”

So what exactly does proficiency mean, then? A look at one national assessment gives some insight into different definitions of proficiency and how they relate to student performance. In a 2011 piece, James Harvey analyzed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) proficiency standards, which the NAEP called “aspirational.”

Harvey pointed out that most states tend to evaluate proficiency based on students’ performance at grade level. However, the NAEP standards do not equate proficiency with either grade- or subject-level performance. In order for students to receive a “proficient” rating, their grades and performance in school are not enough. So students who are performing with proficiency in class (and who would be considered by many teachers and parents to be proficient) might not meet NAEP’s “proficient” level because it is set so high.

So what do the NAEP and Common Core standards have in common? It’s important to analyze the subtle differences between “proficient level” and “proficiency.” Per the Common Core standards, a student does not reach proficiency until they can complete a task expertly. Fewer students are expected to meet that expert level because of the rigor of the standards. A student can perform satisfactorily in class but still be working towards the proficient level–and thus receive an “approaching proficiency” rating.

This nuance is largely lost in town halls, school board meetings, and in the media–and for good reason. The distinction between a student who is proficient (who completes tasks at an expert level) and a student who is approaching proficiency (who completes those same tasks as the proficient student, just not at an expert level) have not been well communicated. Until those definitions are made clearer, the public–and many teachers–will struggle to understand that the common understanding of proficiency is categorically different than reaching a proficient level.

Given how the public tends to interpret proficiency, standardized test results are often received with alarm–and viewed as evidence of a struggling school system. Students who are “not proficient” are viewed as failing. Blame is then scattered freely with the wind as education pundits and reformers eagerly discredit “bad” teachers or demand standards that are less rigorous.

Common Core and public school advocates will have their work cut out for them in the coming years as the public reacts to the release of assessments tied to Common Core proficiencies–particularly those that identify large percentages of students as “below proficient.” As the public processes these results, it’s up to teachers, administrators, and districts to clarify what “proficient” really means–and point out the numerous 21st-century skills that kids are developing in classrooms, which aren’t measured by any kind of proficiency assessment.

The ramifications of Common Core assessments are also significant for teachers. As a teacher with 15 years of experience working with low-income students, I know that being overly anxious about students achieving some kind of “aspirational” proficiency can be counter productive. Teachers, with urgency and integrity, work with students where they are and move them as far as they can. Much to my students’ benefit, my evaluation is not tied to a test score based on proficiency standards, and California has paused much of its standardized testing as we roll out the Common Core.

Ironically, by insisting on having too-high expectations for students, we risk threatening the success of the Common Core. An aspirational vision of proficiency that is not also tied to aspirational goals around universal health care, housing, immigration reform, and helping families escape poverty unfairly limits the conversation we need to be having about education equity–and those social shortcomings will be used to once again to blame teachers and schools.

I know from my time spent in California’s working class neighborhoods, whose communities have been plagued by violence, unemployment, gentrification, and inadequate housing, that real change is hard. In order to break the narrative of school failure–and truly set expectations for American students that are on par with countries like Finland–teachers will need appropriate (not aspirational) time and support. Most importantly, our students and families will need clear communication and support that doesn’t stop at the classroom walls.

T.R. Amsler has been teaching high school for 15 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a National Board Certified Teacher at June Jordan School for Equity and an active member of Teachers 4 Social Justice. T.R. is also a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory.

Related categories: ,