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Aurora Institute

Vermont Breakaway on Proficiency-Based Policy

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

John Fischer, Deputy Commissioner, VT Agency of Education
John Fischer, Deputy Commissioner, VT Agency of Education

David Ruff from the Great Schools Partnership forwarded me Vermont’s Education Quality Standards or Rule 2000 recently adopted by the Board of Education. He had said that Vermont was barreling forward and he was right.

Here are a few of the highlights of the policy:

1) Definition:  This is one of the best policy definitions of proficiency-based or competency education I’ve seen. I would probably have used “unit” instead of lesson because we all know sometimes if you just keep moving forward while you are learning something, it just clicks! But that’s in the weeds.

Proficiency-based learning” and “proficiency-based graduation” refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma.

2) Graduation Requirements: Vermont makes it clear that graduation is based on proficiency.

A student meets the requirements for graduation when the student demonstrates evidence of proficiency in the curriculum outlined in 2120.5, and completion of any other requirements specified by the local board of the school attended by the student.

Later on it goes into more detail stating that credits must be proficiency-based and leaving room for schools to move to an entirely proficiency-based structure if they desire. 

Schools may or may not use credits for the purposes of demonstrating that a student has met the graduation requirements. When used, credits must specify the proficiencies demonstrated in order to attain a credit and shall not be based on time spent in learning. Further, students may receive credit for learning that takes place outside of the school, the school day, or the classroom. Any credits earned must occur under the supervision of an appropriately licensed educator.

3) Personalization: It is incredibly thoughtful how they integrated personalization throughout the policy. There are several references to the expectation that students should receive personalized services based on their needs and their interests including instruction, flexible pathways, and personal learning plans. My only concern in reading this is there is no reference to what needs to happen for kids who are two or more years behind grade level, have big gaps in knowledge, or are over-age and undercredited. Personally, I think policy needs to be set at the state level to require districts to serve this group of kids and include ways to get them back on track in the personal learning plans.

a) Personalizing Instructional Practice: Instructional practices shall promote personalization for each student, and enable each student to successfully engage in the curriculum and graduation requirements. Classroom instruction shall include a range of research-based instructional practices that most effectively improve student learning, as identified by national and Vermont guidance and locally collected and analyzed student data.
b) Flexible pathways: Students are expected to demonstrate learning through flexible and multiple pathways, including but not limited to career and technical education, virtual learning, work-based learning, service learning, dual enrollment and early college. Learning must occur under the supervision of an appropriately licensed educator. Learning expectations must be aligned with state expectations and standards.
c) Personalized Learning Plans: As required in 16 V.S.A. 941, schools shall ensure all students in grades seven through 12 shall have a Personalized Learning Plan, which shall be a written document developed by the student, a representative of the school and, if the student is a minor, the student’s parent or legal guardian. The Personalized Learning Plan shall describe the scope and rigor of learning opportunities and support services necessary for the student to achieve college and career readiness prior to graduation, and to attain a high school diploma. This plan must be reviewed at least annually.


Each school shall provide opportunities for students to obtain academic and experiential learning experiences that reflect their emerging abilities, interests and aspirations, as outlined in the student’s Personal Learning Plan. 

3) Tiered System of Support: Personally, I don’t think a school is competency-based until it has an adequate support system in place.  Vermont seems to think the same way with clear expectation for tiered system of academic and behavioral supports.

In accordance with 16 V.S.A. § 2902 and State Board Rule 2194, each school shall ensure that a tiered system of academic and behavioral supports is in place to assist all students in working toward attainment of the standards. This system shall be aligned with the school’s Personalized Learning Plan structures, and specific student support services shall be specified within a student’s Personalized Learning Plan.

4) Comprehensive System of Assessments: Vermont addressed the seesawing tension about assessments (standardized tests vs. performance-based assessments) in a very clever way. It emphasizes performance-based but doesn’t limit it. Bravo!

Students must be allowed to demonstrate proficiency by presenting multiple types of evidence, including but not limited to teacher- or student-designed assessments, portfolios, performances, exhibitions and projects.

Later on in the section Development and Implementation of Local Comprehensive Assessment System Vermont outlines the expectation that districts have in place a system of assessments.

Each supervisory union shall develop, and each school shall implement, a local comprehensive assessment system that

a.     assesses the standards approved by the State Board of Education;
b.     employs a balance of assessment types, including but not limited to, teacher- or student-designed assessments, portfolios, performances, exhibitions and projects;
c.     includes both formative and summative assessments;
d.     enables decisions to be made about student progression and graduation, including measuring proficiency-based learning;
e.      informs the development of Personalized Learning Plans and student support;
f.      provides data that informs decisions regarding instruction, professional learning, and educational resources and curriculum; and
g.     reflects strategies and goals outlined in the district’s Continuous Improvement Plan.


The performance criteria of the assessment system shall be clear and be communicated to teachers, administrators, students, parents and other community members. Students and parents shall be informed at least annually regarding progress toward achieving the standards.

As more and more states adopt new proficiency-based policies we are starting to get a collection of different approaches and language. The next wave of states can draw from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon and Colorado as they shape policies that will work for their individual context.

Interested in learning more about state policy?

You can find information at CompetencyWorks –  Necessary for Success (and the snapshot of state policy development) and the wiki.

Also check out KnowlegeWorks’ Policy Briefs on the Federal Role, Achieve’s Advancing Competency-based Pathways to College and Career Success, and the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Strengthening High School Teaching and Learning in New Hampshire’s Competency-Based System.