SAD 61 inches closer to proficiency-based diploma

p1-lake-region-proficiency-based-learningBy Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

In the near future, students will need to prove they have learned the skills necessary to attend college or enter the workforce before they are handed a diploma.

Gone will be the days when a student simply earns a 70 — a passing grade — and moves on. Instead, students will need to prove they can successfully write a well-constructed essay or reach a desired conclusion.

Proficiency-based learning is on the horizon, and Lake Region Principal Erik Good is excited about the prospect of all students eventually leaving the school with “cups full (meeting all standards), not empty (not possessing all skills).”

Good pointed out that a big reason he decided to apply and accept the principal’s job at Lake Region High School was the opportunity to move the school to proficiency-based learning.

“After a year here, what I found was we are a lot further along than we thought we were,” he said.

Good added that while the work is specifically targeting the high school level, the idea of proficiency learning must trickle down to all levels as a K-12 project.

SAD 61 is moving closer to switching to a proficiency-based diploma, which the state has mandated to be in effect when the current eighth grade class enters high school.

So, what is proficiency-based learning?

Good walked the school board through “what it will look like” with a power-point presentation — “Full Cups or Empty Cups” — at their Aug. 29 meeting held at Lake Region Middle School.

“I get asked that question a lot — how to define it. When talking about it, you might also hear competency-based (New Hampshire) or mastery-based (Rhode Island) learning,” he said. “Proficiency-based learning is teaching, assessing, grading and academic reporting focused on students proving they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education.”

While that definition may be somewhat long, Good said the simple approach is “proficiency = proving.”

“It’s about proving what you have learned,” he said,

The next question is “why?”

One reason schools are shifting to proficiency-based diplomas is that it is the law (all Maine schools must be following proficiency-based diploma by 2021).

Secondly, maybe more importantly Good said, is that this system ensures all students meet expectations.

So, how will Lake Region H.S. be sure students leave with “full cups?” These “principles,” which schools across the country have been using to be sure students possess necessary skills to be successful in today’s highly competitive and complex world:

  • Clear learning expectations — making sure that learning expectations are clearly and consistently communicated to students and families. Expectations are based on standards, and to meet the standard, students must successfully complete performance indicators.
  • Common standards — same expectations for all students. They have the opportunity to earn the best grade possible, but at least the expectation is the same for everyone. The standard “is spelled out, no surprises.”
  • Reporting on standards — student progress is determined by measuring and reporting on their proficiency in standards.

Lake Region Vocational Center has been working with standards-based since the 1960s, LRVC Director Rosie Shacht said.

“All of our standards coming from industry and business. Certifications prescribe what students need to know to earn that certification,” she said. “We’re glad everyone is jumping on board.”

  • Learning checks — also called “formative assessments,” learning checks measure progress regularly and help teachers and students adjust to meet expectations. At key points, learning checks are a “gateway” where students prove if they are ready for a demonstration task. Learning checks are not a part of a student’s final grade.

“If you are learning a new skill in math, if we make mistakes, we fix the mistake, we practice the skill more, and then we take a quiz — the learning check,” Good said. “Mistakes on the quiz, you then ask for help, fix the mistake, practice, then another quiz.”

The gateway is a point where a student learns whether he or she has mastered the skill or needs more practice.

“If you can do this one, you are ready for the big project,” he said. “If you can’t, we need to go back and practice some more. It is an important idea. You made it or you need to practice more.”

No more passing a student along.

  • Demonstration tasks — When gateway checks show students are ready to prove their proficiency, tests, projects and other assessments measure student achievement and prove that students are ready to move on to a new topic or a new level.
  • Multiple opportunities — Students have multiple opportunities to improve when they fail to meet standards whether in learning checks or in demonstration tasks.

“In order to get full cups, we have to embrace the idea that multiple opportunities are needed. We are not sitting students in front of demonstration tasks until they have proven to us they may be ready. Sometimes, they will panic or sometimes the gateway check wasn’t as good as we thought it would be. When that happens, we need to get to reflection. Ask the student what they did well and what they struggled with,” Good said. “The student is also asked what they could have done differently in order to meet expectations. How well did I study? We need a plan. What do I need to practice and where are my opportunities to practice? It is absolutely crucial — recognizing why you made a mistake and how to correct it.”

  • Separation of academics and habits — Academic progress is measured and reported separately from students’ habits of learning.

Habits of learning are good citizenship, productivity, effort, interpretation and participation.

“If we are going to give kids feedback, it needs to be specific,” Good noted.

  • Grades as feedback — The purpose of academic and habits of learning scores is to give students and parents feedback on successes and on next steps for improvement.

Again, specific feedback is needed regarding the grade — what was done well and what needs to be worked on.

One question often asked about proficiency-based learning is how will it affect college applications?

Good said it will not affect college acceptances and admissions.

“Colleges get it,” he said. “I can say from personal experience that I had a student apply to Yale with a mastery-based diploma in Connecticut and got in.”

More and more colleges are readily looking at proficiency-based grading when it comes to student acceptances.

“If done right, these grades give more information,” Good said.

What about honor roll, grade point average and class ranks?

This year, LRHS will convert to a 0–100 grade and calculate as done in the past. In the future, LRHS will propose a new four-point calculation (a one-to-four scale). There will be a conversion scale “that will lean in students’ favor” until the school is fully converted over.

More work is ahead, but proficiency-based learning and a proficiency-based diploma is on the horizon.

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