• Sara Needleman

JumpRope's Proficiency-Based Transcript: Wisdom from Some Pioneers, Part 4 in a 4-Part Series

I believe firmly that we have a great deal to learn from careful consideration of history. The short history of the proficiency movement is no exception. In writing this fall series, I very quickly realized that some of the most useful thinking would come from those with lived experience. This final post is drawn completely from the dedicated conversations I had with three of southern Maine’s pioneers in the proficiency movement and specifically their experiences in moving toward development and use of a proficiency-based transcript. The wise words below are those of Ryan Caron, formerly principal of South Portland High School, currently principal of Windham High School, in RSU 14, Windham-Raymond. Wisdom also from Eric Waddell, formerly principal of Traip Academy, the public high school in Kittery, Maine, and currently Superintendent of Schools in Kittery, and also John Drisko, current Principal of Traip Academy. If you’d like to read any of the first three posts in this series, you can find them at post 1, post 2, and post 3.

What beliefs/philosophy guide your thinking in choosing to use a proficiency-based transcript?

Ryan Caron

  • The proficiency transcript provides additional, and more usable feedback. It shows proficiency relative to the content, not relative to peers or even to courses. I thought, “more information, how can this be wrong?”

  • The proficiency transcript still indicates all the information contained in a traditional transcript such as advanced courses, but it also gives a finer level of detail. For example, it provides opportunities for different designations within content areas as opposed to just naming classes. This level of specificity lends itself to endorsements such as STEM and Humanities. With a proficiency transcript, the reader can see a record of building to the high levels demanded by these endorsements over time, and within a given content area. That is more comprehensive than reporting only by specific courses.

Eric Waddell and John Drisko

  • Eric: This is a natural endpoint to our work. As a school that jumped in feet first to proficiency based education, it never seemed to be an option.

  • John: We chose to pursue proficiency based education, so the transcript seemed like a natural fit for our internal goals. In thinking about it now, this really lets the reader know what the student knows and can do. It reveals more information than a traditional transcript.

In what ways do you see your PB transcript benefiting your students?

Ryan Caron

  • The content of the courses is revealed with the proficiency transcript so those looking at it have a clear understanding of what the student has studied and how successful the student has been with that study. It goes beyond names of courses, which often don’t reveal much and sometimes even get in the way of understanding what the student has studied. The reader gets a deeper understanding of that student academically.

  • Habits of Work (HOW), included on a proficiency transcript, reveal important information that some schools and prospective employers are interested in having. They appreciate this information as distinct from academic achievement.

  • It’s worth noting that the admissions people at colleges and universities we queried indicate no drawback to providing more specific information, and in fact, many invite it.

Eric Waddell and John Drisko

  • Eric: Shifting to a proficiency transcript encouraged us to think about how to document all of our students’ learning experiences, including those beyond the classroom.

John: Those experiences can provide additional opportunities for students to exceed expectations.

Eric: Using the transcript helps us “knock down walls so we can accurately represent non-traditional learning experiences.”

  • Eric: College admissions folks are responding positively to Traip’s proficiency transcript. It gives them a clear and accurate assessment of what the students know and are able to do, eliminates the false perception that grades are sacrosanct, and eliminates the fog of grade inflation.

In transitioning from using solely traditional transcripts to using those and proficiency based transcripts, what have you learned? What advice might you offer?

Ryan Caron

  • Be sure to see the forest, the foundational tenets of proficiency. For example, it’s important to help teachers look at trending, to look at how students are actually doing in their class, instead of getting caught up in how to calculate grades. Let’s move away from grading based on a single test for example.

  • Examine practice first and make changes there, then look at how to grade and make corresponding changes.

  • Make sure you are clear on what you want to share, at what level you want to share, and your method for sharing. Get that message out soon and often and be sure to control it. Let the community know you have made this decision for very sound and carefully considered reasons and be steadfast in your support of the decision.

  • People sometimes move too quickly to the How and forget to go back to the Why or don’t adequately explain the Why. We can’t let them forget the Why. They will always get caught in the How. As soon as the conversation focuses on the scoring, your energy is in the wrong spot. Stay focused on clear targets, formative assessment, and repeated attempts.

Eric Waddell and John Drisko

  • Eric: Make sure college admissions people can work with your documents.

  • Eric: Internally we had no doubts, but we worked hard to keep parents on board as we developed the transcript. The transcript creates the most anxiety because it is perceived as so important (and it is, of course!). We needed to do what we could to put minds at ease around college entrance, and we certainly did not want to hamstring our students in the college admissions process. There is some degree of hyperbole around that topic. We know confidently that college admissions professionals are very comfortable with our transcript.

  • John: We met with our PBL Parent Advisory Committee regarding several topics. One of them was Latin honors designations. One parent actually looked up the numbers colleges use for this system and saw that there was wide variation from college to college. That bit of parent learning was very eye-opening for the group.

  • John: Another bit of parent learning came through the mom of last year’s valedictorian. She said she was worried about the transcript until they visited schools and heard from admissions officers. She became a vocal supporter and that helped a lot.

  • John: College admissions people are looking to include, not exclude. The transcript is one part of that process and perhaps a proficiency-based transcript gives more information to help make decisions for inclusion.

What cautions might other schools and districts consider?

Ryan Caron

  • Making a change to the 100 point scale or moving away from averaging right out front is threatening to parents. They want what is familiar. Making the change away from the 100 point scale too early in the process shifted the conversation from learning to how students are graded. That was not where we wanted to conversation to be. It was very hard to overcome the obstacles of that conversation.

  • The value and power of focused conversation is priceless to schools. Keep the focus on improving learning, instruction, and feedback as opposed to getting distracted by the grading. That is so much less central to what we do in school than the pathways to learning we create.

Eric Waddell

  • Don’t sit behind closed doors to make decisions. Bring the staff and the community into the process. Be open to letting their ideas impact your work. Don’t just have them on the sidelines.

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