School board tackles questions on proficiency-based learning

Dear Champlain Valley School District Community,

In this letter, we want to explain Vermont’s Act 77, a far-reaching legislation that mandates that we put student learning at the center of curriculum, instruction and assessment. At CVSD, we are in full implementation of Act 77, and are finding that it holds great promise for our students to succeed and pursue excellence as they become college and career ready. We sought out the Vermont Agency of Education and Jeff Evans, our director of learning and innovation, to help answer some of the questions we have heard you ask about Act 77.

Q: What is Act 77?
A: Act 77 became law in July of 2013, and was designed to foster a system of public education in which every student graduates, and every graduate is college and career ready. There are three pillars to Act 77: proficiency-based learning, personalized learning plans, and flexible pathways.

Q: Do other states have similar legislation or initiatives?
A: While Vermont is considered to be on the cutting edge of implementing proficiency-based learning, personalized learning plans and flexible pathways, as of April 2016, only five states did not have any related policies in place.

Q: What does proficiency-based learning mean?
A: Proficiency-based learning is any system of academic instruction, assessment, and reporting that is based on learners demonstrating proficiency in knowledge, skills, and abilities they are expected to learn, before progressing to the next level or challenge. Proficiency-based learning may also be referred to as mastery learning, competency-based learning or standards-based learning.

Q: What are the implications of proficiency-based learning?
A: Proficiency-based learning shifts attention away from what teachers teach, or cover in a class, to what students are actually learning. This shift requires teachers to focus their instruction on the specific elements of what a student is expected to know and be able to do from the state standards, and to clearly communicate these expected targets. Neuroscience has found that the brain is highly responsive to this level of focus and allows for better outcomes in student learning.

Q: How is student assessment and reporting impacted by proficiency-based learning?
A: Proficiency-based assessment provides a more accurate means of measuring student learning. Student learning is no longer measured as “seat time,” or the amount of time a student sits in a class, but is instead measured by a student’s demonstration of proficiency on specific learning targets. As a result, proficiency-based assessment systems require a shared understanding, by teachers, students and families, of the depth of learning necessary to demonstrate proficiency. In addition, proficiency-based assessing and reporting systems require a transparent method to determine where a student is along the continuum of reaching proficiency, and a simple method to report this information.

Q: Does proficiency-based grading look different in practice than what we have been accustomed to?
A: A proficiency-based grade is a more accurate reflection of what the student knows and is able to do. As such, a proficiency grade is not based on participation, timely homework and effort. These skills are valued as work habits, and are assessed separately with a separate grade. In addition, instead of an A – F scale, grades are reported on a four point scale of 1 to 4 representing approaching proficiency, nearing proficiency, meeting proficiency and exceeding proficiency.

Q: Are colleges receptive to proficiency-based grading and reporting systems?
A: Colleges, including the most competitive institutions, have made it clear that they are open to proficiency-based grading and reporting systems, and that proficiency-based diplomas do not disadvantage students. Furthermore, they say that they are accustomed to a wide variety of ways that schools report out on student skills and knowledge.

Q: With proficiency-based learning, are students limited in how much they can learn?
A: On the contrary, since proficiency-based learning requires that teachers use differentiated instruction, teachers are expected to meet every student where they are, and move them along the continuum, which includes exceeding proficiency. The VT AOE defines differentiated instruction as instructional strategies designed to help students meet or exceed proficiency that are based on individual learning needs and styles. The teacher provides choice, and exercises flexibility in methods of support, feedback, assessment, grouping, and instruction to create the best learning experiences for all student. Proficiency scales, also known as learning progressions, created by teachers, define what a student should be able to do and know as they begin to approach proficiency, near proficiency, meet proficiency and exceed proficiency. These scales are used as tools to enable students to know exactly where they are on the continuum towards meeting or exceeding proficiency, and what they need to know and be able to do to move forward.

Q: What are proficiency-based graduation requirements?
A: Proficiency-based graduation requirements are the locally-delineated sets of content knowledge and skills connected to state standards that, when supplemented with any additional locally developed requirements, have been determined to qualify a student for earning a high school diploma. Vermont’s Education Quality Standards require that schools’ graduation requirements be rooted in demonstrations of student proficiency, as opposed to time spent in classrooms. This requirement will take effect in Vermont beginning with the graduating class of 2020.

Q: What is the implication of proficiency-based graduation requirements?
A: The implication of PBGRs is that, beginning with the class of 2020, instead of students earning a minimum number of credits, based on “seat time” in a class, as the requirement to graduate, students will be required to demonstrate evidence of their proficiency in numerous academic areas, and in Vermont’s transferable skills. The transferable skills include clear and effective communication, creative and practical problem solving, informed and integrative thinking, responsible and involved citizenship, and self direction. These are life-long skills that cut across all academic areas and have been identified as necessary for success in college and modern jobs.

Q: What is a personalized learning plan?
A: The AOE defines a personalized learning plan as a blueprint that defines the scope and rigor of academic and experiential opportunities necessary for the student to successfully complete secondary school and attain college and career readiness. The AOE further defines that it will be created by the student no later than in the seventh grade, with the support of staff and family.

Q: What are the benefits of our students making personalized learning plans?
A: Creating a personalized learning plan is an enriching process that engages students in planning, connecting, reflecting, and sharing of evidence towards meeting their goals. Students are given voice and choice in determining meaningful and relevant pathways to reach and demonstrate proficiency. Through this process, students learn to understand themselves as a learner, including their preferred education style, where their interests lie, and in what areas they need to grow. The most significant outcome of the personalized learning plan process is students becoming empowered to own their learning.

Q: What are flexible pathways?
A: Flexible pathways are any combination of high-quality expanded learning opportunities, including academic and experiential components, which build and assess attainment of identified proficiencies and lead to secondary school completion, civic engagement, and postsecondary readiness. Flexible pathways allow students to apply their knowledge and skills to tasks of personal interest as part of their personalized learning plan, to meet proficiency-based graduation requirements.

Q: How do flexible pathways support student learning?
A: No longer is the time and place for student learning limited to being in a class at school. Instead, flexible pathways opens up the possibilities of where, when and how students learn. This means that students can choose to meet proficiencies through an authentic work experience, a service learning project, travel, an online class or a college course, and still be meeting the requirements required to graduate high school.

Kind Regards,

The CVSD Board of Directors
Lynne Jaunich, chair, Charlotte
Colleen MacKinnon, vice chair, Hinesburg
Josilyn Adams, Williston
Kelly Bowen, clerk, St. George
Erin Brady, Williston
Russ Caffry, Shelburne
Dave Connery, Shelburne
Ray Mainer, Hinesburg
Barbra Marden, Shelburne
Jeff Martin, assistant clerk, Charlotte
Amanda Marvin, Williston

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