An explainer: Proficiency Based Education is on the way

Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks in The Chester Telegraph, TRSU Curriculum Coordinator Michael Eppolito will be explaining a seismic shift in public education, classroom work and grading that will be implemented throughout Vermont schools for those graduating in June 2020. We begin with Part 1.

Proficiency based ed logoBy Michael Eppolito

States across the nation, and in particular New England are in the midst of an educational reform that rivals the one at the turn of the 20th century, when the United States realized that if it was to compete internationally it would need a work force with a common experience and knowledge base.

In 1893, the National Education Foundation published a set of recommendations to standardize high schools across the nation. The recommendations detailed the kinds of classes and how long a student should spend in each. That model, with few changes over the succeeding century, is still the high school our children graduated from in 2016.

The educational reform that we, in the state of Vermont, are about to embark on is called  Proficiency Based Education. In 2014 Vermont revised its guidelines for schools, the Education Quality Standards, and in those revisions called for each school to “enable students to engage annually in rigorous, relevant and comprehensive learning opportunities that allows them to demonstrate proficiency…” It is in this concept of proficiency that next great educational reform lies.

Individual proficiency above grades

Proficiency based education has four basic characteristics.

  1. Learning expectations are clearly defined.
  2. Assessments or measures of student learning are clearly linked standards.
  3. Student progress is reported by specific proficiencies, and not by general grades or numbers.
  4. Learning is constant, but time, and in some cases place, are variable.

In a proficiency based system, it is crucial that students work toward clearly defined targets. At Two Rivers Supervisory Union, we are using state and national standards, like the Common Core, Next Generation Science and the Core Arts Standards as our targets.

While Vermont has used standards to guide education since 2000, it has been inconsistently applied. In a proficiency based system, those standards will be front and center not only in our teaching, but also in our assessments and our report cards.

We will assess and report on the standards specifically. Currently, we give grades for classes like history and math, or assign numbers for general concepts like inquiry or math concepts. What goes into those grades or numbers includes content, but could also include bonuses for extra credit or penalties for late work. What is not clear is how much a student actually knows or is able to do in history when all that is reported is a B+.

In a proficiency based system, turning work in on time or coming to class prepared will be reported separately from content. Content will be assessed and reported in much more detail, by specific indicators like this one from the history standards: “Evaluate and analyze historical events and patterns of change to assess the significance of specific individuals, groups and developments.” Knowing if a student can or cannot meet this specific proficiency is much different from getting a B+ in history.

At TRSU, we have begun this work, and still have a way to go before we fully implement these ideas. When fully implemented, every student will know what she needs to learn and when she has been successful at learning it.

The last characteristic is the biggest and most challenging to implement: Learning is constant, time and place are variable.

In a full proficiency based system, some students will advance to different or more challenging indicators after they demonstrate proficiency on the indicator they start with. Other students will need to spend more time learning a particular indicator. Students will also be able to use what they have learned outside the classroom as evidence of proficiency. For example a student who takes ballet outside of school or works at a local business can use those experiences as evidence of learning.

In a full proficiency based system, some students will advance to different or more challenging indicators after they demonstrate proficiency on the indicator they start with. Other students will need to spend more time learning a particular indicator.

In our current system, the only learning that counts is what happens in the classroom. Currently what counts for learning happens at set times in specific classrooms. In a proficiency based system clearly defined performance indicators make the learning constant and allows for students to learn at variable times and places.

Myriad challenges for educators

The challenges for educators and schools are obvious. How will we manage students moving at different paces and working on different skills? How do we assess and track learning that happens outside of a classroom? Will students of widely different ages be in the same classroom together? What happens to students who cannot meet certain indicators: Will they never go to high school or graduate? Could a student meet their graduation requirements by 9th grade? Will this hurt a child’s chances of getting into college?

We do not have firm answers to all of these questions in the long term yet, but in the short term we are clear on several answers. Portfolios and personalized learning plans will play a bigger role in our schools.

Particularly in elementary school, students will stay with their peer groups, and we will have to be more strategic about differentiating assignments.

In high school, we will still have classes in history, math, science etc., but they may become shorter and more targeted on specific skills. Teachers and their classes will remain important, but they will have to design assessments to be more flexible so that not all students need to move through the same content at the same pace. We will need to clearly identify what a student needs to graduate, and have a clear set of descriptors for what success looks like. Only when we achieve this clarity will students be able to design learning that fits their needs.

One challenge for educators will be to clearly identify what a student needs to graduate, and have a clear set of descriptors for what success looks like. Only when we achieve this clarity will students be able to design learning that fits their needs.

A century ago, an educated young adult was prepared to go into an industrial society focused on mass production.

Today, our young people need the skills for a society where customization and flexibility are the norms.

In the coming years, we will continue to graduate young adults, but their experience of high school will be different from the one most of us remember. It will be more customized, and all of our students will have to be adept at planning and tracking their progress through school.

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About the Author: Michael Eppolito is the Curriculum Coordinator for Two Rivers Supervisory Union, which serves Andover, Baltimore, Cavendish, Chester, Ludlow, Mount Holly and Plymouth. He taught middle school at Flood Brook Union School in Londonderry for 10 years. Before that he was a special educator in Londonderry and in Silver Spring, Md. Eppolito earned his B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Maryland, College Park and his M.A. in Special Education from George Washington University. He lives in Londonderry with his wife and son and their dog.

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  1. Charlea,
    That is the ideal we are striving for, however we have considerable work to do in order to get there. We have basic work to do around defining what learning is important and describing what success looks like. We have bigger conceptual work to grapple with like, what a school looks like were students have opportunities to move at their own pace. Then we have technical skills to develop around managing learning environments where not every student is learning the same thing at the same time.

  2. Charlea Baker says:

    This is an idea long overdue. Finally a recognition that students are not a homogenous commodity. Different minds learn different skill sets at different paces. Holding ALL of a child’s instruction level back to their weakest area is what throttles a child’s naturally inquisitive mind and turns them off from education entirely. (For example refusing to allow a math gifted child advanced study in that subject until they have “conquered” their issues in spelling.) Historically educational treatment of bright talented dyslexic students has been a case study in malpractice.