A few years in, how is Vermont’s proficiency-based learning going?

By Abby Carroll | Community News Service

When the class of 2020 arrived at South Burlington High School four years ago, the students would be 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.”

South Burlington School District

South Burlington High School

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.”

The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.

Image courtesy of South Burlington School District

8 thoughts on “A few years in, how is Vermont’s proficiency-based learning going?

  1. I was on a school board when this came into being. At the time I thought it was a policy that essentially said, even if you can’t do the work, we grade you passing if you know how you should do the work. No one wanted to hear the reality that out in the real world, if you can’t do the work, you get fired.

  2. We invent dependent variables that are convincingly valid for the product/constructs we seek from instruction and the schooling enterprise. Did it work…what did we get? This attention to proficiency evidence is part to that quest. I would caution that all evidence collected across the plethora of dependent variables that have been invented across the history of Ed. Research, including this “proficiency” target, are products for an audience…parents. They are useful only when it comes to the prime dependent variable…are the customer/parents satisfied with what you’ve produced? Will they buy your service as useful in educating their kids?

    • Re: “Will they buy your service as useful in educating their kids?”

      This is the crux of the issue. The Smarter Balanced proficiency assessments are not the problem. They are a reasonable assessment of education outcomes.

      The problem is that only 40% of public-school students meet the standards.

      And the reason for the abject failure is precisely the fact that parents have no other choice in the matter. Parents can’t choose an alternative service anyway. This is what happens when the cronyism of anti-trust monopolies are allowed to function under government protection.

  3. The State of Vermont contracted with consultants for hundreds of thousands of dollars for PBL. They have seven PBL positions on staff. My school district has four PBL “coaches.” Will the teachers need coaching forever?

    With a 1-4 grading system, many students become content with 3s. Many parents and teachers seem content as well. I’ve seen it firsthand.

  4. Ask any teacher who’s been around a while, PBL is a JOKE and abandoned by most districts. Some pretend to hang on but all give traditional grades. MILLIONS upon MILLIONS wasted on this boondoggle that slows the high achievers and props up, without justification, the lazy and VT won’t let go or admit it was a mistake. No Democrat will ever admit they are wrong. No guidance initially from VT. Every district constructed its own policies (they stink) with countless PD hours at a huge expense. No consistency, no guidance, no results, huge expense, and who suffers??? The students and taxpayers. Maine started this woke experiment and they bailed out. Vermont won’t admit how dumb our leadership is so we persist.

  5. At SBHS students can not receive a grade below a 50%. If they do nothing and don’t attend class, they get a 50%, show up once, half ass a single assignment, then the student ends up with a 65% GPA or better and passes.

  6. Re: “Despite the concerns, McRaith told lawmakers he believes that Vermont is on the right path.”

    Oh, really. This is what the so-called ‘right path’ looks like.

    FACT SHEET: Vermont Agency of Education Releases 2021 Statewide Assessment Results
    Smarter Balanced Assessment Results

    Table 1: 2021 Smarter Balanced English Language Arts Results
    Grade Total Proficient and Above
    Grade 03 43%
    Grade 04 45%
    Grade 05 49%
    Grade 06 44%
    Grade 07 52%
    Grade 08 52%
    Grade 09 54%

    Table 2: 2021 Smarter Balanced Math Results Grade Proficiency Cut Score Average Scaled Score Total Proficient and Above
    Grade 03 42%
    Grade 04 38%
    Grade 05 31%
    Grade 06 28%
    Grade 07 33%
    Grade 08 32%
    Grade 09 30%

    Table 5: 2021 Science Results
    Grade Total Proficient and Above
    Grade 05 35%
    Grade 08 35%
    Grade 11 42%

    Apparently, our legislators will believe anything – perhaps because most of them are products of this ‘proficiency based learning’ program.


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