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The difference between proficiency and growth

By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer


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).

Join the nationwide conversation by sharing your thoughts on proficiency and growth in the comments below!

Keep conversations flowing smoothly. Stay up-to-date on the most important assessment terms in education today with our free guide.



Castellano, K. & Ho, A. (2013) A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models. CCSSO, Retrieved from
Hull, J. (2007). Measuring student growth: A guide to informed decision making. Retrieved from
Literasee. Subtraction Isn’t a Growth Model. Retrieved from
Renaissance (2016). Special Report on Student Growth Percentile. Retrieved from

Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan has more than 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.


  1. Rita Platt says:

    Both are good ways to monitor learning. However, growth, IMO is more important to students and teachers on a day to day level.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you, Rita. Growth does inform day-to-day instruction in a mutually supportive way. The more you know about students and how they learn, the more potential you have to help them grow. The more you focus on growth, the greater your understanding of how students learn.

  2. Lisa Capon says:

    Although both are important, it is important to monitor growth over time for the best measurement of progress.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you, Lisa. There are some great comments here about proficiency or growth. You’ve successfully captured that it is actually proficiency and growth (and exceptional teaching, and relationships among students, the content and the teacher, and…)

  3. David Keech says:

    This discussion is largely dependent on the context. Evaluating using growth has its benefits in education. For RTI purposes, that can be a good thing , measuring how much growth a student made. Caution, however, needs to be used. Just because someone shows growth that is outstanding, there can be such a gap that growth will still leave someone woefully behind. I, for instance, might show phenomenal growth in learning ballet, far more growth than an accomplished ballerina. That doesn’t mean, however, I am can be projected to become a ballerina. Understanding both growth and proficiency and using them together is necessary.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for this insightful reply. Using both growth and proficiency is one of many keys to unlocking the mystery that is learning. Knowledge of subject matter, understanding how learning progresses in a discipline, and instruction expertise, just to name a few, also belong on that key chain. Your comment about growth, but still needing to identify and address gaps is a critical component in learning. Proficiency, growth, content knowledge, instructional expertise, and a deep understanding of learners (including ballerinas) matters. Thank you for the eloquent example. I shall now always think of David the ballerina each time I consider growth.

    • Carly says:

      I really like your analogy.

  4. Sheila Gerrish says:

    I’ve seen the power of SGPs to inform discouraged teachers that their efforts are making a difference in their students’ lives after they understand the concept of Student Growth Percentiles and what that means for each child. Also, I appreciate and so agree with Dr. Bryan’s analogy of growth as the journey! Thank you for this blog post.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for your comment—especially your approach of focusing on SGPs to build the power of discouraged teachers. Of course, we cannot deem one over the other, for both proficiency and growth are required, but I’ve not yet considered growth as a measure to build teacher expertise and confidence. Thank you.

  5. Meredith Sanders says:

    We strive for proficiency, but growth is essential!

  6. P R says:

    Showing growth is evidence of academic progress.

  7. Narda Lugo says:

    The more you read the better you will become. Love the analogy couldn’t have put it better myself.

  8. Dvawn Maza says:

    If a child is extremely low, I focus on showing the growth to that student to encourage. We all want our students working at proficiency level or above! I love the quote “Proficiency is a destination. Growth is the journey.”

  9. Carly says:

    This article dredge so many emotions from me, I hope I can organize them cohesively. First, there is growth that can be measured but there is also growth that can’t be measured. I work at a Title I school where growth can come from a homeless student who comes to school and learns to trust and self respect, which are unmeasurable. Many of those students do not show much academic growth as eloquently define by Maslow’s hierarchy years ago and still relevant today.

    Secondly, academic growth and the data to support it is important. It drives instruction. “Over time” can be any period of time from a day to a year or over the course of one’s education. My issue, is how “growth” is documented. I am currently frustrated by paperwork that projects my long term goal for particularly low students as being on grade level by the end of the year. To accomplish that, some of my children would have to make over two year’s growth. I’ve had children who’ve accomplished that; however, laying that expectation on any teacher, is not reasonable, especially since the paperwork does not show the more important unmeasurable growth that child is making. The paperwork holding me accountable does not, “bring the child into the equation!”

    Whether schools are part of an RTI or MTSS accountability program, the short and long term goals are always shown as academic, which will always be only part of the whole child. Until the paperwork includes Maslow’s heirarchy, the whole child will never be part of the equation!

  10. Renee Graham says:

    Love the discussion above. Both are important, but a child is so much more than a number/score/percentile. I particularly worry about our poverty babies who really need to experience success and they never seem to reach the district benchmarks. I don’t share that they don’t meet the benchmark, but they know that they are still having to go to our pull-out tutors and that means they are behind. I know how much they have grown, but they still are required to go to tutoring due to benchmarks.
    Now I have another question. I wanted to download the report about SGP.
    When I clicked on the link below, I got this message: The system cannot find the file specified. Can anyone advise?
    Get your copy of the special report, Student Growth Percentile in Star Assessments:
    Thank you for your request! Click here to view the document

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you for reading, Renee. We double-checked the problem you came across downloading the Special Report on Student Growth Percentile, but we didn’t notice anything unusual on our end. I would make sure your pop-ups aren’t being blocked. Otherwise, your school’s firewall could be preventing you from downloading the report as well.

      Let us know if you’re still unable to download the report!

  11. Ami K. Edwards says:

    I think they are both important, but growth is the key.

    • carolina says:

      I totally agree, they are both equally important. Keeping in mind that they must both be growing.

  12. Lloyd says:

    If we take the definition of proficiency as ‘good enough’ as stated in the blog, then there is a finite end point. I tend to subscribe to the growth model because it implicitly denotes that there is no end point. The remedial piano player can improve just as the virtuoso. In a classroom it translates into bringing up the remedial student to grade level ‘proficiency’ but also taking the exceptional student an pushing them further. There is never a limit to growth in an academic setting.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you, Lloyd. The “good enough” idea came to me as I researched dozens of proficiency benchmarks—and all reflect the minimum entry point into near/on-grade-level performance at this point in time. Like you, I wonder why we would give that so much weight. Without a doubt, it’s important to know and to make plans to close skill gaps and challenge on-level or higher-performing students, but the concept of “good enough for now” leaves me wanting to know more. A focus on growth—as you suggest—gives me that information. Yes, the remedial pianist has as great an opportunity to grow as the virtuoso. Their growth should be equally celebrated! (As you most likely suspected—the story of the virtuoso who can’t read music is true. The university failed to recognize that even as a virtuoso, he needed to grow. I believe, to this day, he could have been taught to read music.)

  13. Renee Graham says:

    The proficiency destination keeps moving. The growth makes sure we keep arriving!

  14. Kelly Barr says:

    I think that both are important to measure over time but to my growth is the more important factor. Especially when dealing with Special Education students that may never hit the proficient bar.

  15. Virginia Wiedenfeld says:

    I especially enjoyed the intro –the fact that the article was PG (Proficiency and Growth)! The information gave me something to think about in education. Are my aims for proficiency or for growth when I am teaching a lesson.

  16. Sarah Swanzy says:

    Proficiency is often the ultimate goal. However, growth is key to ensuring that every child in your classroom grows as a learner.

  17. Katherine Williams says:

    As a third grade teacher, I see the importance of both. Students who are not proficient really begin to struggle in all areas around 3rd grade. However, I think growth is important because ALL students (high or low) need to be taught in a classroom. Using growth as a measure shows that no child is being left out of learning and all children are being encouraged and making progress.

    • Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you, Katherine. Please continue to “shout from the rooftops” that ALL students benefit from teaching that understands where they are, how far they’ve come, and how much more than can grow.

  18. S.Bellomo says:

    I think that you have to gauge proficiency so that you can set a goal for growth. It is important to know your starting point and then plan the journey for growth. Setting student reading goals and daily reading practice is vital to the students’ success.

  19. Chimere McRae says:

    Although both are necessary, growth is most important to me.

  20. Darrell Baty says:

    They both are important and necessary, but growth is primary and proficiency secondary.

  21. Andrea Wendt says:

    Growth is the key to their success! Making a year’s growth is essential, and I try to help the students who are behind make more than a year’s growth to close the gap. Teaming with the intervention teachers, meeting with our grade level teachers each month, helps to see which students need extra help.

  22. Laura Shultz says:

    I love the quote “In the simplest analogy possible, proficiency is a destination; growth is the journey.” If only the path for each student could be that simple.

  23. Virginia Travis says:

    Showing Growth is the best measurement of progress,

  24. Kelsie says:

    That is a good distinction between the two and a good way to show how they are still related and the importance of both.

  25. Sandra Polacheck says:

    Proficiency and growth are both important. This also speaks to the rate of intervention. In an intervention program, students attempt to reach proficiency with their skills (the destination); however, how long it takes them to get there (growth) or the journey matters. This is why SGP is important to consider. If a student is not growing fast enough in relation to his/her peers then we need to understand why. This could indicate that the student needs something different or has a need that we as teachers are not meeting and so we adjust what we are doing. This is why I always consider both when I am making instructional decisions for my students.

  26. Anne T. says:

    I appreciate the growth measurement because it allows us to focus on the individual student and their own progress regardless of where they started.

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