I crossed paths with Virgel Hammonds, Superintendent of RSU2 in Maine, on a Digital Promise call about competency education. We hadn’t had a chance to talk for a while, so we scheduled another quick call. I asked Virgel about what they had been learning and how they had been enhancing their proficiency-based approach (Maine uses the term proficiency-based learning). Some of the changes are evident on their website, such as replacing the term “school” with “learning community.” Knowing the strength of the team at RSU2, I knew that there would be valuable insights or new approaches that we could all learn from.
Hammonds reminded me of the elements that they have implemented throughout their school district:
- Shared vision emphasizing student voice and choice, development of strong habits of learning, variation in how students learn, and development of higher-level skills.
- Transparent measurement topics and learning targets. (Measurement topics are the standards for learning. They are the curriculum frameworks that guide teachers in their instruction and lesson planning. They are the standards that all students must achieve.)
- Shared understanding of proficiency within school and across schools.
- Information system (Educate) to support and provide transparency for tracking student progress and pace.
Three areas of insights and advancement are described below.
Aligning Instruction and Assessment to Higher Levels
Hammonds explained that a big aha! for educators at RSU2 over the past year was the importance of aligning instruction as well as assessment to the specific performance levels in the knowledge taxonomy. RSU2 uses the Marzano taxonomy (Retrieval, Comprehension, Analysis, Knowledge Utilization, Metacognition, Self-system thinking). At RSU2, learning targets identify at which performance level students need to be able to show proficiency based on Marzano’s taxonomy and assessments are aligned accordingly. Over the past year, teachers had realized that their instruction was sometimes lower than the performance level, and they’ve been working to improve their instruction so it fully aligns with the learning targets.
Hammonds pointed out that it is important to be able to teach and assess at the higher levels because that is often where higher levels of student voice and choice (some refer to this as student agency) can kick in. Students know when the instruction is aimed at the higher level skills because they have the opportunity to create new ways to apply knowledge.
This insight, although sounding like common sense, shows that amazing power of proficiency-based learning to create a coherent system of learning. It also raises a huge question about what is going on in traditional schools as they prepare for the Common Core. It’s clearly not just a function of professional development – schools need to put into place a dynamic infrastructure (at CompetencyWorks we shorthand by talking about the competency frameworks) that supports teachers in having a clear understanding of proficiency, the assessments and instructional tools to meet higher levels of learning.
Serving Students with Special Needs
Hammonds and I also discussed how special education is managed in a proficiency-based environment. Hammonds explained that many of the advocates for students with special needs were supportive of Maine’s state policy for a proficiency-based diploma as it created the expectation that every student will have the same expectations.
Hammonds emphasized they want all students to receive personalized attention. They do this by checking student progress every six weeks. Students in special education receive formal IEP, of course, but RSU2 teachers use the measurement and learning targets to structure the discussion. In the fall, the team discusses where they can get students in nine months and what supports and interventions the student will need. There are check-ins along the way, and in the spring, the team spends a longer time on reflecting on a student’s progress and why the student was able to meet the growth targets (or why not).
Principals also set intervention timelines through the summer (for everyone, not just students in special education) so students can continue to work on their growth targets.
We talked about how students with different types of challenges in special education benefit in a proficiency-based system. For those with learning disabilities, the system provides a combination of a strong IEP, appropriate supports, and more time during the school year, during the summer or through additional years of schooling to complete the high school graduation requirements. For those with severe intellectual disabilities, the conversation has shifted from parents asking that their child feel like they belong to setting very specific growth targets.
Hammonds described the frustration of trying to use the state assessments to help understand how students are growing. For the students performing at grade level, you can see growth only in that they are proficient one year and then the next. But for students above grade level or who started far below, there is almost no actionable information. It is also frustrating for teachers and students when a school has 10 percent proficiency levels but no indication about how the other 90 percent are doing. Is there progress? How much?
So RSU2 is seeking ways to create their own accountability system that allows them to reflect overall on how well students are doing and then go deeper to understand individuals. They are exploring combining state assessment data plus results from NWEA. Hopefully, when SBAC comes online, they’ll be able to get usable data. But until then, they continue to turn to NWEA (which has its weaknesses as a method for monitoring growth as well) for help in understanding student progress.