State Board hears from all sides in proficiency-based grading debate

John Carroll
Vermont Board of Education Chair John Carroll and other board members at a meeting in August. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

RUTLAND — Proficiency-based learning is a “radical, long-overdue change.” Or it’s a “destructive education fad.” 

At least that’s according to testimony the State Board of Education took Tuesday during a marathon hearing on the reform Vermont schools are trying to wrestle to the ground ahead of a 2020 deadline set by the state. 

The board took testimony on the new grading and performance evaluation system for six hours at Rutland High School from teachers, school administrators, students, and parents from across the state and both sides of the debate. Per state board regulations, Vermont high school students are expected to graduate this year in a proficiency-based system, but absent a strong hand from the state, implementation has been highly uneven throughout Vermont. And while some districts have embraced the change relatively smoothly, other schools have been beset with administrative debacles and community pushback.

The board is taking testimony as fact-finders for the Legislature.

Even advocates of the new approach acknowledged Tuesday that the change had not come without hiccups. But most urged state officials not to turn back too quickly.

“Implementation takes years. Probably our biggest failing in trying to improve schools is not to sustain implementation over a long enough period of time. Instead, we move on to the next thing,” said John Downes, director of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont, told board members.

States across the country are exploring proficiency-based learning, but Vermont is the only one mandating statewide implementation. Under the new system, schools can offer opportunities to retake tests, and grading is supposed to be tied to highly granular standards — not to how well others perform. The idea is to move schools away from the so-called “Carnegie unit” system, where students earn credits based on how much time they spend in a classroom.

Jonah Ibson, an English teacher at Harwood Union High School, told board members the new approach is “both radical and long overdue. Both simple and complex, and in the best interest of students.”

A key change, Ibson said, was that teachers had to think about what their role was in an entirely new way.

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“No longer can teachers see themselves as disseminators of information, and students as passive,” he said.

The state board includes two high school students. Sabina Brochu, a junior at Champlain Valley Union High, was one of the board’s most active participants, often interjecting to ask questions. And she homed in on a key concern – that, given multiple opportunities to do assignments and take tests, students aren’t trying their best or learning to manage their time.

“My grade here doesn’t matter, because in a month or two I’m going to reassess on this. So why should I put in a 100% effort?” she asked.

“I hear that all the time,” Chris Whalen, an English teacher at Harwood Union replied.

Trevor MacKay, a senior at Rutland High School, told board members he liked the new system and was in favor of more completely embracing the approach. He said retakes allowed both higher- and lower-achieving students to approach tests in a healthier way, that students had a clearer idea of what their learning targets were, and that the system encouraged students to collaborate, not compete.

But he also argued that the ad-hoc approach to the reforms taken at the state level was replicated within schools, and that policies around grading and testing often varied from department to department.

“The way that I described it to somebody is: standards-based grading needs standards,” he said. (Proficiency-based learning is also referred to as competency-based, or standards-based learning.)

Michael Thomas, an English teacher at Vergennes Union High School, said that while he was an advocate of proficiency-based learning, he was critical of the way it had been implemented in certain places. And he argued educators needed better, more comprehensive support.

“Training and support must be long term and more consistent than sporadic, one-time grant-funded opportunities, which is what most of it consists of. And it should consist of teachers working together, rather than outside experts coming in,” he said.

Thomas’ comments echoed results from a Vermont-NEA survey from the spring which found widespread dissatisfaction among educators about the level of preparation they have received to implement the reforms.

Jennie Gartner, a social studies teacher at Rutland High School, read a statement critical of the effort that she said afterward represented the views of well over two dozen faculty members at the school. The new system was more vague and subjective, she said, students were picking up bad habits, and overly complicated transcripts might put students applying to college at a disadvantage.

“Students have little incentives to meet deadlines, complete homework, and put forth their best effort on assessments,” she said.

Members of the Rutland High School student senate, meanwhile, testified that while they liked many aspects of proficiency-based learning – clear rubrics, more flexibility – they felt like the new grading system was demotivating and less fair.

“There are so many cons that outweigh the benefits of the system,” said senior Ethan Schmitt.

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Other critics were more categorical. Curtis Hier, a social studies teacher at Fair Haven Union High, called proficiency-based grading “the absolute most destructive education fad in my lifetime.”

“A generation or more will have their education jeopardized by this reckless experiment. And for what? The new grading system has not changed how teachers teach or how they assess. The emperor has no clothes,” he said. 

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is VTDigger's education reporter. Prior to Digger, Lola covered schools for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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