Too Few Students are Proficient: What is Broken?

We often hear stories in the news about student proficiency rates. More often than not, that data is shared in a negative manner. Or, the news results in a negative perception. For instance, back in the fall it was shared that 45% of Missouri students were proficient or advanced in English, 35% in math, and 37% in science. 

This looks and sounds pretty bad. Why would the media or politicians share this? Could hidden agendas drive the creation and sharing of negative data? You can draw your own conclusions on that. 

So what does “proficient” mean in regards to student achievement? I highly doubt anybody can give a clear, obvious answer. It’s an arbitrary target that isn’t easily defined. 

One may wonder how proficiency levels are determined. The truth may surprise you, and it will likely leave you doubting the validity of such statistics. 

I once had a teacher participate in a state group tasked with determining what score students needed in order to be classified as proficient. Each test for each grade level had its own group, and each group created its own, independent scores for proficiency. Her particular group worked hard to agree on what score they felt students needed to reach proficiency status. Keep in mind this was a collection of expert teachers who taught that particular grade level and subject. They submitted their score to the state department - who responded by instructing them to try again because “too many students would be proficient at that level.” Yes, you read that correctly. The score expert teachers provided would result in “too many” students being proficient. They were instructed to raise their score so fewer students would achieve proficiency status. 


Established proficiency levels truly are arbitrary goalposts. Each state sets their own criteria, so you can’t use that data to fairly compare states. 

And, because the state has actually told teaching experts to establish a score that would reduce the number of students being classified as proficient, you cannot put too much weight into the data you hear about. Politicians have agendas. Media outlets have agendas. And, yes, departments of education sometimes have agendas. Many people want society to believe education is broken. 

Education is not broken! In fact, there has never been a time in our country’s history that a higher percentage of students have graduated from high school. Never. Are there areas in which schools could improve to better prepare students for life beyond K-12 education? Absolutely. But, our system isn’t broken. What is broken is how our teachers are not supported by society. What is broken is how our young people are being discouraged from entering the profession. What is broken is how our schools are underfunded - how teachers are underpaid. What is broken is how so many try to tear us down. Eventually, they could succeed and there would be nobody left to teach our young people. This terrifies me. 

People have their reasons for sharing misleading data about schools. We cannot believe everything we hear. 

Education is not broken.

Doug Dunn is currently athletic director and junior high principal for the Licking (MO) School District. He has previously served as a K-8 superintendent and elementary principal. Doug can be found on Twitter @DougDunnEdS.