February 2, 2017

By Jan Bryan


This blog is rated PG for Proficiency and Growth. Readers are advised that the content of this blog is rigorously debated among noted experts and common understandings are yet to be realized. Even so, the terms “proficiency” and “growth” are trending. A simple Google search returned 34,000,000 results in four-tenths of a second. Perhaps the terms are trending as people seek to understand the difference between proficiency and growth as well as how that difference impacts learning.

In the simplest analogy possible, proficiency is a destination; growth is the journey.

“In the simplest analogy possible, proficiency is a destination; growth is the journey.”

The destination

Proficiency is about a specific level of achievement at a specific point in time. In particular, it is about achievement that is considered “good enough” at that point in time. For example, a Southwestern university requires all music majors (except piano majors) to pass a piano barrier. They must play one major and two minor scales with sufficient speed and accuracy, sight-read a piece of music reasonably well, and perform a rehearsed one exceptionally well. Those who meet the expectations for scales, sight-reading, and performance are proficient. They play the piano good enough to be a music major.

In Pre-K–12, proficiency standards are usually set by state-level policy or another overseeing body, often establishing categories to sort out how well students master a skill or standard. Common achievement category labels include advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic (Hull, 2007).

For state accountability, proficiency, in most cases, is measured by a single summative assessment. Although proficiency benchmarks are rigid, the body of knowledge they reflect adapts and grows—from the novice understandings acquired in the earliest grades through the complex applications applied in the highest grades. As a result, proficiency focuses on content mastery at grade level.

Assessing and categorizing works efficiently enough, until you run into the human element of learning. What does the head of the music department at the university do with a virtuoso pianist who can flawlessly replicate any piece of piano music he hears but cannot read music? His sight-reading is below basic, yet he is inexplicably skilled. Is he proficient?

The journey

Growth focuses on learning over time, and places greater emphasis on how much students learn than on what they can demonstrate by the end of the year.

Like proficiency, growth considers content and grade level; however, it brings the child into the equation. Where did the student begin in the development of content knowledge? How far has the student traveled on the proficiency highway? Which unique skills or challenges does the student carry along the way? What is his or her rate of improvement? How much farther must the student go?

“Like proficiency, growth considers content and grade level; however, it brings the child into the equation.”

Some report growth as the difference between pre- and post-test using a vertical scale (e.g., 0–100). Subtraction, however, is not a growth model (Literasee, 2017). The subtraction model documents progress from pre to post: a growth model explains the kind of progress students make over time.

There are a number of statistical models that measure student growth, and one of the most widely used is student growth percentile (SGP). SGPs are a norm-referenced quantification of individual growth from one period to the next. The SGP score compares a student’s growth over time with that of his or her academic peers nationwide. Academic peers are students in the same grade with a similar history of achievement (Renaissance, 2016). This means that the SGP calculation compares the pre/post progress for a student with a history of high achievement to the pre/post progress of other high-achieving students nationwide at that grade level. Likewise, students struggling with achievement are compared to their individual academic peers.

The impact

The particulars of proficiency vs growth are rigorously debated among noted experts; however, what’s clear is that growth, such as is characterized by SGP, brings greater insight to the understanding of each student. Knowing that a student has advanced or fallen back in learning is only part of the story. Growth provides the context to understand the significance of that growth or to inform depth of concern regarding the stumble. For a deep dive into growth and growth models, download A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models (Castellano & Ho., 2013). For detailed information on SGP and SGP in Renaissance Star Assessments®, download the SGP Special Report (Renaissance, 2016).


Castellano, K. & Ho, A. (2013) A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models. CCSSO, Retrieved from http://www.ccsso.org/Resources/Publications/A_Practitioners_Guide_to_Growth_Models.html.

Hull, J. (2007). Measuring student growth: A guide to informed decision making. Retrieved from http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Policies/Measuring-student-growth-At-a-glance/Measuring-student-growth-A-guide-to-informed-decision-making.html.

Literasee. Subtraction Isn’t a Growth Model. Retrieved from https://view.literasee.io/Literasee/Georgia/report.

Renaissance (2016). Special Report on Student Growth Percentile. Retrieved from https://www.renaissance.com/resources/student-growth-percentile.

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