• Sara Needleman

Looking at the Ingredients, Not at the Label

(Part I in a multipart series)

Last spring and summer I read a handful of local and national newspaper articles illuminating the friction caused by the shift to a proficiency-based model in education. What I read reminded me that there are strong opinions on all sides of this issue. It’s not those strong opinions that interest me, but, like other polarizing issues of our century, their suggestion of confirmation bias. As defined by Dictionary.com, confirmation bias is “the tendency to process and analyze information in such a way that it supports one’s preexisting ideas and convictions”. Let’s try to leave the names and labels behind and look at the practices and goals that either have emerged or come into sharper focus through the move toward proficiency. You decide: Are these practices and goals, divorced from their labels, worthy of consideration?

Elements common to proficiency-based practice:

According to a 2015 publication by Regional Education Laboratory at EDC, we don’t have a common definition for proficiency-based learning. In fact, across the United States, we use the terms proficiency-based, standards-based, competency-based, and mastery-based to mean the same things. Despite the absence of a definition, researchers have identified four elements common to the practice. Those four elements are (page i):

  1. Students must demonstrate mastery of all required competencies to earn credit or graduate.

  2. Students advance once they have demonstrated mastery, and students receive more time, and possibly personalized instruction, to demonstrate mastery if needed.

  3. Students are assessed using multiple measures to determine mastery, usually requiring that students apply their knowledge, not just repeat facts.

  4. Students can earn credit toward graduation in ways other than seat time, including apprenticeships, blended learning, dual enrollment, career and technical education programs, and other learning opportunities outside the traditional classroom setting.

The thread that seems to run through the four elements is the presumption that students should learn in order to be granted a diploma. Attending class and submitting assignments are vehicles for learning, not the determining variables for granting a diploma. Other vehicles for learning might include experiences beyond the traditional classroom. But in order to cross that stage at graduation, a student must demonstrate that (s)he has learned the required content. The second thread I see in these four elements is student-centered assessment. Assessments are administered to each student when (s)he is ready and in a way that both allows her to best demonstrate her grasp of content and that asks her to grasp that content at a moderately high rigor level.

Goals of proficiency-based practice:

In looking at districts across states in the northeast, we find some common goals for proficiency-based education. States included in a study conducted by Regional Education Laboratory at EDC and published in the 2015 report include Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. “Across these states, districts must define competencies for each course and establish assessment practices to determine when students have demonstrated mastery (largely done through teacher collaboration). (page ii)” The goals of defining competencies and determining assessment practices are several:

  1. “Increase graduation rates and bolster readiness for college or the workforce (by allowing) students (to) advance only after they have demonstrated mastery of content rather than after they have spent a certain amount of time in class.” (page 1) That is,some states are enacting reforms that require students to demonstrate mastery of defined competencies as a basis for issuing diplomas rather than using credits, seat time, or Carnegie units to define graduation requirements.

  2. “Meet the needs of students more effectively than traditional Carnegie unit and credit requirements by ensuring that the student understands the content rather than by measuring the amount of time the student has received instruction in the content area.” (page 1)

  3. Provide common meaning to high school diplomas across districts by “clearly articulating the standards or competencies that students must master to graduate.” (page 1)

In short, the goals common to these seven states in the northeast are to increase graduation rates, better prepare students for the challenges they face upon graduating high school, ensure that diplomas are issued for learning in class as opposed to attending class, and provide consistency in the meaning of a diploma across districts.

Of course the devil is in the details. That’s always the case. I do wonder, though, how much our education system stands to gain if we leave the labels behind and just look at the very essence of the practices and goals, in an effort to give our students the best education they can and certainly deserve to have.

Works Cited

Brett, Cox, Scheopner Torres. “Competency-Based Learning: Definitions, Policies, and Implementation.” Regional Educational Laboratory at EDC, 2015, http://ltd.edc.org/sites/ltd.edc.org/files/Competency-Based%20Learning.pdf. Accessed October 25, 2017.

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