• Sara Needleman

Beyond Outside the Box: A Different Look at Proficiency Based Diplomas

Teachers, schools and school districts approaching proficiency with profound dedication are forced to examine a range of questions the practice raises. Of course, many of those questions have always existed, but because proficiency includes a move toward increased transparency in student learning, it brings those questions right to the fore.

My last post, “Proficiency for All?” examined how we approach proficiency for ELL students and those who are in SPED. One of the central points in that post is that very few of our students actually require modifications to the curriculum, but many require accommodations. In talking with the people who helped me frame my thinking, I considered the fact that high school graduation requirements are fairly uniform. They are narrowly defined; especially given the breadth of diversity in our students and the skillful differentiation so many teachers employ in their classrooms. I wonder, given all this, if it’s possible to explore a more authentic approach to the high school diploma, an approach that replaces the framework of “four years” with a framework of “demonstrated learning”. Perhaps we need an approach that validates those students who, in a traditional system, would graduate with a diminishing asterisk beside their names, by instead honoring them with a diploma that fully celebrates their strengths, skills and unique accomplishments.

Should we do this? Could we do this? In exploring these questions, I spent some time chatting with Melissa Corto of Education Modified in New York and Matt Drewette Card of AOS94, a school district in Maine. Melissa’s background includes teaching special education in a NYC Title I high school for nine years. She is firm in saying the purpose of education is to get each child to reach her/his full potential, whatever that is. When she taught, she began with what was most critical in the worlds of her students. For some of them, that was skills like subway travel, being able to complete a job interview, or count change. She knew, though, that those life skills (or transition goals) needed to be balanced with academic goals. At that point in her career, she used the transition goals only as IEP goals. Now, she would like to see them in place as graduation goals.

She went on to talk about how students coming from severe trauma or extreme poverty also need different sets of skills to succeed. They need to learn to self-regulate and persevere. While she did not suggest that academic skills should be replaced by these more foundational life skills, it is difficult to see how, in the current one-size-fits-all model, a student with additional barriers to overcome can be expected to reach the same finish line, in the space of four short years, as peers who face far fewer barriers.

Melissa believes the idea of personalizing learning is important; this includes personalizing graduation expectations. The idea that a high school diploma can tell us the same thing about each of the students being awarded one is simplistic. For so many students, post-high school goals are more nuanced than what a diploma indicates. Her position is that there has to be a movement toward more individualized education and corresponding requirements for high school graduation. This nuanced approach is exactly what Matt and AOS94 are trying to implement.

The Curriculum Coordinator in his district, Matt explained to me that AOS94 is thinking about the word “diploma” in a different way from how they have thought about it in the past. Their aim is to honor the goals and scope of proficiency based education (PBE) with the understanding that proficiency is defined by content, complexity and autonomy. Matt says, “If our instruction and curriculum are changing, why would our diplomas not change? We are creating and designing a system to honor the growth of all students. They will have different pathways, and diplomas to reflect those pathways.” If you have a spare 2.5 minutes (c’mon, you have 2.5 minutes!) take a look at his impassioned video. Matt went on to share the idea that the diplomas students could attain don’t reflect a different slate of courses or course requirements, but rather different depths of thinking and varied levels of complexity. This first image indicates the different diplomas students might attain:

These different levels are based on increased depth and complexity of a student’s approach to the standards. The students are all working through required high school content, but toward varying levels of autonomy and complexity. If PBE is all about effectively communicating clear and accurate feedback, it makes sense that our diploma system honor that feedback.

In considering the proficiency based diploma Matt shared with me, he notes that for each traditional content area students would need to show at least foundational readiness as indicated by the green diamonds, while some show mastery as indicated by the red star. Here is a graphic Matt uses to show a student’s possible pathway through high school:

And finally, the graphic below helps us see where a student might be on the continuum at the end of her journey through high school:

If proficiency-based practice is about meeting students where they are, helping them feel invested in their learning and accurately reporting on what they have learned, then it’s time for our static high school diploma to gain some dynamism. Our field has great thinkers like Melissa and Matt (and so many others, too!) These thinkers have fresh and viable ideas. My conversation with Matt ended with his belief that someone else will conjure a better version of his idea. His hope is that you all will “chew on it, improve it. Just make it work.” Reach out to him @DrewetteCard, Weebly site, Teachers Guild. And please share your ideas with us as well!

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