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proficiency based learning
Senior Remi Savard is part of the last class at Montpelier High School that experienced the system before the school’s switch to a proficiency-based model. “It’s better than it was.” Credit: Michael Dougherty for The Hechinger Report

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Remi Savard is one of the last students at Montpelier High School who remembers what class was like before the school switched to a proficiency-based model three years ago.

“If you brought a pencil to class or not, that would be factored into your grade,” the high school senior said during a study period in the library.

Now, Savard says, learning targets are clearer, and there’s more opportunity to truly understand the material. “It’s better than it was.”

The shift came to the school ahead of a statewide deadline to have proficiency-based graduation requirements in place for all of Vermont’s 2020 high school graduates. Under a set of new standards adopted by the Vermont State Board of Education in 2014, the class of 2020 will be eligible for graduation when they’ve demonstrated “evidence of proficiency” in the curriculum. The requirements came as part of a broader effort to make education in Vermont more student-centered, with an emphasis on customization, flexibility and project-based work.

Statewide standards set expectations for subject areas students are supposed to learn, but graduation requirements are set locally in Vermont. Within each subject, schools identified learning targets, clearly explaining what students would need to demonstrate in order to be considered “proficient” — a shift away from the traditional system’s emphasis on logging seat time to earn credits and progress.

“It’s not just a tweak in the traditional educational system,” said Pat Fitzsimmons, the Vermont Agency of Education’s proficiency-based learning team leader. “Moving in this direction is really a paradigm shift.”

Most schools are on track to have new graduation requirement systems in place by 2020, but on-the-ground changes look different from district to district. Some places have embraced the shift, but rollout has also been complicated by an abundance of recent major education initiatives, a lack of dedicated resources and concerns in some communities about what new transcripts could mean as seniors apply for college.

Progress has varied across Vermont, according to VT-NEA President Don Tinney. “I know it’s a cliché, but it’s all over the map.”

Related: When math lessons at a goat farm beat sitting behind a desk

The state’s local control model and a lack of ongoing dedicated state-level funding for the initiative left schools to chart their own paths. Schools used their professional development budgets, and were able to use federal money, for teacher training to support work toward the switch. Foundations promoting the model also pitched in, like the Massachusetts-based foundation Nellie Mae, a proponent of proficiency-approaches, which provided two districts with roughly $6 million in funding over seven years to support student-centered learning. (Nellie Mae is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

“This idea that D’s get degrees. It’s gone.”

The state offered guidance, including sample graduation requirements in each required academic subject. But by law in Vermont, local school districts dictate graduation requirements and curricula, so high schools were allowed a wide berth on implementation. While the state defined, in broad strokes, what students were expected to learn, it left individual districts to fill in many of the details of how students earn high school diplomas.

“What does it actually mean to be proficient?” said State Board of Education Chair Krista Huling. “I think that’s being answered in different ways across the state.”

At Montpelier High School, in Vermont’s capital city, teachers spent years defining the school’s “proficiencies” and rewriting their lesson plans to highlight those core objectives in the lead-up to the transition in 2016, when all grades and classes switched to a proficiency-based model at once.

Graduation from Montpelier no longer depends on hours logged in a classroom; instead students now need to check off a certain number of proficiency-based credits in subjects like English and math. They’re also graded on seven “transferable skills” — a category, required by statewide standards, that includes skills beyond the academic content of classes, such as habits of learning, reading, writing and communication.

Gone, too, is the 100-point, A-through-F scale. Today students are graded on a system of 1 through 4, with a 3 considered “proficient” and a 2.5 considered passing. On report cards, grades are presented in the new system, but on transcripts the school provides a conversion to a traditional letter grade — an element that has meant grades are easy for parents to understand. Principal Mike McRaith said the result of the change is more rigorous academic expectations.

proficiency based learning
Mike McRaith, principal of Montpelier High School. Credit: Michael Dougherty for The Hechinger Report

“This idea that D’s get degrees?” McRaith said. “It’s gone.”

He said the school’s transition is still in progress, but the district has been fairly successful in its adoption of the proficiency-based model. Teachers visit to observe from around the state and country and the school was featured in videos made for a recent MIT online course, he said. Students’ SAT scores were slightly up in the second year after the school switched to a proficiency model, school statistics show. Advanced Placement scores were varied — up in English, but down in all other subjects. McRaith noted that in a school with small class sizes, test scores can fluctuate depending on who is in the class.

What McRaith describes as the school’s “hybrid” approach has likely helped smooth the transition. The conversion chart would be considered a compromise by many proficiency-based learning advocates. Another compromise? The school doesn’t allow an indefinite number of retakes when students fail tests.

“Some people will say: well, in a proficiency model, learning is the constant, time is the variable,” he said. “Well, except that people expect people to graduate. And school years end.”

‘Your Brain on School’

 In a precalculus class at Montpelier High School, students sat in pairs working out a trigonometric equations assignment. A rubric on each student’s desk clearly spelled out the expectations for the unit. On the board, teacher Whitney Machnik had written the learning targets for the day. The rubrics and learning targets are now fixtures in each Montpelier classroom.

proficiency based learning
Montpelier High School students working on a problem in a math class. Credit: Michael Dougherty for The Hechinger Report

In the four-column rubric for precalculus assessment, Machnik explained what it would take to be “emerging,” “developing,” “proficient” and “exemplary” in trigonometric equations. Proficiency, listed in the third column, the target for all students, would require students to show five specific skills, like finding trig ratios, graphing and using period functions.

Machnik finds the transparency spurs students on. “It has worked for my students far better than I might have thought in the beginning,” she said. “Giving kids this opportunity to practice, practice, practice before their summative really woke some students up.”

When adopting a proficiency approach, Montpelier teachers jettisoned assignments that once were course staples. In a 10th-grade biology class, an effort to emphasize comprehension of concepts over memorization has turned vocabulary quizzes into relics.

Vermont’s shift to a proficiency-based approach grew out of a concern among policymakers that students were disengaged and that the traditional system for assessing student progress didn’t adequately measure whether they were prepared for life after high school, according to Peter Peltz, a former lawmaker who now sits on the State Board of Education. In 2013, the Legislature passed a landmark education reform that offered students flexible pathways to graduation and more dual-enrollment options so they could earn credits toward college while in high school, and required the implementation of personalized learning plans for every student. Proficiency-based graduation requirements, viewed as an element of the overall effort, were incorporated into the state’s updated quality standards the following year.

“How do you get kids engaged? That was the whole thing,” Peltz said.

A proficiency system is supposed to allow students multiple ways to demonstrate their abilities. Schools can offer opportunities to retake tests, and grading is supposed to be tied to standards — not to how well others perform. Proficiency-based approaches are also supposed to create more equitable schools, closing gaps by giving students who might fall behind the time and resources they need to succeed.

The idea, popular among well-funded education philanthropies and education advocacy groups, is gaining ground across the United States. As of mid-2018, 17 states were in “advanced” stages of proficiency-based learning, also sometimes called competency-based learning. Another 13 were in “developing” stages of adoption, according to Competency Works, an online project of iNACOL, an education research nonprofit.

Still, though some studies show proficiency-based models improve student experience and performance, some note a need for more research on results. In Vermont, the Agency of Education is monitoring the rollout through its regular quality reviews, and tracks student outcomes. Data from the New England Secondary School Consortium shows that high school graduation rates in Vermont increased from 85.5 percent to 89.1 percent between 2009 and 2017. However, it is difficult to tease out the specific impacts of the switch to a proficiency-based system in the context of several other reforms.

Meanwhile, large-scale implementation efforts have proved challenging elsewhere. Maine, which was the first state in the country to mandate proficiency-based graduation requirements statewide, pulled back on the initiative last summer after widespread pushback to the changes in assessment.

Related: Documenting Maine’s failure to implement proficiency-based education

In Springfield in southeastern Vermont, there has not been much pushback to the switch so far, despite some radical changes to the curriculum and the way kids are graded. One day this winter at the local high school, sophomores and juniors took turns offering suggestions to one of their classmates on a set of survey questions about alcohol and drug use that she planned to put to the rest of the student body later in the semester.

proficiency based learning
Stephen Lawrence teaches “Your Brain on School,” an innovation lab that gives students pathways to reach proficiency in subjects outside of traditional classes. Credit: Elizabeth Hewitt for The Hechinger Report

The students in the class, “Your Brain on School,” will explore how the brain learns, then will survey their peers about learning environments at their own school and make school policy recommendations. It’s a new innovation lab that combines two different disciplines — social studies and math. This hybrid class is one way the school is trying to give students multiple pathways to master content as the proficiency system opens the door for students to meet academic requirements outside of the structure of traditional classes.

For junior Maizy White, 17, the combination of the subjects in Your Brain on School is a natural fit. “I can’t really tell the difference between when I’m learning one subject, and when I’m learning another, because I feel like they’re meant to be together in some ways.”

Teacher Kevin Coen, himself a Springfield graduate, was part of a group of teachers who started looking into proficiency-based approaches several years ago. The school is in its second year of professional development training, drawing on federal teacher-training funding and a $50,000 grant from the Rowland Foundation, a Vermont-based education reform organization. The entire school switched to the proficiency model this year — except for seniors, who still get A-F grades. Teachers continue to work on the switch to proficiency in regular meetings with other faculty in their subject areas.

Coen likes the new flexibility around assessment retakes. Many students struggle with rough situations at home, he said, “so they have these pockets of time where they just aren’t good students.” In the past, the poor marks students might have received during those times would have been averaged in, lowering their final grade. But the new system aims to give kids the additional time and resources they need — even after a class ends.

Last fall, a student who had failed to meet a research proficiency in sophomore English the previous school year approached Coen about his options. Coen and the student’s counselor devised a month-long plan to work one-on-one after school — allowing the student to avoid retaking the class. In the old system, Coen said, it wouldn’t be clear from looking at students’ grades whether they didn’t pass because they struggled with reading, writing or something else.

proficiency based learning
Springfield High School English teacher Kevin Coen was part of a group of teachers that led the school’s transition to a proficiency-based system. Credit: Elizabeth Hewitt for The Hechinger Report

“With the proficiencies, it’s so clear what things the student isn’t achieving well at, so you can really target your backup instruction,” Coen said.

Three days a week, students have a flexible period in which they can sign up for extra time with teachers, giving students time to work toward achieving proficiency. Summer school is also an option — and one that school administrators said was a success last year. Students only needed to attend until they were able to meet a proficiency. Many students finished within just a few days, according to Michael Ruppel, a math teacher and the school’s instructional coach, who is helping to implement the proficiency system.

In a 10th-grade English class, Springfield students wrapped up a self-directed “spider web” discussion as Coen watched, mapping how the conversation passed from student to student. Before students left, Coen asked them to grade themselves on the exercise. It was the students’ first graded assignment of a unit on the film “Koyaanisqatsi,” but they’d already done a number of assignments in the previous weeks that were not assessed.

“In the old system, you would have graded it for participation,” he said. Now, he views those earlier assignments as foundational, but preliminary. “I give feedback along the way, but they don’t need to be graded.”

School Board Chair Ed Caron says while there are some questions about the transition, he is not aware of much pushback from community members. The board is kept in the loop about the rollout of the new system, and administrators are holding information sessions for parents.

proficiency based learning
Sophomores Emma Ramen, Elizabeth Stepler and Hayden Morancy work on a project on the digestive system in biology class. Credit: Elizabeth Hewitt for The Hechinger Report

Page Tompkins, of the Upper Valley Educators Institute, a New Hampshire-based professional education school that works with Vermont educators, sees Springfield’s years-long, teacher-led transition as key to the success of a major reform effort. “I think that steady but incremental improvement efforts are more desirable than trying to manage big shifts,” he said.

Still, there are skeptics. In a 10th-grade biology class, Hayden Morancy and Elizabeth Stepler, both 16, worked on a project on the digestive system. While they like some parts of the change, they also say that motivation has decreased.

“It’s really awesome that we get the chance to keep working on our grades,” Stepler said. “But it also means we don’t try our best the first time.”

Many people have found the change in the grading system disorienting, and say it’s harder to gauge improvement in the new 1-4 grading system.

“A lot of the students are not wanting to be productive in school anymore because they don’t see the outcome that they used to see with just regular grading,” Morancy said.

‘All over the map’

At U-32 High School, in a district neighboring Montpelier, many juniors are concerned that they are not on target to achieve the 41 proficiencies required to graduate next year, according to Eva Jessup, a junior and a student journalist who has been reporting on proficiency-based learning. The school held a meeting earlier this year to make sure members of the class understood what was expected of them under the new system. For the first time, U-32 will run a summer school this year to give students time to get on track, or get ahead.

proficiency based learning
U-32 High School senior Andrew Crompton and junior Eva Jessup have been covering the switch to proficiency-based graduation requirements for the school newspaper. Credit: Elizabeth Hewitt for The Hechinger Report

Jessup’s class is the school’s first to use proficiency grading, and it had a rocky start. Because of grading calibration issues, school officials decided not to factor her class’s freshman year grades into students’ GPAs. Though Jessup is optimistic about the potential for the new system, many students feel the school rushed into it, she said.

“It was described to us as, we’re building the plane as we’re flying it,” Jessup said. “Yes, there’s things that you just have to learn along the way that you can’t know ahead of time. But it’s also difficult when you’re a student and you’re trying to be graded.”

As of 2017, 48 of 49 districts had a form of proficiency-based graduation requirements in place for the class of 2020, according to state officials. A more recent anonymous survey by the Vermont Principals’ Association of school administrators this year found the “vast majority” of schools have them implemented to some extent.

Related: A statewide school reform gains fans and concerns while letting students learn at their own pace

But concerns about uneven implementation prompted teachers’ union president Tinney to ask lawmakers to postpone the 2020 target by two years. “Initiative fatigue” is also a concern for teachers, administrators and officials. The directive for schools to devise proficiency-based graduation requirements came amidst an onslaught of major education policy changes over the last half decade, including a major district consolidation effort. Schools are also struggling with declining enrollments and the fallout of the opioid epidemic in their classrooms.

The union later pulled back on its request after Secretary of Education Dan French clarified that the agency does not view 2020 as a “hard-and-fast” implementation deadline. Still, Tinney fears that in rushing to adopt new systems, districts may adversely impact some students, potentially keeping some from graduating.

“It’s really awesome that we get the chance to keep working on our grades. But it also means we don’t try our best the first time.”

In testimony to lawmakers, some Vermont teachers have expressed skepticism over core tenets of the proficiency-based approach.

Andre LaChance, a longtime teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School, which has had a proficiency-based system in place for several years, questioned the efficacy of the new system in testimony to the Legislature last year, and said there is a lack of evidence that a proficiency approach produces better outcomes.

“I see students who are less knowledgeable, less able to meet deadlines, and are preferring to hand in low-quality work because they know they are going to receive many chances to improve the work,” he wrote in his testimony.

Tim Duvernoy, a visual arts teacher in the same school, doesn’t believe students have better outcomes than before the school adopted its proficiency system. Separating out transferable skills from course content ignores the fact that sometimes students learn those skills by grappling with specific concepts, he said. He’s observed that the flexibility around deadlines has made students less accountable. He’s not opposed to the principles of a proficiency-based system, but said fully realizing those principles would require lower student-to-staff ratios and more resources.

“The ideas and the philosophy and the reality, kind of, don’t always line up,” he said.

proficiency based learning
Biology teacher Tom Sabo told students that while some vocabulary is important to know, it’s not as big a part of the class as it once was. A matching vocabulary quiz is now a relic. Credit: Michael Dougherty for The Hechinger Report

However, Katherine Riley, the school’s curriculum director, said the new model of instruction is based on ideas drawn from studies of neuroscience and learning that have been found to be effective at helping students retain skills. She cited several books, including “Differentiation and the Brain” and “Make it Stick,” as supporting the approach. The school began moving to proficiency-based learning eight years ago, and fully implemented the new system in the 2016-17 school year.

Students are doing as well as before the switch, according to Riley. School data shows college placement rates have remained roughly steady between 2013 and 2018. “And while we don’t yet have the data to say that learning has improved as a direct result of our switch to a proficiency-based system, we’re confident that we’re producing better thinkers,” she wrote in an email.

Jess DeCarolis, a state official overseeing personalization and flexible pathways at the Vermont Agency of Education, said the results will come if the state keeps up the momentum — a point of view echoed by many Vermont educators and education experts.

“There are always peaks and valleys in implementation, and we need to continue to move forward as people learn, and they really can only learn through implementation,” DeCarolis said.

Huling, the education board chair (who also works as a social studies high school teacher in South Burlington), said that the agency did a good job — albeit somewhat late — putting clear guidance out into the field, including sample proficiencies, to help local districts with implementation. But what the state wasn’t able to do, she said, was provide much in the way of on-the-ground support and professional development for educators.

“We have a lot of great initiatives — but no money to back it up,” Huling said.

Former state education secretary Rebecca Holcombe thinks proficiency-based approaches are valuable, and a way to monitor education quality. But she also sees the pitfalls of a statewide approach.

“Anytime you mandate something from the top down, some people will grab it, embrace it, and thoroughly transform themselves,” Holcombe said. “Others will sort of follow along and get there eventually. And some other people might take the crude outlines of what you’re supposed to do — they’ll just take the report card and change A to 4.”

Postsecondary stress

Perhaps the most visible changes in some districts are new report cards that toss out traditional letter grades and break down specific learning targets. They can sometimes run pages long. For parents, the detailed lists of skills and new ratings can be baffling. Schools were not required to change their grading systems, but many have.

“I’m an educated person. I have a law degree and a master’s in public policy studies. If I’m having trouble understanding this — some of what these words mean — I think other parents are too.”

In one district, the affluent ski resort town of Stowe, students are graded on a system that includes G for “getting started” and PD — “proficient with distinction.” A color code indicates how far along a student is toward meeting the overall course goals.

“I’m an educated person. I have a law degree and a master’s in public policy studies. If I’m having trouble understanding this — some of what these words mean — I think other parents are too,” said Stowe parent John Pelletier.

For parents, the most persistent fear is that those long confusing transcripts could impact their children’s chances of getting into college, and particularly into top-tier schools.

Proficiency proponents mostly dismiss fears about college admissions and are trying to mitigate parental concerns. The Great Schools Partnership compiled a list of 75 New England schools — including all of Vermont’s public colleges, as well as elite institutions like Harvard, Middlebury, and Dartmouth — that have released public statements assuring parents and students that proficiency-based transcripts do not disadvantage applicants “in any way.”

proficiency based learning
Stowe High School junior Bella Braverman asked about proficiency-based transcripts while visiting colleges recently. None said they would be a problem. Credit: Elizabeth Hewitt for The Hechinger Report

Admissions officials at several northeastern colleges and universities, including the University of Connecticut, the University of Massachusetts and St. Lawrence University, said schools look at the whole applicant when reviewing applications: A proficiency-based transcript would not hinder a student in the application process, nor factor into whether a student is offered merit-based aid. And some proficiency-based high schools provide colleges GPA conversion charts along with the transcripts.

“We already receive applications from students who are in a really wide range of curricula,” Williams College director of admissions Sulgi Lim said.

Stowe High junior Bella Braverman spent her winter break visiting colleges. At information sessions she’d ask if the colleges review many alternative transcripts and if that puts applicants at a disadvantage. Not one said it would be a problem.

Still, she admits she was relieved when the school just this year rolled out a GPA converter.

“I’ve wanted a GPA for the past year and half,” she said.

Braverman has been part of a school community group giving the district feedback as it implements the new system. In general, she thinks the changes have meant a more personalized education that’s raised the bar for students.

And she sees a big difference in stress levels between her peers and their parents.

“Parents worry so much more than kids do,” Braverman said.

While students have their concerns, she also sees them moving forward in the new system. “At this point, we’re in it, we’re doing it, just get the best grades you can, and that’s all you can really do.”

This story about proficiency-based learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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