Bellows Free Academy - St. Albans - FILE PHOTO

Bellows Free Academy - St. Albans serves students from across Northwest Vermont.

ST. ALBANS – Challenges with Bellows Free Academy – St. Albans’s transition to proficiency-based learning have continued to leave students and their parents wondering if the school’s troubled transition will disadvantage them as they apply for college.

Students and parents again attended the latest meeting of the Maple Run Unified School District (MRUSD) school board, sharing concerns they had with a new set of condensed high school transcripts they said were inconsistent and riddled with errors.

Parents said they were frustrated with the transition, explaining they feared issues with their transcripts would especially jeopardize students applying to colleges early and disadvantage students applying to more competitive colleges.

“How did we end up where we are right now with this level of confusion and stress and concern?” asked Liz Gamache, the former mayor of St. Albans City and a parent. “Because, especially for us with seniors in the application process, time is of the essence. There’s a lot at stake, and we don’t know the impact of errors or inconsistencies in transcripts might be.”

Following the passage of Act 77, a sweeping education reform that also ushered in mandatory personalized-learning plans and flexible pathways, schools were required to adopt a proficiency-based model of education emphasizing skills.

Schools statewide were tasked with setting their own grading standards under the proficiency model, with the class of 2020 set as the deadline as the first high school class to graduate under the new system.

While some schools anchored their proficiency grading to traditional letter grades, others, like BFA – St. Albans, adopted a scale of one-to-four, with threes and fours identifying students as either proficient or above proficiency.

Asked this summer to produce transcripts for students set to graduate next year, BFA delivered a detailed, multiple-page transcript explaining students’ grades, something parents brought before the MRUSD board last month with reports that schools outside of New England especially hesitated to accept those transcripts in the reviewing process.

In response, BFA shrunk their transcripts to only a handful of pages with an attached introduction of BFA, sharing the school’s profile and information outlining its proficiency-based grading for colleges that might be less familiar with the system.

Speaking with the Messenger earlier this month, BFA principal Chris Mosca and the school’s guidance director Preston Randall had said they were originally led to believe colleges would’ve had no problems with the larger, proficiency-based transcripts.

“We had several forums with colleges there, and it sounded as though colleges would be willing to accept various forms of transcripts and were comfortable with proficiency scores,” Mosca said. “It wasn’t until more recently we learned that multiple-page transcripts were not the answer, and we had to come up with ways to try to represent what students know and can do.”

According to Mosca, those changes, which now presented a grade-point average based on an average of a student’s proficiency scores noted for each class, were made and presented to the MRUSD school board a few months prior.

Since releasing condensed transcripts late last month, however, parents and students continued to notice inconsistencies between proficiency scores listed on online grade tracking software and what was listed on the transcript, as well as inconsistency between how each individual teacher was grading proficiencies.

According to Mary Pickener, a longtime social worker with a student in the class of 2020 who addressed the MRUSD board during its latest meeting, a transcript she received had said her student was absent for more days in one year than were actually in a school year.

She also testified that, between talking to different teachers during parent teacher conferences, she found each teacher had defined proficiencies differently, and that they struggled with explaining those proficiencies to their students.

“Nobody does this the same. There’s no standardization. There’s no uniformity,” Pickener said. “No teacher knows exactly what it’s supposed to be like… and when you translate that to the students, they don’t know.”

The Messenger had raised this concern during an interview with Mosca and Randall, who explained that there were different professional developments conducted throughout the transition process meant to help teachers understand the proficiency system. “In retrospect, we should have done more of that kind of learning,” Mosca said.

According to Mosca, the school had the individual departments in BFA set their respective proficiency standards. Since issues with transcripts and grading came to light, the administration at BFA and the district at large have been meeting more intently with the heads of those departments to iron out issues with the transition to proficiency, according to MRUSD assistant superintendent Bill Kimball.

Parents and students in particular questioned how students could show higher academic achievement under the proficiency model, with a proficiency scores of three reportedly casting a wide net when it came to showing how far along a student had come with displaying those proficiencies.

They also questioned why BFA had opted for the numerical system at all, noting schools in surrounding communities had continued pairing proficiency scores with traditional letter grades.

According to students who spoke during MRUSD’s last board meeting, students traditionally considered high-achieving students feared that, with fours being scored inconsistently and with the definition of a three under the proficiency model being so widespread, they’d struggle with being recognized when their transcripts are sent on to colleges or attached to applications for scholarships.

“Those top cohorts of students who are trying to get into high-level colleges who need to be differentiated – those students, who take the APs who take the honors every year, who might end up with a grade that’s the same as someone who took none of them – it’s good for those students to standout,” said Alex Haag, a BFA student who said others at the school shared his opinion.

Parents similarly shared those views, with one, Michael Connor, claiming the system led to a dynamic where “the lower students are being brought up and the top students are being compressed.”

BFA currently doesn’t use a class rank or weigh classes according to whether they’re honors courses or Advanced Placement courses. In lieu of class rank, they’ve issued a pin system with the proficiency model that recognizes higher scoring students with gold pins, silver pins and bronze pins depending on their proficiency scores.

Haag said he initially supported the pins, but between errors in deciding who did and didn’t receive those pins and with final grade point averages built off of calculations involving scores extrapolated to differing degrees of decimal places, those pins weren’t doing enough to help ease those students’ concerns.

He and several others asked that BFA include some kind of weighted grading or system to recognize those students, adding that there’d be ways to do it while preserving some of the sensitivity around ranking students against one-another.

As the MRUSD board continued to heard concerns from members of the public, they both applauded the community’s activism while defending BFA’s staff for “working really hard to do their best to straighten this out,” as board member Jack McCarthy said.

McCarthy instead trained his sights on what he saw as an “unfunded mandate” from the state. “We had a mandate to do this proficiency-based learning, which I believe in,” McCarthy said. “But I also want our staff and our school to have the funding, the training and not to be forced to do something so quickly that it causes this confusion.”

Mosca and Randall both promised the school would continue working on correcting errors on transcripts, stating that work would be considered a priority until it was resolved. They both promised those revisions to be complete well before Nov. 1, the deadline for early enrollment in some colleges.

Assistant superintendent Kimball said there’d also be an audit of the school’s online grade tracker PowerSchool and possibly of the individual teachers’ grading. Kimball, with a previous background in proficiency education in his role at the Washington Central Supervisory Union, said he’d be supporting the transition as it continued.

“I feel profoundly responsible,” Mosca said. “I just want to give you assurance that the decisions we made were made with the best information we had.”

When speaking with the Messenger, Mosca still said he believed the science behind proficiency-based learning was sound, and that, while it was a complete overhaul of “an education system that was built a century ago,” it had led educators to “really focus on what we need to get our students to achieve.”

The district’s planned an upcoming forum on Oct. 15 with parents to discuss the school’s transition to proficiency, according to an email sent to parents of BFA students.