Officials take stock of Vermont’s proficiency-based learning

South Burlington High School
South Burlington High School. File photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

Abigail Carroll is a reporter with Community News Service, part of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

When the class of 2020 arrived at South Burlington High School four years ago, the students were the first to encounter a new academic standard that administrators and educators had been working to prepare: proficiency-based learning. 

The effort began in Vermont schools a few years ago, and the specifics vary by school. Generally the idea is to put more emphasis on students’ display of skills when grading, rather than on their ability to answer a question correctly. 

So far, said South Burlington Principal Patrick Burke, the change has been a success. 

“I think it helps students understand where their strengths are and where are their areas for growth,” Burke said. “It also came with some degree of refinement of the curriculum, so that our discussions are really centered on learning as opposed to being centered on activities, or even grades.”

But the switch at South Burlington has been smoother than some schools, and lawmakers have raised concerns about the system recently. Proponents have maintained the state needs to keep working on it.  

Mike McRaith, assistant executive director of the Vermont Principals Association, explained that proficiency-based learning helps to give more transparency to students about their education, which increases equity. 

“When you have consistent expectations around building courses and learning experiences … that are transparent and well communicated, I think that that's better for students,” McRaith said.

The switch to proficiency-based learning began in 2014 under a new set of standards from the Vermont State Board of Education. The class of 2020 was the first class that had proficiency-based graduation requirements. Proficiency-based learning is also a key aspect of Act 77 of 2013, which aimed to support school districts in creating alternatives to traditional school learning experiences. 

At South Burlington High School, students still receive traditional letter grades and a GPA. But now students also receive credits for demonstration of proficiencies in different areas of each subject, which determines graduation. 

Burke found that having elements of the old system, with the addition of proficiency scores, helped parents and students adjust to the system. 

“I think once people saw elements of the new system that were recognizable to them and that maybe had some value within the existing system … that helped folks understand not only where we were going, but why,” Burke said. 

Burke said his school is “at the point of refinement.” 

“There was a lot of initial work, and that laid the foundation for where we are now,” he said. “And I think we are getting to a finer grain size of alignment and articulation.” 

Not all schools have experienced the same success as South Burlington.

McRaith said many schools started in different places, and that the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic affected schools' ability to implement the switch. 

And, he said, “since March of 2020, there's been a more urgent need with all the impacts and iterations of the pandemic. And so I think any kind of teaching and learning initiatives like proficiency-based learning likely took a back burner in most districts.”

Because of the challenges some districts have faced, lawmakers are continuing to evaluate the standards. Legislators on the Senate Committee on Education raised some of those concerns to McRaith during a Jan. 31 meeting. They spoke about how it is challenging for teachers, who are already overworked, to implement a new system. They also raised concerns about whether students are getting the same level of challenge out of the system and remaining competitive for college admissions. 

Despite the concerns, McRaith told lawmakers he believes that Vermont is on the right path. 

“I think sometimes we can have a tendency to work from a deficit about, you know, what's missing, or what's not working and what's broken,” McRaith said. “And I would encourage districts to build from what is working.”

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Abigail Carroll

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