Transforming education: Shift to proficiency requires shift in thinking

BFA-Fairfax math teacher and proficiency support person Jensen Welch providing feedback during her math class.

ST. ALBANS — Education in Vermont is changing.

While the focus has been on Act 46 and merger debates, schools have been quietly shifting to a new model of measuring student work, known as proficiency-based learning.

The premise is simple: There will be a set of skills and knowledge students must have in order to graduate high school, rather than a list of courses to be taken.

In typical Vermont fashion, defining that set of skills was left to every school.

In addition to defining those required skills, schools must determine how they will be measured, how educators will respond when students lack those skills, and how they’ll meet the needs of students who already have those skills.

The result is the transformation of all aspects of education, placing the focus firmly on learning.

There is also the challenge of communicating to students, parents and potential colleges what students can do and where they need to improve.

At Bellows Free Academy (BFA) in Fairfax, educators focused on “what was essential because it would endure,” said Linda Keating, curriculum director for Franklin West Supervisory Union.

BFA started with what all students should know and be able to do at graduation and then worked backward through high school and now elementary school to develop proficiency standards for courses and grades. It meant separating what was essential from what was simply important, said Keating.

“It may seem less rigorous, but what we’ve found is these concepts and skills are the DNA of learning,” she said. “When you’re only focused on content, kids pretty much dump that at the door.”

Determining what was essential meant separating what students know and can do from other traits such as being responsible, persistent and collaborative or even just organized and punctual. Those skills are also tracked, but separately from academic skills.

“It’s a big culture shift,” said BFA-Fairfax High School Principal John Tague. “People are used to being able to say ‘my student is an A student.’”

Separating out the possibility of raising a grade with extra credit or points for neatness means “kids can’t get a false sense of accomplishment,” said BFA-St. Albans Principal Chris Mosca.

Instead, the focus is on giving students “a very clear understanding of what they’re supposed to be able to know and do,” he said. “The kids know exactly what the target is.”

“It’s no longer important or relevant for kids to just be memorizing facts,” added Shannon Warden, assistant principal for curriculum at BFA-St. Albans. Instead, there are identified skills to master in each course and broader, transferable skills that apply across the curriculum.

Students are measured on a four-point scale at BFA St. Albans, ranging from exceeding the standard, a 4, to being significantly below the standard, a 1.

For example, under the skill of creative and practical problem solving, students are measured on how well they understand the problem. A student receiving a 1 would only be able to identify some aspects of the problem, while a student receiving a 3 can “identify and demonstrate an understanding of the problem.”

According to BFA-St. Albans’s scale, a 3 would be considered proficient.

A student receiving a 4 would show an advanced understanding of the problem by describing all relevant elements of it.

Understanding the problem is just one of the skills needed to solve problems. Others include selecting and implementing a strategy, analyzing the outcome of that strategy and reflecting on the process used to solve the problem and how it could be improved.

But defining those necessary skills is just the first step. Schools then have to decide how to measure those skills and how they’ll intervene when students aren’t mastering them.

Measuring skills

Determining if students are proficient means more than simply adding or subtracting points on a worksheet or test, said Jensen Welch, a BFA-Fairfax math teacher who doubles as the school’s proficiency support person. Instead, teachers have to look holistically at a section of work.

To help teachers and students do that, BFA-Fairfax is developing learning scales for each skill that break it down from just starting to master the skill to being beyond proficient.

They’re using a version of Powerschool that lets them link assignments to particular standards, which are measured on a scale of 1 to 4.

That four point scale is later turned into an average that’s “familiar,” said Welch.

“I like being able to talk to the students in terms of what they’re able to demonstrate as opposed to ‘you lost a point because you had the wrong sign,’” said Welch.

“It’s feedback on the learning,” said Keating. “It’s not feedback on how to get an ‘A.’”

At Fairfax, students will develop exhibitions of their work that they will present to parents, teachers and even peers. In those exhibitions, presented in eighth, tenth and twelfth grade, students show what they can do, discuss their strengths and areas for improvement, and identify their goals are for the next two years.

Knowing what kids need to be able to demonstrate has also opened up opportunities for enrichment, according to Missisquoi Valley Union’s (MVU) Jen DeSorgher, the school’s director of teaching and learning.

MVU now offers ninth graders the chance to earn an honors credential in the humanities by doing work at a greater depth in English and social studies. By clearly articulating what skills students needed, teachers were then able to be clear about what a more advanced version of those skills would be.

“It’s an enrichment opportunity and a recognition opportunity,” said DeSorgher.

Proficiency also makes possible programs such as MVU’s Field Studies program, which allows students to master science and math skills while engaged in active learning, such as accompanying scientists with Vermont Fish and Wildlife on data gathering trips.

Schools around the state are phasing in the shift to proficiency-based learning, but for parents it can be confusing to get a report card without the familiar letter grade, or with the grade and a slew of additional information about students’ skills.

Multiple chances to succeed

Perhaps even more confusing for parents is the idea is that students are offered more than one opportunity to show that they can do the work.

“You can’t go to a proficiency system without allowing for multiple chances to meet the standard,” said Mosca.

No one would expect an elementary school teacher to simply move on to subtraction when a student hadn’t mastered addition, but at the higher grades that has often remained the norm. If a student received a D on quadratic equations in algebra, that’s what they earned. Meanwhile, the class is moving on.

When the new material depends on understanding the old material, that can leave students falling further behind.

Proficiency flips that model. Instead of studying quadratic equations for two weeks, with students required to learn it in that time frame, now they are simply required to understand quadratic equations. If it takes longer than two weeks, then that’s what it takes.

“Learning is constant and time is the variable,” said Mosca.

Students have to master the skills, however long that takes, even if it means attending the summer school BFA held in June for kids who hadn’t achieved proficiency on all of their required skills.

“What we’re doing is holding kids more accountable,” said Mosca.

Warden made clear that students aren’t allowed to retake a test until they pass it. Students get more time and help learning the material, but they don’t get the same test. Indeed, subsequent tests, or assessments, may be more difficult than the one the student initially couldn’t do.

It also means teachers are focusing in on where the gaps in knowledge are and addressing those with students.

“This makes it very clear what kids don’t know,” Warden explained. In the past a student might get a C on an end of unit test and that would simply be the grade. Now the teacher and student are charged with figuring out what portions of that unit the student doesn’t understand and making certain the student learns it.

“It’s a shift in thinking,” said Dan Palmer, middle school principal at MVU.

It’s a shift that places more responsibility on both students and teachers. Neither is allowed to shrug off failure.

One of the biggest concerns from parents has been about how to recognize and challenge students who are already proficient, said Palmer. That led to the creation of the previously mentioned humanities honors at MVU.

Parents are also concerned about what this means for college applications.

Mosca argues colleges receiving proficiency-based transcripts will have a better understanding of what students can and can’t do. The transcript of a student who doesn’t consistently do homework but aces every test will reflect that, he pointed out. Currently that student would receive the same B or C as a student who struggled to understand the material but handed in all of the assignments.

That the student didn’t do the homework will still be in the transcript, but colleges will know the student understood the course material.

Similarly, students will not have an A based on good behavior. Colleges will know a student is organized and responsible, but they won’t get a false picture of a student’s academic skills as a result.

“The old A.B. C, D system is arbitrary, and it’s different from teacher to teacher,” said Palmer. Now students will be measured on clear standards that are the same across the school regardless of the teacher.

BFA St. Albans invited representatives from Norwich University, Clarkson University, Castleton University, UVM and St. Michael’s College to attend a forum during the last school year.

Those representatives assured parents colleges are accustomed to examining and comparing a wide variety of transcripts, including from homeschooled students. They were “very reassuring [proficiency] was not going to have a negative impact on students,” said BFA-St. Albans guidance director Preston Randall.

“They’re going to have more detailed information,” he said.

Colleges, he pointed out, are interested in accepting students. “Colleges aren’t looking for reasons not to accept you,” Randall said.

Parents also ask about what the change will mean for the Green and Gold Scholarship, which is traditional offered by UVM to the top ranked students at Vermont high schools. Randall said schools can nominate students for the scholarship without reference to class rank.

“Most high schools in Chittenden County gave up class rank years ago,” said Randall.

Messenger reporter Michael Frett contributed to this story.

Parents with questions about proficiency based learning or interested in sharing their experiences are welcome to contact the Messenger at or