Contrasting Growth and Proficiency Models for Student Achievement

What Educators Learn From Opposing Views

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More and more attention is being paid to an essential question that educators have debated for years: How should education systems measure student performance? Some believe that these systems should focus on measuring student academic proficiency, while others believe they should emphasize academic growth

From the Offices of the U.S. Department of Education to the conference rooms of local school boards, the debate concerning these two models of measurement is offering new ways to look at academic performance. 

One way to illustrate the concepts of this debate is to imagine two ladders with five rungs each side by side. These ladders represent the amount of academic growth a student has made over the course of a school year. Each rung marks a range of scores that can be translated into ratings from below remedial to exceeding goal.

Imagine that the fourth rung on each ladder has a label that reads "proficiency" and there is a student on each ladder. On the first ladder, Student A is pictured on the fourth rung. On the second ladder, Student B is also pictured on the fourth rung. This means that at the end of the school year, both students have a score that rates them as proficient, but how do we know which student has demonstrated academic growth? To get to the answer, a quick review of high school and middle school grading systems is in order.

Standard Based Grading vs. Traditional Grading

The introduction of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2009 for English Language Arts (ELA) and Math influenced different models of measuring student academic achievement in grades K through 12. The CCSS were designed in order to offer "clear and consistent learning goals to help prepare students for college, career, and life." According to the CCSS:

"The standards clearly demonstrate what students are expected to learn at each grade level, so that every parent and teacher can understand and support their learning."

Measuring student academic performance by standards such as the ones outlined in the CCSS is different than the more traditional grading methods used in most middle and high schools. Traditional grading is easily converted to credits or Carnegie Units, and whether results are recorded as points or letter grade, traditional grading is easy to see on a bell curve. These methods have been around for over a century, and the methods include:

  • One grade/entry given per assessment
  •  Assessments based on a percentage system
  • Assessments measure a mixture of skills
  • Assessments may factor in behavior (late penalties, incomplete work)
  • Final grade is an average of all assessments

Standards-based grading, however, is skill based, and teachers report on how well students demonstrate understanding of content or a specific skill using specific criteria aligned to a scale: 

"In the United States, most standards-based approaches to educating students use state learning standards to determine academic expectations and define proficiency in a given course, subject area, or grade level."

In standards-based grading, teachers use scales and systems that may replace letter grades with brief descriptive statements, such as: "does not meet the standard," "partially meets the standard," "meets the standard," and "exceeds the standard"; or "remedial," "approaching proficiency," "proficient," and "goal." In placing student performance on a scale, teachers report on: 

  • Learning goals and performance standards based on a predetermined rubric
  • One entry per learning goal
  • Achievement only with no penalties or extra credit given

Many elementary schools have embraced standards-based grading, but there is increasing interest in having standards-based grading at the middle and high school levels. Reaching a level of proficiency in a given course or academic subject could be a requirement before a student earns course credit or is promoted for graduation. 

Pros and Cons of Proficiency Models

A proficiency-based model uses standards-based grading in order to report on how well students have met a standard. If a student fails to meet an expected learning standard, a teacher knows how to target additional instruction or practice time. In this way, a proficiency-based model is geared for differentiated instruction for each student.

A 2015 report explains some of the benefits for educators in using a proficiency model:

  • Proficiency targets encourage teachers to think about a minimum expectation for student performance.
  • Proficiency targets do not require pre-assessments or any other baseline data.
  • Proficiency targets reflect a focus on narrowing achievement gaps.
  • Proficiency targets are likely more familiar to teachers.
  • Proficiency targets, in many cases, simplify the scoring process when student learning measures are incorporated into evaluation.

In the proficiency model, an example of a proficiency target is "All students will score at least 75 or the standard of proficiency on the end-of-course assessment." The same report also listed several drawbacks to proficiency-based learning including:

  • Proficiency targets may neglect the highest and lowest performing students. 
  • Expecting all students to achieve proficiency within one academic year may not be developmentally appropriate.
  • Proficiency targets may not meet national and state policy requirements.
  • Proficiency targets may not accurately reflect teachers’ impact on student learning. 

It is the last statement about proficiency learning that has caused the most controversy for national, state, and local school boards. The have been objections raised by teachers across the country based on concerns about the validity of using proficiency targets as indicators of individual teacher performance.

Comparison to the Growth Model

A quick return to the illustration of the two students on two ladders, both on the rung of proficiency, can be seen as an example of the proficiency-based model. The illustration provides a snapshot of student achievement using standards-based grading, and captures each student's status, or the academic performance of each student, at a single point in time. But information about a student's status still does not answer the question, "Which student has demonstrated academic growth?" Status is not growth, and to determine how much academic progress a student has made, a growth model approach may be needed.

A growth model is defined as:

"A collection of definitions, calculations, or rules that summarizes student performance over two or more time points and supports interpretations about students, their classrooms, their educators, or their schools."

The two or more time points could be marked by pre- and post-assessments at the beginning and end of lessons, units, or end of year coursework. Pre-assessments can help teachers develop growth targets for the school year. Other benefits of using a growth model approach include:

  • Recognizing teachers’ efforts with all students.
  • Recognizing that teachers’ impact on student learning may look different from student to student. 
  • Guiding critical discussions around closing achievement gaps. 
  • Addressing each individual student rather than the class as a whole
  • Helping teachers better identify the needs of students at the extreme ends of an academic spectrum, to better support students with poor performance and increase academic growth for higher achieving students.

An example for a growth model target or goal is "All students will increase their pre-assessment scores by 20 points on the post-assessment." Just like proficiency-based learning, the growth model has several drawbacks, several of which again raise concerns about using a growth model in teacher evaluations:

  • Setting rigorous yet realistic targets can be challenging.
  • Poor pre- and post-test designs can undermine target value.
  • Targets may present additional challenges for ensuring comparability across teachers.
  • If growth targets are not rigorous and long-term planning does not occur, the lowest performing students may not achieve proficiency. 
  • Scoring is often more complex.

A final visit to the illustration of the two students on the ladders could yield a different interpretation when the model of measurement is based on the growth model. If the status of each student of the ladder at the end of the school year is proficient, academic progress could be tracked using data on where each student began at the start of the school year. If there were pre-assessment data that showed that Student A began the year already proficient and on the fourth rung, then Student A had no academic growth over the school year. Moreover, if Student A's proficiency rating were already at a cut-score for proficiency, then Student A's academic performance, with little growth, might dip in the future, perhaps to the third rung or "approaching proficiency."

In comparison, if there were pre-assessment data showing that Student B began the school year at the second rung, at a "remedial" rating, then the growth model would demonstrate substantial academic growth. The growth model would show that Student B climbed two rungs in reaching proficiency. 

Which Model Demonstrates Academic Success?

Ultimately, both the proficiency model and the growth model have value in developing education policy for use in the classroom. Targeting and measuring students on their levels of proficiency in content knowledge and skills helps prepare them to enter college or the workforce. There is value in having all students meet a common level of proficiency. However, if the proficiency model is the only one used, then teachers may not recognize the needs of their highest performing students in making academic growth. Similarly, teachers may not be recognized for the extraordinary growth their lowest performing student may make. In the debate between a proficiency model and a growth model, the best solution is finding the balance in using both to measure student performance.

Resources and Further Reading

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Bennett, Colette. "Contrasting Growth and Proficiency Models for Student Achievement." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bennett, Colette. (2023, April 5). Contrasting Growth and Proficiency Models for Student Achievement. Retrieved from Bennett, Colette. "Contrasting Growth and Proficiency Models for Student Achievement." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).