What does proficient mean?

Female African American teacher helping a female student in a classroom
Students holding report cards.

Students holding report cards. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The end of the school year is a time for field trips, class parties, and final report cards. The iconic report card lets parents know how their student did that year and typically reflects attendance, participation, and performance in class. Parents generally understand how to interpret report card grades: A (great), C (average), or F (failing).

The end of the year also is the time when many parents receive their child’s standardized test scores. These results, however, are not as easy to interpret. For example, in Massachusetts, a student who earns a score of 250 on the state test is considered proficient. In Washington, it takes a score of 400. Each state has its own assessments, and each defines proficiency differently.

Now, however, many states have agreed to adopt the Common Core State Standards as an outline of what students should be taught in mathematics and English language arts. Educators will use instructional materials appropriate for teaching students the knowledge, skills, and practices laid out in these documents. That should produce less variability in instruction state to state and district to district.

In order to monitor how well students are learning this material, many states also have agreed to use one of two Common Core assessments that have been developed. That will make it possible for states to report results on a common scale: a 400 in English in Tennessee, for example, would be the same as a 400 in Florida. But the question remains: is 400 good enough?

To answer that question, states set performance standards. Typically, this is done by educators and other experts who get together and look at assessments and agree on which questions or tasks a proficient (or advanced or in need of improvement) student should be expected to answer or complete. That information is then translated into a specific score. The same process can be used to analyze the quality of examples of student work.

More recently, it’s become possible to answer the question of what is good enough more precisely, based not just on expert judgment but also on data. If by proficiency we mean that a student has learned enough in one grade to be ready to do well in the next one, we can test that definition by tracking how students actually perform. We can look at how well a group of students performs on a 5th grade math test and then look back at how those same kids had done on the 4th grade math test. Using statistics, we can then more accurately define what it means to be proficient in the 4th grade.

This process is called Evidence Based Standard Setting, and because scores can be linked to future performance, it can give parents confidence that if their child is proficient, he or she has not only mastered an important set of knowledge and skills, but also is likely to be successful in the next grade. It can even give students and their parents a sense of whether they’re on track to do well after high school in college or in demanding career training programs. The scores can also help identify students who need extra help before it becomes too late, and parents, using this information, can advocate on their children’s behalf to make sure they receive that help.

The familiar report card is but one source of information about how well students are doing in school. Test results linked to important future outcomes can provide another critical piece of information to teachers, parents, and students.


About the Author

Katie McClartyKatie McClarty led the Center for College & Career Success for Pearson. She headed a team of researchers in planning and executing research to (1) identify and measure the skills needed to be successful in college and careers, (2) determine pathways for students to be college and career ready, (3) track their progress along the pathway, and (4) evaluate effective ways to keep students on track. Dr. McClarty has authored papers, chapters, and presentations related to college readiness, standard setting, assessment design, computer-based testing, interface design, teacher effectiveness, and next generation assessments. Her work has been published in journals such as the American Psychologist, Research in Higher Education, Applied Measurement in Education, Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspectives, and Educational Researcher. Dr. McClarty holds a doctorate degree in social and personality psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.