Helen Beattie: The importance of proficiency-based learning

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Helen Beattie, founder and executive director of UP for Learning (Unleashing the Power of Partnership for Learning).

[V]ermont’s decision to shift from a traditional to a proficiency-based grading system is essential to ensuring all youth reach their full potential. It is my hope that the Vermont National Education Association’s request to push back the deadline for implementing proficiency-based graduation requirements to 2022 does not diminish a commitment to this change. Here is why I feel so strongly that proficiency-based learning should be a hallmark of our state’s educational model.

Letter grades do not tell the whole story; proficiencies are a more accurate measure of learning. As a school psychologist, I saw far too many students lose confidence in themselves as learners because they needed a slower pace of learning in one or more of their studies. This may have been due to learning differences or a myriad of other life factors that interfered with their learning during that time period. These individuals had the capacity to master the material, they just did not have the time or support to do so given their immediate context. Once a student stops believing in his or her capacity as a learner, that loss of confidence charts a course toward increasing feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness and progressive disengagement. The traditional grading system feeds this downward spiral.

In contrast, proficiencies measure what you know and can do, providing a more accurate measure of learning. What is currently deemed as “failure” is actually an essential step in the learning process. In a proficiency system, there’s time for practice and learning from mistakes. Redoing work to reach mastery follows the natural learning progression. It also encourages learners to take risks as they master new skills and concepts. In this system, a student’s capacity as a learner is continually reinforced. Educators better understand their students and students better understand themselves as learners. Proficiency-based learning allows educators and the learners to identify their strengths and weaknesses to monitor learning progress over time. A math teacher at Champlain Valley Union High School described the benefit of proficiency-based learning this way: “For me, you get so much more information about what your learner has learned.” Students also become far more competent learners and share responsibility for their education. A recent Peoples Academy High School valedictorian recounted, “Whereas before, I was just thinking that I knew it because I did it, and there wasn’t any self reflection. So, now I have to be like, ‘Did I learn this?’ And I’m like, ‘No,’ I need to learn it again. I obviously didn’t meet the proficiency.’”

A proficiency-based system ensures all students realize their potential. My organization, UP for Learning, has been helping students and educators understand the power and rightness of proficiency-based learning, or “why” it matters. We initially produced an introduction to proficiency-based principles. We followed up with “Stories on the Road to Proficiency”  in partnership with the Vermont Folklife Center. The video provides a glimpse into four different Vermont classrooms that have fully embraced proficiencies. These videos provide ample evidence of the benefit of this more accurate and informative means to assess learning. In the words of Greg Shepler, a social studies teacher at Harwood Union High School, “This is a pretty significant paradigm shift for the students and the parents, and I’m also going to throw in there [that it] still [is] for a lot of teachers. It’s not what we’re used to. Students, teachers, parents and politicians—everyone—needs to be re-educated on this process […] needs to be open and give this new system an opportunity to prove itself.” I hope we can all support educators, students and parents as they do the hard work to shift to a new means of learning and assessment. It may take more time, but that will be worth it if we can ensure that in Vermont all young people are able to learn deeply and realize their full potential.


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