What’s Wrong With Education (Part 3): Proficiency Testing Is Not Proficiency-Based Teaching and Learning

August 3, 2012

Many folks are confused when they hear that schools districts, states and even countries are now requiring students to pass proficiency tests in math, reading, English, etc.  It is important to know that this is a separate topic from proficiency-based teaching and learning.  In many cases they are unrelated.  Proficiency tests are general tests usually administered to all students at one time for a few hours, to find their reading and math abilities (proficiencies).  As is true of all tests, these have limited usefulness and accuracy.


The proficiency tests in the news are usually being given to public schools students in schools that still operate on the factory-model or still use the lecture method.  Testing for proficiency does not mean teaching for proficiency.  Don’t think that if schools in your area are now administering proficiency tests, that proficiency-based teaching and learning has arrived to rescue your schools from the factory model.  These are different topics.


Testing for proficiency is not teaching for proficiency.  Tests don’t address how students are taught.  It is just testing – general testing at that!


Proficiency-based teaching and learning includes proficiency testing in some form to insure mastery before a student moves on.  But proficiency-based teaching and learning is all about breaking away from the factory model to an approach to teaching and learning that makes sense!  It is individualized and personalized, and is all about the student proceeding at a pace that makes sense for that student, not at a fixed pace for a fixed amount of time dictated by the Carnegie Unit.


Proficiency-based teaching and learning is a transformational shift away from factory-model schools and lecture-method schools to flipped classrooms (see my Khan Academy blog), to project-based learning, to schools with self-paced instruction, to schools where learning (not time) is the constant.  (See my many blogs on this subject.)   Proficiency-based teaching and learning means abandoning the factory-model school and moving into the 21st century.


I’m not against proficiency tests, but I oppose over-testing and I am upset that  proficiency standards vary widely from state to state.  If tests are used to help students and their families find out what students know and can do, and help determine the logical next steps in their education program – I’m OK with that!  If they give honest useful data so families can monitor a student’s educational progress and understand areas that need work, great!


If schools are now administering proficiency tests and this is something new, what were they testing in the past?  Shouldn’t all tests address proficiency.  Yikes.  Hopefully proficiency tests (knowing the limited usefulness of a few-hour snapshot) are an attempt to insure children really are prepared for their next educational step or the world of work, and to give an honest picture of what a student knows and can do.  You’ll have to see if the tests in your area are doing that.

I hope you can explain this to your friends so they won’t confuse proficiency testing with proficiency-based teaching and learning.  You could always tell them about my blog!!

Posted by marks on Friday August 3, 2012 at 02:36PM

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