• Sara Needleman

Proficiency for All?

How do we make proficiency work for all our students? I hear this question a lot. Although I have experience with students who were in SPED, I am not an expert. So, in order to begin to answer this question, I turned to people whose work with those two populations gives them far greater insight than I might have. The ideas you will read below are my attempt to synthesize what I have begun to learn from colleagues here in southern Maine. These people are Hillary Bush, School Counselor at Poland Regional High School (PRHS); Mallory Haar, ELL teacher at Casco Bay High School (CBHS); Megan Welter, Principal at Memorial Middle School and Melissa Corto, CEO and co-founder of Education Modified.

Most of the time, when people ask the question, “How do we make proficiency work for all our students?” they are thinking about the students who are furthest at the margins; those whose special needs or language skills demand an extraordinary level of support. This includes our students who need a great deal of support as well as our super high flyers. As we shift to proficiency in our schools we are obligated to find viable pathways for all those students, but since we know their needs present us with some of our greatest challenges, it makes sense to think first about the students whose needs are less demanding. The students whose needs are less severe are generally those for whom we can provide accommodations. We might accommodate our instructional strategies, the reading (have you seen Newsela?), classroom arrangements, and assessment methods in order to guide them toward proficiency. But, but the thinking assessed in the Performance Indicator or the target remains the same.

Mallory explains that at CBHS, the ELL teachers designate students along certain pathways based on the level of differentiation they need. In order to make these determinations, they look at testing from ACCESS, a student’s ability to read aloud and produce on-demand writing, and they talk to sending teachers. They consider all of this formative data to determine each student’s level of language proficiency with an eye toward whether or not the student can meet standards as they are written. Each student then receives a specific designation based on her/his abilities. Regardless of designation, the students are heterogeneously grouped in content classes, alongside their native-speaking peers, and they are working toward grade-level content standards. The only difference is they are working with adjusted language demands.

Let’s look at a sample Biology learning target: Explain how the structure of DNA allows for replication, storage of information, synthesis of proteins, and the possibility of mutations. Students with a certain designation might get a paragraph frame with sentence starters and vocabulary support to complete an assessment of this target. Another possibility is the student might be assessed verbally, if speaking is their stronger domain.

Mallory and Megan also spoke of the students whose needs are quite high. These are the students for whom we do need to modify or alter the actual target or Performance Indicator or the level of rigor at which we assess. In other words, unlike accommodations, modifications ask students to demonstrate proficiency at a different level, not just in a different way.

Megan explained that the students in her district whose IEPs stipulate modifications need to show proficiency in some recursive standards at each grade level, while they only need to demonstrate proficiency for others once. There is no case, however, where students get a “pass” on any of the standards. She emphasized a strategy of determining the “high leverage targets” to indicate meeting the standard as well as providing some focus for the IEP. She explains that “high leverage targets” are those that reach across content areas to complement or support one another; are called upon repeatedly within a specific content area; are clearly linked to 21st Century Skills; and/or are life-skills.

At CBHS, the targets or Performance Indicators are changed for students who have lesser language skills or who lack underlying proficiencies (background knowledge). Those students earn elective credit for that class. In these cases, the goal is to expose them to language, create meaningful opportunities to connect with peers and learn what they are ready to learn. This includes, at the minimum, foundational content, like how a bill becomes a law. These students also work in the mainstream, alongside their native speaking peers, only with highly differentiated instruction. Since students at CBHS need some elective credit to graduate, the course might “count” in that way. Or, that student might later retake the course to earn content credit. This approach then raises the issue that some students would take longer than four years to complete high school. The issue of the actual significance of a high school diploma, and figuring out exactly what our students should learn in order to earn one, is central to the whole premise of the proficiency-based movement.

Let’s be honest. These issues pre-date the proficiency movement, it’s just that they were well hidden by things like the Carnegie Unit and the elusive differences between high schools. It might be time for us to admit that slotting students into grade levels more closely affiliated with their biological age than their proficiency with content and skills is unfair and runs counter to what we know about how people learn. As Megan put it, “we need to help families understand the difference between proficiency-based and traditional practice and how proficiency-based actually serves the student better.” It forces us to look very closely at what students should learn, how they might learn it and how we can capture evidence of that learning.

Stay tuned for my next post which will pick up on the idea of what a high school diploma really should and might convey -- for any student.

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