In working in three schools across the six years I’ve been in education, one thing I have learned is that proficiency-based education requires a shift in thinking. It seems as though I stick with a school long enough for teachers to hop on board the proficiency based education ship, and then I look for something new. So, here in my third time around, I have some clarity around the benefits of this different way of viewing education. It demands a completely new manner of teaching and viewing the educational needs of students today.
In the proficiency-based world, students don’t move on until they have proven that they can execute each skill and have mastered the concepts they are meant to master. This new model is different from our old paradigm which resulted in students moving from one grade level to the next with huge gaps. Often times, we must assess students on the same skill or concept more than once. More importantly, we have to assess using a range of different types of assessment tools. Some students are better equipped to demonstrate knowledge via a written response, others through a project, and still others with an oral response assessment. It’s not as though students in 2016 have a greater need to demonstrate what they have learned in more ways than their predecessors, but we teachers see that this is the best way to accurately assess what they have really learned.
At a recent staff meeting, we discussed that our traditional system, with an approach of stand and deliver to an entire class, work through problems together, and then give independent practice time, doesn’t work. We agreed that if our goal is to make sure all students genuinely learn the content, as opposed to a goal where we sort those who have learned it from among those who have not, we need to change things up. Some students will pick up on the new skill very quickly, some probably already know it, and chances are, this new grade level skill is way beyond a couple of students who are not at grade level. An open acknowledgement of this wide range of learners in our classrooms is at the heart of proficiency based education. Our recognition that students all learn differently compels us to provide them with options in our instruction.
While we need to provide a range of options in our instruction and in the ways students demonstrate their learning, we also need to strive for consistency in our grading practices. In my last school, we scored for a year and a half using only whole numbers: 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s, before we decided to add .5’s. My administration wanted to make sure we were comfortable, and above all else, consistent, in identifying the 1, 2 and 3. Later down the road, we discovered that using only 1, 2, and 3 scores didn’t adequately reflect the progress students were making. Adding a .5 reflected genuine student progress, and helped students see how close to that next score they were. The mindful use of the .5 gave teachers the flexibility we were ready for in our grading practices and it gave students the positive boost they needed to keep pushing forward.
One of the hardest shifts in thinking and therefore also one that required a lot of discussion around consistency, was for teachers and parents to realize that a 4 is not equivalent to an A. The traditional grading system scored both effort and accuracy, leaving a lot of gray space for students to be rewarded with an A. In a proficiency-based system, scores for content understanding and things like effort are sorted one from the other. Earning a 4 requires higher order thinking. Some skills, such as recall of facts, don’t reach high enough on the taxonomy of thinking to be scored as a 4. There is no higher order thinking required in the recall of basic multiplication facts as opposed to the thinking skills like “create” and “evaluate”.
This change in what “the best” looks like quickly leads to the struggle for how to recognize students who are high achievers. Honor roll doesn’t really exist in a proficiency based model since we assess students in comparison to targets as opposed to in comparison to one another. To address the honor roll question, some schools recognize students based on effort rather than achievement. This system might be more fair to those students who struggle academically but who put forth a great deal of effort. At my previous school we used effort to determine eligibility as well. This way, students who took a bit longer to understand, but who persevered and developed good habits were celebrated. The students who simply glided through mastery of content but didn’t build strong work habits had to change their ways.
The path to proficiency based education is a journey. It requires us to teach flexibly to meet the varied needs of our students and at the same time work collaboratively with colleagues to build consistency in our grading practices. We need to look at the difference between content mastery and work habits and figure out how to honor each appropriately. And we need to know that the changes that come with proficiency help all of our students get to their next steps.
Molly Brewer is a 3rd grade teacher at Sheepscot Valley RSU #12 in Maine.