Definition of 'proficient' should mean something

Monday, September 16, 2002

An idea being considered by the state school board to change the terminology for students' scores on the Missouri Assessment Program tests at best should receive a grade of "I" for "incomplete," or, at worst, a failing grade.

Missouri students now fall into one of five quintiles for MAP scores, from Level I, the lowest grouping, to advanced, the top scoring group. Nearing proficiency is the middle quintile while proficient is the fourth-highest of the five groups.

The rub is that the new federal No Child Left Behind Act requires all schools to get students to "proficient" levels in math and reading by 2012. Proficient, some might be surprised to learn, apparently is defined by federal officials as working at grade level. A student scoring as "proficient" on the MAP test in communication arts or math would probably be slightly ahead of their grade level. Hence, the move to consider changing "nearing proficiency" to "Proficiency 1" and "proficient" to "Proficiency 2."

Leaving the terminology as is might require Missouri schools to aim a little higher than their counterparts in other states, it's true. But would that really hurt us? Would it hurt our ability to fully prepare students for college or the workplace? Would it hurt Missouri in attracting industry?

Instead of lowering the "proficiency" bar, perhaps we need to instead look at ways to motivate the students as well as school districts to put forward their best effort on the tests. Motivating a 16-year-old can be very challenging, as several school administrators have pointed out. Would they feel a little more incentive if MAP scores became part of their transcript that could be reviewed by university admissions offices or perspective employers?

Not all students do well on standardized tests. But when they see the "adults" in charge monkeying around with terminology to make meeting a standard easier, it surely won't be any easier to motivate a high school junior that the tests mean anything to them.