What’s All the Fuss about Proficiency vs. Growth Assessment?

On January 17, 2017, the Senate confirmation committee asked Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, how she would measure student achievement.

DeVos struggled to answer and, when pressed, didn’t seem to know the difference between two common types of student measurements, proficiency versus growth assessment. So what is the difference between proficiency and growth, and how do they apply to training adults?

In simple terms one can define the two forms of assessment as follows:

  • Proficiency assessment – The learner is measured against a set standard, which is appropriate for that learner’s development level and targets something important. For example, a company may have a minimum set of requirements for an employee to safely operate a piece of equipment. A proficiency assessment might involve a test to determine whether the employee could operate that equipment to standard. The advantage of this type of assessment is that it establishes a uniform standard or expectation for measuring all learners.
  • Growth assessment – The learner’s progress is measured over a period of time. For example, an employee might be trying to learn to speak more effectively in front of groups. A trainer would assess the learner’s presentation skills at the beginning and then periodically complete follow-up assessments to determine how the learner is progressing and what modifications the trainer needs to make to the development program. The advantage of a growth assessment is that the trainer can adjust the training program depending on what he or she uncovers after each assessment, thereby providing a more customized approach for the learner.

When would you use a proficiency or growth assessment?

Both types of measurement strategies are useful depending on what you need to assess. The key is to apply them correctly to elicit the needed data.

You should use proficiency measurement for specific tasks or job requirements for which you desire a standard of performance. For example, if the learner needs to use a certain computer program, then measuring his or her proficiency with that program is useful to his or her development. Proficiency measurements also are useful for determining a uniform level of performance across a group. For example, physicians typically try to obtain board certification for their specialty. This is a type of proficiency measurement that is uniformly given across the US for a particular specialty, like cardiology. Passing the board certification examination demonstrates a physician’s exceptional expertise in a particular specialty and lets patients know that the physician is committed to staying current in the discipline. Therefore, all board-certified cardiologists have met a high standard for the cardiology specialty.

Growth measurement is useful for learners who are starting to master skills, behaviors, or processes that will take time to develop and for which adjustments or modifications to the training may be useful. For example, if you are teaching a new hire selling skills, measuring the learner’s growth over a given period of time will help you adjust the training so you can specifically focus on the learner’s training needs. Another advantage of growth measurements is that learners typically come to a training program with different levels of knowledge. The application of an effective growth assessment lets you start learners in the curriculum at a point at which they will get the most benefit rather than starting everyone at the same point.

Whether you are applying proficiency or growth measurements in your training program, make sure your assessment method fits the situation and provides you with useful data. Too often we have simply focused on proficiency in training programs. While that can be useful, you might want to consider growth assessments also, especially in situations where modifying your training approach along the way can provide the learner with more effective development.

So should you ever happen to find yourself in front of a Senate confirmation committee and someone asks a question about proficiency versus growth measurement, you should now be able to respond reasonably to the question!

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