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Forget about Proficiency

Published by SraSpanglish on

I spent YEARS fretting and fuming about the difference between performance and proficiency and what exactly I was supposed to DO with them. I’d like to give a shout out to my tweeps who put up with this spillage from my inner turmoil, especially Sra, Cottrell and Herr Sauer. And Lord bless Paul Sandrock for gracefully dealing with my neophyte self face to face when I was still more than a little belligerent about the whole thing.

You know those super smart kids that hate language class because it’s the first time they didn’t automatically get what was going on? That was me in my early performance/proficiency maelstrom. Ooooo, I did NOT take that lesson lying down.

Still, as with many acquisition type concepts, I figure if I’m not getting it–brilliant scholar that I am–someone else isn’t getting it, and they might not be as…vocal…about getting someone to talk them through it (again: bless you guys, AND anyone else who got caught in the Twitter or NC WL Collaborative crossfire.)

So after years of bugging people who have my utmost respect and/or actually let me call them amig@, here’s my quick and dirty breakdown of what you need to know about Proficiency, Performance, and why one is not your problem.

#1 Proficiency is a far-off dream

You do not assess for proficiency in your class. You are not qualified to assess for proficiency in your class, unless you are one of the select few who has made it through some sort of Official Training where Someone Official officially declares you are. Yes, you are teaching toward proficiency as your ultimate goal, but it’s kind of like the way you are teaching for your students’ general success in life. You want them to be happy and comfortable and prepared–only with proficiency, specific guidelines defining said linguistic happiness, comfort, and preparation actually EXIST, and you have to do what you know is most likely to get them to that simultaneously vague yet very specific promised land, probably without ever actually getting to see their arrival.

#2 Proficiency doesn’t fit in a classroom

What kind of jerk tests a kid on something they don’t prepare them for? (Sit down, me from 5 years ago. We didn’t know any better.) But really, proficiency is by definition a big, broad, nebulous thing that kind of has to incorporate everything. To measure it, you have to keep pushing upward and outward, gauging how many topics the language learner can handle until you bump up against what they can’t do.

We’re not there to limit language learners, people, or to judge what they can’t do. We’re there to support and increase what they CAN do. So we prepare them for specific, isolated performances with a familiar, predetermined topic, and we do not GOTCHA our precious babies. We funnel input into their little ears and eyes as much as we can and then measure what comes out according to reasonable expectations based on what we have actually provided. It is our responsibility to assess performances that are within the scope of what we know they have been prepared for through our classes. It is the duty of the proficiency assessor to determine what they can do beyond their specific preparation in any context.

That would just be plain cruel to grade for class. And it’d really make building a #NationofAdvocates pretty impossible.

#3 Performances lead to proficiency

I have this theory that if I measure enough performances, I can call that proficiency. It’s why I do portfolios and IPAs and grade how I grade. My precious babies are very proud of their intermediate performances and get frustrated when those don’t automatically get them even their Novice High badges. I tell them proficiency is a cone, but performance is a line, and they grumble and move on without actually getting the difference.

But the point is: you can get the right text types and vocabulary to move up the cone, but you have to show you can do it in more and more contexts to continue filling out the cone.

I’ve tried a plant analogy too: a stem needs branches and leaves to nourish itself and survive. So as they are able to understand and express themselves on more and more topics in more and more situations through more and more performance assessments, they’re adding more branches to their tree so it get be stronger and, well, bigger. But if they’re measured with only one performance, they stay a stem, and their language learning will never last.

So my advice to anyone caught trying to teach for proficiency or implement performance-based assessment is to keep your eyes on one branch at a time. You are planting forests, nourishing them from the ground up. We may never get the aerial view of what our efforts accomplish, but we can see the forest in each tree.


Laura Sexton is a passion-driven, project-based language educator in Gastonia, North Carolina. She loves sharing Ideas for integrating Project-Based Learning in the world language classroom, including example projects, lessons, assessment tips, driving questions, and reflection.


melanie thomas · January 2, 2017 at 4:02 pm

I've read this post a few times now. This is like a breath of fresh air. It's captured some of my struggles with identifying the differences. Thank you

melanie thomas · January 3, 2017 at 4:40 am

I've read this post a few times now. This is like a breath of fresh air. It's captured some of my struggles with identifying the differences. Thank you

Profe Rita Barrett · April 2, 2017 at 3:50 am

“We can see the forest in each tree.” Beautiful. That is the optimistic view a teacher must have.

Profe Rita Barrett · April 4, 2017 at 10:04 pm

"We can see the forest in each tree." Beautiful. That is the optimistic view a teacher must have.

Unknown · June 9, 2018 at 4:30 pm

So well said. Thank you for your insight and comforting words for all the teachers out there struggling with the same concepts!

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