Proficiency: One Thing I Love and One Thing I Hope to Change

 

The inadequacies of the traditional grading system became blaringly apparent my first year teaching. A vivacious 5th grade band student came bouncing up to me the morning of his first test to proudly announce that he’d practiced for three hours the night before. However, when it came time to play the test, he was unable to even demonstrate proper fingerings for the three notes of the test. But since his practice grade was nearly 400%, his course grade averaged out to an A.

 

OK, rookie mistake. My second year, practice was only worth 10% of the final grade, tests 50%. I was happy with this system for a few years until the best high school drummer I’ve ever worked with transferred to my school. He would practice every night for at least an hour, but because he was academically complacent, he never once in four years turned in a practice record. I’m sure the busywork of the silly little practice sheet left a bitter taste in his mouth, and today I’d probably agree with him. At the time, however, including practice in the final grade was the only way I had to report on practice. As a result of his lack of compliance (i.e. behavior), the most talented player - who was the hardest worker in and out of class and never missed a performance in four years - never got an A in the one class in which he was truly talented. And that is unfortunate.

 

In both instances the student’s report card did not accurately portray their ability, due to the limitations of traditional grading systems. I struggled with this as a new and idealistic teacher until I convinced myself there was no better option. But a proficiency-based grading and reporting system now allows me to separate academics from behavior. The drummer’s mom, for example, can see that he’s completely mastered the performance aspects of the class but still struggles with “turns work in on time.” The parents of my beginning band student can see that while he has turned in lots of practice, he has not yet mastered “plays with a clear, consistent tone.”

 

I’ve recently moved from the music classroom into the position of Special Education Director for our district, and one of my directives is to “make proficiency work for our SPED students.” I struggled with that for a little while, as I have always felt that proficiency-based education was ideal for the struggling learner. Then I realized that the biggest hurdle to overcome is not in proficiency itself, but in our school system’s self-imposed timeline. For decades, time has been the constant in education; students move through our system largely based on age, while what they learn plays a nearly insignificant role in their progression. If a student does not learn at the same pace as the rest of the class, there can be some sizable ramifications, as he or she is shuttled along. That must change for proficiency to reach its full potential. We must remove the stigma associated with students who learn at a slower pace, and we need to develop a culture of support and acceptance so that students feel comfortable progressing at their own pace. No amount of support - such as after school tutoring or extra class periods (we call them proficiency support groups) - will succeed if students do not feel good accessing them.

 

We created an hour each week when every student must be with a teacher of their choosing for academic assistance. We decided against having a “fun” activity for students who were meeting proficiency as that would reinforce the stigma of the slower learner who never gets to do the fun activity. We continually reiterate the idea that everyone learns at a different pace and the focus should be more on our behavior rubric than on academic performance. We’re even starting a dialogue about basing athletic eligibility on behavior, not academics. Our rubric contains standards such as:

 

  • Turn work in on time

  • Do your best

  • Actively participate

  • Have necessary materials

  • Follow directions the first time

 

We believe that if we can focus students’ energy and attention on behaviors, the academics will follow. By doing this, we’ve begun to shift emphasis away from an artificial timeline and allow all students, from SPED to TAG, to progress at a rate appropriate for each student.

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