Champlain South Supervisory Union parents saw some differences on their middle school students’ recent report cards, changes that reflect a push toward assessing student performance based on proficiency. Known as proficiency-based learning, or standards-based learning, this system assesses a student’s progress toward a predetermined learning target.
Champlain Valley Union High School already uses proficiency-based learning, and CSSU schools, which are future Champlain Valley School District schools, are in the process of implementing this program in middle schools across the district. The system will eventually include elementary schools as well.
Parents probably won’t recognize these new ways of evaluating students’ progress; for them, the changes in report cards, grading, and even what daily life looks like for current students can seem mystifying. Rather than having, for instance, a test on multiplying fractions on Thursday and that being the end of the unit, no matter if a student receives a D or an A on the test, students have ongoing opportunities to practice and master those skills until they are considered proficient.
Shelburne parent, school board member, and chair of the new CVSD board David Connery supports the new program from both a personal and professional point of view. “Looking at performance-based learning from the view of a parent and a board member,” he said, “this is preparing our kids for the future, and for actual experiences in the workplace. No one gets an 84 for their meeting score at work. Rather, they develop strong skills on collaborating and writing persuasive text. Because in the workforce that’s what it is about.”
Shelburne Community School middle school principal Allan Miller said that the change in perspective is what’s exciting for him. “What’s really important isn’t so much the change in the fact that the student will redo work; to me the big change is the focus on what we’re calling the proficiencies, or transferable skills.”
Real-life connections, he said, makes a huge difference when motivating students to try beyond their comfort zone. “If we make the learning genuine, and we can connect their outcome with learning that’s real—it’s not just a letter on a sheet of paper, it has some relevance to it,” he said. Students are able to take personal responsibility for their success, he said, with the support they need to do it well.
“Here’s honest feedback, and the work you have to do to get done, and we’ll hang in there until you get it right.”
Charlotte Central School co-principal Barbara Anne Komons-Montroll said that it is important for parents to know that PBL is research-based and was developed to help students not just reach a certain level of proficiency, but to go beyond that and take their learning deeper and farther.
“They have a voice, they have a choice, and they have ownership of their learning,” she said. Teachers arrive at student learning targets based on common core standards, Next Generation Science Standards, and other state and federal learning standards. Komons-Montroll stressed, though, that students are an active part of setting goals. She said that if both the teacher and the student are clear about what a student needs to learn, their path to mastering that subject is more definitive. Setting goals, she said, pushes students beyond mediocrity and into precision and clarity.
CSSU/CVSD Director of Learning and Innovation Jeff Evans responded to questions about the new system in a document prepared with CCS co-principal Stephanie Sumner. They said that PBL is not just a grading system, but “is a system of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that focuses on student’s demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education.”
In addition to training during their professional learning time, teachers will have support for implementing PBL in the classroom through two full-time coaches employed by the school district. These coaches meet with fifth- through eighth-grade staff twice a month. Individual schools also have on-staff experts, as well.
PBL falls under the umbrella of personalized learning plans, which are mandated by the Flexible Pathways initiative, a part of the educational quality standards established through Act 77, which passed in the Vermont legislature in 2013. The state mandate is that the class of 2020 and beyond are evaluated and assessed using this system.
Komons-Montroll said that the major shift in thinking with these new standards is away from asking the question, “Did the teacher teach this?” and instead moving toward asking, “Did the student learn this?” With this model, students are able to create a steady foundation with the material, rather than moving on simply because the time allotted for teaching that subject is over.
Connery pointed out that the mastery of important; practical skills will serve students long after they leave the classroom. “When kids learn these skills along with the building blocks that are knowledge, they are better prepared for the real world, not just given a bunch of facts and a vague plan on how to succeed.”
Evans and Sumner said classroom and school day life will adjust to this new model with different accommodations in class. “When students need a longer time to learn a skill or concept, that is worked into classroom instruction through differentiation, targeted intervention opportunities and WIN (What I Need),” they said. WIN time is included in the students’ days to give them the opportunity to re-do tests, papers, or projects that didn’t meet their target, as well as provides an opportunity for students who are working past proficiency to take their learning farther with more complex work or deeper material on the subject.
Miller said, “There are days when [the classroom] looks just like it did fifty years ago, but the challenge is, we’re asking teachers to take that learning and connect it to real-world concerns, real-world problems, and real-world solutions.”
One aspect of PBL that is still in development is the process of grading and assessing student work and progress; Komons-Montroll said she is scheduled to attend a training on the subject. CVU students currently receive number grades corresponding with their work. The challenge, Komons-Montroll said, is to balance “philosophical beliefs with practicality,” pointing out that the current system puts equal weight on work habits and academic achievement. Though both are important aspects of being a successful student, it’s not clear that averaging them together is a clear indication of a student’s learning and progress.
Though there is still much to figure out in the next three years, the school district is certain that PBL is a positive direction for students and teachers and will result in richer, more widespread achievement for all students within the CVSD. Sumner and Evans wrote, “The benefits to our students are instruction and learning that is better differentiated to meet students’ needs, while allowing students to explore some individual interests that connect with learning outcomes.”
Miller summed it up with, “The idea that you can add 2+2 is great, but what can you do with that? And how can it prepare you for life in some way?” Vermont educators are sure that proficiency based learning is on target to help students answer those questions themselves.