Does proficiency mean competency?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Just because students took a state test and scored proficient doesn’t mean they’re competent at what they were being tested on. As a leader making decisions with state data, it’s important to know what it takes behind-the-scenes to be considered proficient on whichever state assessment you use.

Let’s say you are in a school where 83% of your 5th grade students were proficient on the state’s math test. (Even the achievement gap has closed.)

And you and your team are feeling so. Darn. Good!

And thrilled that 5th grade math does not have to be a focus of your improvement plan the next time around.

But what if those students only had to correctly answer about 33% of the available test questions to earn proficiency? Would that be a win for you and your students? Would that be a demonstration of competency?

Probably not.

Some states have low bars for proficiency. What this does in school improvement world is it sets a false sense of accomplishment if staff members don’t really know what is behind the scores. If staff members don’t realize the proficiency bar is low, they are going to move on to other things, while students still need help and support. Proficiency does not mean competency, but if a school scores 85% proficient, staff may assume that all is well and good – and students are competent when they are not.

As leaders, it’s important to know what’s behind your scores. Know what’s in your dough. Your state assessments are going to be tests of accountability, but they may not be tests that really support school improvement. But then again, you may be in a state where the test supports both. Either way, just know what’s going on so you can steer your improvement teams in the right direction.

If the state bar is set low, here are a couple of things you can do:

  1. Make sure staff members are aware of how test scores are computed by your state department of education.
  2. If the percentage of students proficient is high, but the bar to make proficiency is low, keep the content area in the school improvement plan. Continue to monitor your state data because it is used for accountability purposes. The accountability for your school.
  3. Consider using a high proficiency score as an Evidence of Need in the data portion of your school improvement plan or Comprehensive Needs Assessment. You may want to make a note that the reason it is an Evidence of Need even though you have a good percentage of students proficient, is because of the low bar it takes to achieve proficiency.
  4. Remember to include, also in the Evidence of Need, any subgroups for which you are accountable in your school.
  5. If you use our SmartData reports, make sure to use the Curriculum Alignment reports that set the bar much higher and gives you a different look at performance in your school.

As the leader of a school or district, you can make a difference by encouraging your school teams to hold their own bars high, no matter the bar set by the state. And don’t forget to continue to use more than one piece of evidence to know how your students are truly performing.

Please email me at if I can answer questions about your state’s assessment; I’d be happy to do so!

On another quick note, it’s a short work week and many of you will have extended time to be with families. It’s Thanksgiving week, and I so hope each of you enjoys the special time you’ll help create with your own family and friends. So many of you reach out to others during the school year – with a helping hand, a supportive attitude, an empathetic ear. While you don’t need a holiday to remind you to give thanks and do good things for others, Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy and reflect on those things for which we are grateful: our America, your faith, and our blessings. May you each take the time to recognize the things that bring joy to your life and heart – and enjoy those things immensely during your short time off.

Assessment Quickie

With so many school districts going online during COVID-19, teachers are searching for assessment solutions for their students. So, what should you be thinking about as you move into this online world?

First, remember the key questions made popular by the late Rick Defour (and adapted by me):

  1. What do we want students to learn?
  2. How do we know if students are learning what we wanted them to learn?
  3. How will we help students learn best the first time around?
  4. What interventions will we provide to students who are not yet learning?

When giving students an assessment, it’s so important to remember that the assessment should align with what students are supposed to learn.  If you are like fellow colleagues, there is usually too much curriculum for a school year.

As you begin to assess online, it’s okay to start simple, perhaps with one open-ended question that requires students to write. Authors David Conley (College Knowledge) and Mike Schmoker (Focus) speak to the importance of writing every day in school. You won’t go wrong with having students answer an open-ended question that provides an opportunity for students to show what they know. ReadWorks has Article of the Day and even includes paired texts. Also, Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Day is a good example of committing time to having students write. Kelly assigns an article for students to read and then has students respond by answering a prompt. The prompt is the same for every article.  It’s all about writing and thinking. Feedback to students about their answers is useful in the learning process and you don’t need to assign grades to these assessments, although you can. Techniques such as Article of the Day and Article of the Week are easy to use, especially if you want something that extends the assessments that come with  your curriculum program.

Almost ALL Students Can Learn to Read

We have a reading issue in our nation.

95% of students are not learning to read, even though about 95% have the cognitive ability to do so.

You see, even with decades of reading research, our curricular practices don’t yet match what the science of reading research indicates.

If you’re ready to start to increase the number of students who become good readers, the place to begin is with a reading curriculum/program based on the science of reading, a foundational tool for high-quality reading instruction.

Visual A shows a set of students in a classroom. Adorable, eh? These students come to school knowing they are going to learn to read. They’re excited to be in kindergarten to begin their reading journey, a journey that takes years to master. But, half the class is not learning to read even though the school has provided differentiated support.

Visual A

Most students have the cognitive capacity to learn to read

According to information provided in a research briefing by EAB, most students have the cognitive capacity to learn to read. Visual B shows my interpretation of the percentages provided in EAB’s research report, Narrowing the Third-Grade Reading Gap. The report indicates that while 95% of students have the cognitive capacity to learn, about half will only learn to read with explicit and direct instruction based on the foundational skills of reading.


Visual B provides EAB’s statistics related to the cognitive capacity of students in learning to read. Their data shows that about 30% of students are capable of learning to read regardless of instructional quality. Approximately 15% of students will require additional time and support to stay in or get back on track for Tier I instruction. About 50% of students will learn to read if they have Tier I explicit instruction in foundational skills of reading. Some students (about 5%) may have severe cognitive limitations and struggle with reading throughout their lives.

What is needed to ensure that more students learn to read?

The first step is to look at your curriculum/reading program. Do you have a balanced literacy program or a program based on the science of reading? Programs based on the science of reading provide all components of what students need to learn to read. These components are structured and substantial.

Visual C shows why a curriculum/reading program based on the science of reading is important. A curriculum/reading program based on the science of reading supports learning to read for all students, not just those who learn no matter the program.

Visual C

If we want almost all of our students to learn to read, we need to make smart choices when choosing a curriculum/reading program that supports all students in learning to read – and that means a curriculum/reading program based on the science of reading.

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Select Resources for Science of Reading

The resources that follow are organized into several categories: Books, Articles/Booklets, Media, and Blogs/Websites. I’ll continue to update this list of resources, but this is a pretty good start.



Association for Psychological Science. Beyond the reading wars: How the science of reading can improve literacy.

EAB. (2019). Narrowing the third-grade reading gap: Embracing the science of reading.

Fofaria, R.R. (2019). Can science knock down barriers to reading proficiency and rescue read to achieve?

Gentry, J. R. (2018). Bridging the gap between science and poor reading in America: Paying more attention to science can increase reading scores in America.

Hanford, E. (2018). Hard words. Why aren’t kids being taught to read? APMreports.

Linguist-Educator Exchange (2013). The history of the science of reading: Huey and the psychology of reading.

Opportunity Culture. (2019). Bring the science of reading into the classroom. A one-pager reference tool for the science of reading.

Ortiz, E. (2019). I embraced the science of reading and why you should too.

Reading Plus. (2019). The science of reading efficiency: 5 facts you can’t ignore.

Reyhner, J. (2020). The reading wars: Science versus whole language.

Sanchez, S. (2018). The gap between the science on kids and reading, and how it is taught. NPR-ED

Schwartz, S. and Sparks, S.D. (2019). How do kids learn to read? What the science says. Education Week.

Schwartz, S. (2019). Influential reading group makes it clear: Students need systematic, explicit phonics. Education Week.

Schwartz, S. (2019). Schools should follow the ‘science of reading,’ say national education groups. Education Week

Seidenberg, M. S. (2014). The science of reading and its educational implications.



The Science of Reading: The Podcast


The Science of Reading Instruction: Introduction

Chris Wimberly Science of Reading Presentation  

Learning to Read (Part 1) by Amplify. Both parts (Parts 1 and 2) of this set of booklets will become a go-to for those wanting to understand the science of reading.

Learning to Read (Part 2) by Amplify


The Science of Reading and School Leadership. Hosted by the Education Writers Association    

GTCS Webinar: The Science of Reading  

Kilpatrick Webinar Series. By the 95% group.

Science of Reading – Webinar Recording, December 2019.


The Science of Reading: An Overview by Dr. Jan Hasbrouck

Teaching Reading is Rocket Science – with Dr. Louisa Moats

What Teachers Should Know About the Science of Reading

College of Education Now Prepares Teachers in the Science of Reading 

Teacher Training and the Science of Teaching Reading 

Discovering the Reading Science

The Science of Reading

How Does Reading Change the Brain? [2:02]

Louisa Moats – Keynote Address at 2018 Reading League 

How Can We Bridge the Divide Between the Science of Reading and What Happens in Classrooms?  [2:27]

The Huge Misconception About Reading  [2:42]

The Reading League Conference 2017 

Science of Reading – Theoretical Models Including Scarborough’s Reading Rope

Science of Reading Learning Path Explained Arkansas Department of Education

Reading League Event David Kilpatrick

Reading IS Rocket Science with Donna Whyte [50:26]

Systematic Phonics Instruction: Ensuring Equity  Amplify

Research Behind Teaching synthetic Phonics  

Dan Willingham Talks Reading and the Mind  

The Reading League Live Event  September 2019

Leaders and Learning in Literacy The Tolman Hour

Brainwords: How the Science of Reading Informs Teaching

The Science of Reading – Code Emphasis vs. Meaning Emphasis 

The Science of Reading – Part 1 (RISE Arkansas)

How the Brain learns to Read by Professor Stanislas Dehaene

Can Science Help Bridge the Classroom Gap? MIT Science of Reading Symposium

What Science Says About How Kids Learn to Read  Education Week

Why We Teach Sounds Before Letters  

Sound Walls  

The Science of Reading: Auditory Processing  

Human Beings Were Never Born to Read: Science of the Reading Brain  

Orthographic Mapping: What it is and Why It’s so important 

Orthographic Mapping Explainer  

What is Phonological Awareness?   

Advanced Phonemic Awareness Pattan

Katie Garner – Science of Reading: Using Social-Emotional Learning to Fast-Track Phonics Instruction [1:06:40]

Cool Reading Facts – Preview  

44 Phonemes  

Blogs and Websites

APMReports. Featuring Emily Hanford.

Schools and Ecosystems.

The Science of Reading. by Timothy Shanahan

Learnography. This is a favorite of mine because of the insightful posts about how the brain transfers knowledge.

Voyager Sopris Learning.  Features Louisa Moats.

Louisa Moats blog.  You’ll find links to webinars, articles, and more. 

David and Meredith Liban website.  

ModEL Detroit. The new ELA curriculum is free and downloadable.  This link will take you to the FREE resources about teaching systematic, synthesized phonics.

Opportunity Culture. Provides numerous pieces about the science of reading.

Karen Vaites Blog. Karen does a terrific job curating materials and ideas for the science of reading.

Mike Schmoker’s Blog. Mike is the author of Focus.

How to Teach a Brain in Pain: Sound Sensitivity

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A student with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) may have an extreme sensitivity to sound as a result of that injury. For these students, when startled by a sound, the brain may get agitated, making it a challenge to learn. It’s helpful to show a student how to deal with the agitation and transition back to work. How do I know? This was – and still is – a symptom of my brain injury. Many sounds will make a student jumpy, meaning they physically show a jolting movement when they hear the sound. A student can still talk, but they might not be able to focus immediately after hearing a loud sound because the brain is too agitated. Realistically, you won’t be able to prevent loud noises in the classroom, but there are certainly ways to support the student. Here’s the challenge: Only the student knows what triggers the sensitivity. You can come up with some possible things (e.g., loud volume) that might trigger the injured brain, but only the student’s brain knows what triggers it. This will be a new phenomenon for many students and can be scary because the reaction can be so obvious to others.

I kept notes as best I could during the healing process of my traumatic brain injury. I’ve always been interested in the brain and how it works and how the symptoms from the injury give me first-hand knowledge of the brain’s healing. I wrote the following from my notes to try and bring my thoughts together about the sound sensitivity I now have. As of 2020, I’m five years into my healing process and I wrote this about the third year in. My writing is not yet where I want it to be, but I’m getting there.

Know these symptoms of a brain with a traumatic brain injury (TBI)

A student with a traumatic brain injury may have numerous symptoms. Loads of symptoms. If a person is hit while playing a sport, such as boxing, football, or hockey, there is always the possibility of brain trauma. Any hit to the head can cause a traumatic brain injury. You cannot see the damage to your brain, but it’s there. The symptoms are the brain’s way of letting you know that it’s injured.

Note: My brain injury resulted from an SUV hitting me while I was stopped at a red light.

These are the symptoms I have had or still have as a result of my traumatic brain injury. My list has 22 symptoms – all a result of my brain injury. For me, some of the symptoms were immediate, while others surfaced during my on-going healing process. I’m now in my 5th year of healing.

Download a pdf of these symptoms.

In upcoming blog posts, I’ll be sharing practical ways to teach with the symptoms in mind, which is critical to providing support to students who have – or have had – a traumatic brain injury.

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Clarifying the Difference Between Proficiency Scales and Rubrics

Right here. Right now. A quick overview of the differences between proficiency scales and rubrics – and my proficiency scale rubric.


In districts and schools throughout the country, staff members have worked to develop proficiency scales to help make learning expectations clearer for students. And that’s a good thing. As a part of this process, it’s natural for those working to make proficiency scales to have many questions as they wrap their heads around this work. One of the questions that comes up is that of the difference between a proficiency scale and a rubric. You may have had that question as well; it may even be your question! I want to share how I explain the difference between a proficiency scale and a rubric, in hopes the explanation may be useful to someone else.

The difference between a proficiency scale and a rubric is an important distinction to be able to make, so I’ve captured the key differences in the following chart – and also provided a couple of examples. (There’s a link to this handout at the bottom of this post.)

So, there you have it – a few ideas showing some of the differences between a proficiency scale and a rubric. If you provide training in designing proficiency scales and need a tool to help others develop a high-quality scale, this rubric might be useful to you.

There’s No Rule

This book is filled with practical leadership insights for your own reflection – and those of aspiring and experienced leaders with whom you work. This book is for leaders – of any age – who make decisions that bring positive energy, shared values, and kindness as they bravely set examples for others to follow. Share a copy with someone you value!