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What is proficiency?

Proficiency refers to demonstrating the required level of performance toward an established benchmark. Different states (and even districts) may have established unique benchmarks that students must reach in order to be considered proficient. Using a proficiency model, students must demonstrate that they have attained the level of mastery on par with a specific benchmark in order to proceed to the next grade level.

What does proficiency look like?

Proficiency can be hard to quantify without looking at examples from the world around us.

Example 1: Your driver’s license
Remember being 16 years old and getting behind the wheel of a car at the DMV, accompanied by a stranger equipped with an official-looking clipboard, to prove you were worthy of the all-important driver’s license and its sweet freedom? First you had to demonstrate proficiency—a sufficient level of knowledge about the rules of the road to be entrusted to pilot a vehicle.

Example 2: Any professional credentials requiring a license
Lawyers take the bar exam if they would like to practice law—and may need to take a different exam for every state in which they intend to practice. Medical professionals must be board-certified. And cosmetologists must keep a current license with their state board. All are examples of demonstrating proficiency toward a predetermined set of benchmarks.

Example 3: The roller coaster at a carnival
We’ve all seen (and perhaps optimistically stretched tall beside) the sign with a ruler marked “You must be this tall to ride” in front of the most daring roller coaster at the carnival. The top of the ruler established the benchmark—a required level of physical size in order to be a successful roller coaster rider.

What is proficiency used for in schools?

Proficiency is often used to advance students to the next grade level. A student may be required to successfully demonstrate proficiency by meeting certain benchmarks in Algebra I before they are advanced into an Algebra II course. If they do not meet the benchmarks that correspond with proficiency, students may be required to complete additional instruction or be denied advancement to the next grade level.

Most often, you will hear proficiency discussed in context of the summative exam the school or district has chosen or been instructed to use. “Are my students on track to be proficient at the time they take our state’s summative exam?” Research tells us that assessment solutions can be linked to summative exams in order to forecast student proficiency.

Proficiency: You have it, or you don’t

Proficiency is the documented evidence that a student has met the required level of skill and knowledge set by benchmarks. Either a student meets this requirement, or the student falls short and must continue to work until they do meet the required level.

Hold on—where does student growth fit in?

Growth (or the progressive development of a student) is measured separately from proficiency. A brand-new blog post gives us a great look at the question of proficiency vs. growth.

Resources and further reading

The Difference Between Proficiency and Growth (blog):

Student Growth Percentile (article):

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