The Insufficiency of “Proficiency”

‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all thro’ the state
All the children were stirring, eager to learn their fate;
Their test scores from April would soon be delivered,
I hope I’m proficient the children all quivered;
The wait’s been soooo long…my hands are all sweaty
I need to know now … am I college and career ready?

After eight months of waiting, thousands of Oklahoma students are finally receiving the results of state testing from last April. The majority of these students will be handed a lump of coal telling them they don’t read so well. Some will explain to them that the previous year’s testing saying they were proficient or advanced was nothing more than a lie. Furthermore, this falsehood was willingly perpetrated on them by teachers and school administrators who lowered academic standards to create the illusion of academic progress to avoid sanctions (doing their job) and support an argument for increased school funding.

And, by shaming teachers and telling kids the supposed brutal truth about their inadequacies, the idea is everyone will work harder and smarter and we will make more kids proficient – not FAKE proficiency, mind you – but the new and improved proficiency only accessible through higher standards and more difficult assessments.

Of course we all remember No Child Left Behind. The 2001 law passed under President George Bush stipulated that 100% of American students were to become “proficient” in reading and math by 2014 — a hopelessly utopian goal – and then set sanctions for those states that didn’t make “adequate yearly progress” in meeting that goal. Reformers will quickly point out what they perceive to be the critical flaw of NCLB, that being that states were allowed to determine their own unique academic standards and definitions for proficiency.

Consequently, a child deemed proficient in fourth grade reading in one state could move to a neighboring state, take a similar assessment to the one he took before, and be labeled “limited knowledge” or “unsatisfactory” or even “advanced” for that matter. In short, his or her “proficiency” depended less on their reading skills and more on where they sat on the day they took a test.

Well, here we are, nearly a generation later – after moving from NCLB to RtTT to ESSA – still trying to figure out exactly what we mean when we say, “proficient.” We have become so accustomed to throwing this word around to describe our students’ abilities and their level of “achievement,” we have lost sight of the fact that the term often doesn’t mean a damn thing, kind of like “all-natural,” “less fat,” “organic,” and “Republican.”

The problem is there is no clear and universally agreed upon definition of “proficient” when it comes to math, reading, or much of anything.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. When it comes to state testing, “proficient” does have one very specific meaning — “having scored above an arbitrarily set cut score on a multiple-choice standardized test.” Yet, like the similarly obtuse term, “student achievement” (which literally means “test scores”), it has been carefully chosen because it suggests so much more than it actually means. Therefore, when a child is deemed “proficient” on the appropriate state test, we are told we can take that one-day snapshot of a child’s performance on a computer-based multiple choice test and extrapolate it into a some kind of false equivalency about being “college- and career-ready.”

I suppose a child who learns to walk at an early age of nine months of age could similarly be labeled as more “Olympic-ready” than his fellow ankle biter who doesn’t gain walking proficiency until his twelfth month. Come to think of it, why aren’t we scolding these lazy kids and setting our standards higher (“All children shall walk by ten months”) while subjecting them to a constant admonishment of, “Walk, damn it!”

Anyhow, let’s take a moment to dissect what it means to call someone a proficient reader?

Does it mean a child can finish an entire hundred page novel? Does she have to understand it or just get through it? Is there a time limit? 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 an eighth grade child can get through “The Giver” but not “The Iliad,” is he still a proficient reader?

If I read Animal Farm, but I just think it’s a fantasy about barnyard animals who can talk, am I proficient, or do I have to grasp Orwell’s intricate political satire to be proficient? Must I also be able to see symbolism behind the characters Old Major, Napoleon, and Snowball and their connection to their historical parallels of Marx, Stalin, and Trotsky? Can I really say I understood the book if I lack the background knowledge to grasp its critical themes and connect them to modern life?

What about poetry? Does someone have to be able to read poetry to be proficient? What types of poetry and from what historical periods? Should a proficient reader be inspired or moved to tears by what she reads, or does reading proficiency have to do only with mechanics, rhyming patterns, and vocabulary? Does proficiency translate into a desire to communicate one’s own thoughts in writing or simply understand what others have written?

Should a proficient reader be able to read and follow instructions, say, for assembling a IKEA bedroom set? Would a proficient reader be able to follow the instructions even if the writer of the instructions was not a proficient English language writer? How about being able to summarize the list of possible side effects in the literature for a blood pressure medication you get from the pharmacy or the prospectus from an investment banker?

Can a proficient reader deal with non-fiction reading? How about, say, Steven Hawking’s “The Origins of the Universe?” I’ve read this several times and can’t quite wrap my brain around the ideas.

As a citizen and future voter, should a high school student who is a proficient reader be able understand the word choice and sequencing of ideas in a George Will editorial? Does proficiency mean being able to understand the difference between truth, propaganda, and outright lies?

(Honestly, can any test we give kids truly measure a child’s level of discernment, synthesis, curiosity, and healthy skepticism? If no, are we really measuring “reading?”)

How about legal documents or piece of legislation? Does a proficient reader read well enough to understand them kind of, or completely, or at least 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, one of my blog posts), or does proficiency mean dealing with longer, more involved writing?

If college readiness is part of proficiency, does that mean a proficient, college- and career-ready reader is prepared to do the assigned reading for a class on French Literature at Princeton or a class on Theoretical Engineering at MIT or a class in Music Appreciation at Gooberville Junior College? Speaking of levels of ability, would a proficient reader read all of a L. Ron Hubbard or Stephanie Meyers novel and recognize they had just read something 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 verbosity to make a rhetorical point and just skipped to the end?

Or does “proficient” just mean being able to manage the scattered dribs and drabs of reading-related tasks that we can easily work into a standardized test?

Not only do we have to pretend that we actually know what “proficient” means when it comes to reading and math, we have to go on to claim that we can glean a clear and accurate picture of that myriad of complex skills with one standardized test. And, in Oklahoma, we have decided to assess a child’s reading proficiency with fifty to sixty multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble questions.

Even worse, we have no evidence that any of this test-based accountability is creating children who love reading and are committed to lifelong-learning. In fact, the opposite may be true. According to a well-publicized study by Common Sense Media, American teenagers are less likely to read “for fun” at seventeen than at thirteen. For too many children, reading a real book has become a chore, like cleaning their room or prepping a meal for a kid brother. As a result, it is estimated that about one in four adults will never read an entire book in their lives after finishing their academic studies.

So the next time you read a piece like this OCPA propaganda or this alarming story about dramatic drops in student proficiency rates in the Daily Oklahoman, keep in mind that all these people waxing philosophically about what “proficient” means might as well be discussing the snack preferences of modern-day unicorns.

We all know they prefer rainbow donuts. Duh!

 

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