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Aurora Institute

Six Fixes for Proficiency-Based Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): David Ruff

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

david ruff
David Ruff

Two realities almost always arise when we engage in systemic change. First, while the change is framed as universally beneficial, it’s almost always disruptive and frequently gives rise to new and additional concerns. Second, implementation never goes as smoothly as planned. This certainly has happened in Maine as the state has embarked on a courageous journey to shift from an unfair and inadequate learning system to one that is equitable and just.

It is very good news that as this shift has been underway, Maine teachers have remained steadfast in their commitment to better learning for students. Early indications from this change are all good as four-year high school graduation rates in Maine have increased from 80% to 87% over the past seven years, college enrollment rates have increased from 60% to 64%, and college persistence rates have increased from 75% to 77%.[1]

Having noted this, we have to face a reality of the current K-12 public education system in America—it is unfair and designed to inequitably rank and sort students. The US public education system inequitably favors students who start better prepared, who have additional external support, and who are not impinged by non-school demands on their time. In the face of these and other significant obstacles, teachers make heroic efforts every day to treat students fairly and provide myriad learning opportunities to overcome these concerns. While many student success stories result from these significant efforts, these daily acts of heroism fall short of what is needed to close our pernicious equity gaps and ensure each and every high school graduate is well-prepared for the rigors of college and work, and the privileges and opportunities of civic life.

Proficiency-based learning, at its core, is about redesigning the learning and teaching system of America. Instead of basing learning on how much time a student spends, it bases learning on what students can demonstrate—exactly the same as every other system students will encounter in the world outside of school. Instead of only offering opportunities if students want to excel beyond very minimum levels of learning, it provides immediate support when students initially struggle to achieve high levels of learning. It is not a privilege-based system that benefits a few as the current tracking system employed across America follows today, but rather, an accountability system that demands support and assistance for all students.

In its purest sense, proficiency-based learning is the identification of a common set of expected learning standards for all students and the system of instruction and support provided to ensure all students can succeed. As schools across the region and the country have embraced PBL, there have been implementation mistakes that are deserving of educator, parent, and student scrutiny. In our work at the Great Schools Partnership, we have had the opportunity to witness educators both succeed in great numbers and struggle in certain area. Below I outline six implementation mistakes and offer fixes for each of these.

1. Insisting on moving to a 1 – 4 grading scale too early. Importantly, Maine’s proficiency-based graduation statute is silent on which reporting system a school or district chooses to use and does not require abandoning either the A-F or 0-100 systems. To be clear, traditional A-F or 0-100 grading models communicate an inaccurate and incomplete picture of learning on several levels. Both are based on a system that records the percentage of correct responses and averages these together. This fails to recognize that some learning, like being able to read, write, or compute very well, is essential and should be mastered by all. When student performance on these core essential skills are averaged with other less consequential skills to provide a course grade or a GPA, major gaps in student learning can be easily masked.

Our Suggested Solution: Realizing that the course grading system remains the single biggest communication strategy used by a school to describe student performance with parents and students, we would strongly urge that schools redefine what is meant by the placeholders of A-F (or 0-100), but that they continue to use these most familiar symbols to communicate learning with parents. Over time, and through thoughtful and full engagement with parents and the community, schools may choose to shift to a different reporting system that better meets the collective needs of students, parents, and educators and more comprehensively and accurately reports achievement—but only after fully understanding student, parents, and teacher reporting needs and developing a system together.

In addition, schools should continue to share information pertaining to course grades and start to share information regarding student attainment of specific standards, including course-crossing skills such as problem solving, creativity, and analysis. While we would recommend that the course grades continue to use A-F or 0-100 scales, shifting to a 1-4 scale on the standards probably provides better insight for everyone involved. In this way, parents, students, and educators will know how students are doing within the structures of a class and how students are doing in regard to specific standards. This both/and approach will provide more information that can then be used to promote better learning.

2. Eliminating attendance requirements. While seat time should not guarantee recognition of credit, this does not mean that attendance is not important. We’ve seen quite a few school districts remove attendance requirements for students only to see students fail to learn when they weren’t in attendance. Too many educators and the public have suffered from the misconception that proficiency-based learning means that being in school does not matter; we would argue that school attendance is necessary but not sufficient. Teachers and parents are very concerned that students are not demonstrating skills and habits of work associated with being present, such as punctuality, preparedness, or persistence—and they are correct.

Our Suggested Solution: Simply put, require students to be in school prepared and ready to learn. We don’t see any philosophical issue with making attendance one of the requirements for receiving recognition of learning, we just don’t want to assume learning because students are in school. When students are proceeding faster in their learning than their time in school, this simply allows students to engage in additional or deeper learning.

3. Designs based on student pace, not depth of learning. One of the early enticements of proficiency-based learning was that engaged and motivated students could advance more quickly. While we would still support this notion, when schools design their learning, curriculum, and instruction for kids to pass through the system as fast as they can, a host of detrimental side effects take place. Routinely, students are able to earn a passing grade (a 3 or at least a C) on a standard and then quickly move on to the next thing. This leads to a series of learning that is “good enough” but never “great.” Students are essentially doing enough to get by but not enough to excel. Teachers, who are expected to address different learning pathways and timing for 25 different students in a class, are quickly forced to resort to worksheets (either in paper or on-line formats) in order to keep kids busy. And kids stop engaging with each other because there is no real need to collaborate. None of this is leads to deeper learning.

Our Suggested Solution: Keep cohorts of kids together as they progress through their learning. Teachers can vary the learning strategies for various cohorts of students, supporting some students to dig deeper into various standards while others realize initial achievement—and then bringing everyone back together again to start the next unit of learning. Further, as research on learning has demonstrated, learning is a social endeavor, not meant to be undertaken alone. A cohort model supports this research. The more successful schools implementing proficiency are doing this routinely with students still being enrolled in second grade, middle school science, or high school art classes.

4. Demanding that students demonstrate achievement on every small standard in state standards documents (including the Common Core). Schools that generate a long list of learning standards and hold students accountable to demonstrating proficiency on every single one are unnecessarily holding many students behind for not mastering large numbers of discrete and often inconsequential skills or knowledge. For example, it seems incongruous to hold students equally accountable to “Analyze how an author chose to structure a text and how that structure contributes to the text’s meaning and its aesthetic and rhetorical impact” (a performance indicator from English/Language Arts from the Maine Learning Results) verses asking students to “Interpret, analyze, and evaluate appropriately complex literary and informational texts” (a content competency for English/Language Arts again in the Maine Learning Results). The former standard serves well to guide instruction and curriculum, but failing to demonstrate this single standard should not merit retaining students, denying credit, or denying graduation. However, failing to meet the second standard should merit significant consequences including retention or denial of course credit or graduation. Parents, students, and educators are legitimately questioning the value of requiring mastery of many learning standards that were designed with coverage in mind that are suddenly being used for student level accountability. Too many educators have taken a very hard line on requiring proficiency on everything—and enabling students to progress in their learning until all standards—regardless of their value—are mastered.

Our Suggested Solution: Hold students accountable to key and important standards, designating a small handful of “graduation standards” while using the other standards in the Common Core or various state standards to develop curriculum, guide instruction, and build classroom assessments. This strategy focuses learning on key and endurable concepts, skills, and themes; ensures that instructional support is targeted at the most important learning; and pushes students to think about and analyze ideas deeply rather than memorize an unwieldly number of discrete facts.

5. Failing to adequately define the performance expectations for “exceeding the standard.” Too often, educators define the top level of performance by simply expecting the same results done more often, faster, with more evidence, or slightly refined. We actually have seen rubrics that note a top level of performance as being “able to impress my teacher with my solution.” Such lack of clarity negates the helpful specificity and usefulness of PBL, creating a system of arbitrary teacher judgment. Further, as an undefined level of attainment, it creates an environment where exceeding the standard is not encouraged or even necessary—ever. The demands of the 21st century require students to be capable of more complex, sophisticated, and nuanced thought than ever before. Exceeding the standard should require a level of thinking that is more complex and cognitively demanding, rather than propagating the notion that excellence simply means doing more and getting there faster than others. And we should expect that every student will exceed performance expectations on at least some standards.

Our Suggested Solution: Educators need to clearly define top levels of performance and provide explicit expectations and opportunities for students to achieve these levels of learning. While we should not expect students to “exceed” standards in all cases, educators should require students to do so in areas of particular interest and aptitude for students.

6. Removing all consequences for late work. Late work is not in and of itself evidence that a student has not mastered a standard; it is simply an indication that the student is not demonstrating the habit of work (or success) of time management. While meeting a content standard and meeting deadlines are important, they should not be combined into one grade (since averaging simply masks the fact that some students pass classes as a result of their ability to turn in work regardless of its quality and others fail classes because of their inability to organize themselves). Both are essential. Systems that fail to incentivize and report work completion or provide consequences for students who fail to meet work completion expectations provide a learning disservice to students. Students and parents ought to know exactly which standards are and are not being met and what is needed to support further learning. The supports and interventions provided must match the struggle students are facing. Using grades as a lever to change time management habits for students is not an effective learning strategy, but no longer expecting students to demonstrate time management and meeting deadlines is poor PBL implementation.

Our Suggested Solution: Schools must establish both incentives and consequences for critical work habits such as time management and meeting deadlines. Rather than ignore these, they must teach, model, assess, and report them separately and eliminate the practice of controlling behavior by reducing grades. We have seen numerous effective strategies where late work requires coming in after school, not attending co-curricular activities, or mandatory guided study halls, to name a few examples.

We remain committed to proficiency-based learning. It enables teachers to employ effective instruction strategies, it generates clear and actionable data on student achievement, it provides direction for student agency and parent engagement, and ultimately, equitably enables all students to achieve to high levels. We need the fixes noted above as we continue to hone and refine these ideas.

[1] New England Secondary School Consortium, Common Data Project. downloaded August 16, 2018

See also:

David Ruff is executive director of the Great Schools Partnership, and a founding member and director of the New England Secondary School Consortium, a five-state partnership working to promote forward-thinking innovations in secondary education. Through this work he has placed significant emphasis on proficiency-based learning and ensuring equity in the process. He currently facilitates the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium Proficiency-Based Learning Technical Work Group.