Roper: Proficiency-based learning not proficient

By Rob Roper

Vermont’s student test scores are falling. It’s no longer a blip, but a trend. As State Board of Education member Bill Mathis said, “When you have two different tests showing much the same thing, you have to pay attention to them.” Those two tests are the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which both register across the board drops in student outcomes.

Rob Roper

Rob Roper is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

NAEP tests fourth and eighth grade reading and math results. The latest results from 2017 indicate declines in all categories from 2015. Three of the four categories were noted as “significantly different,” and not in a good way. The Smarter Balanced test is given to all kids in grades three through eight as well as grade 11, and, again, in all categories except one the latest scores (2015 to 2016) show a drop.

So, what is causing this decline in public school student outcomes?

Several policies can be considered suspects. Act 46 (2015) has been hugely disruptive and time intensive for school boards and administrators, taking focus away from students. The growth of publicly funded/administered pre-K. Implemented in 2007, the number of Vermont students matriculating through the fourth grade, and thus participating in the standardized testing, from these “high quality” pre-K programs began in 2012-13 has been increasing every year, and test scores have been dropping ever since. But the leading candidate is the adoption of “Proficiency Based” graduations standards, which began in 2014 and is on track to be fully implemented by 2020.

Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) operates on the idea that is better to track and report educational progress based upon whether or not a student has actually become proficient in the subject for which he or she is being evaluated. If the student is not deemed proficient, theoretically he or she will receive additional support to get up to speed. While this makes sound sense on paper, the problem is it doesn’t seem to be working in practice.

One reason may be that adopting PBL is extremely disruptive. As one person testifying before the House Education Committee put it, “When schools transition to a proficiency-based system, it entails significant changes to how a school operates and how it teaches students, affecting everything from the school’s educational philosophy and culture to its methods of instruction, testing, grading, honors, reporting, promotion, and graduation.” As a result, “All Vermont school districts are being mandated to radically reinvent how they educate students….” It is arguably the most dramatic education reform attempted in last half century.

Vermont is not alone in its PBL troubles. Of the fifteen states that use the SBAC test, four showed significant reductions in math and English scores. Three of them, Vermont, New Hampshire and Oregon, are considered “advanced” PBL states.

Another PBL state, Maine, which began implementing the program in 2012, two years before Vermont, is re-thinking the policy. According to an article in the Maine Press Herald, Rep. Heidi Sampson, a former member of the State Board of Education, commented, “After six years, since it passed in 2012, we still cannot prove that there’s any benefit to this approach. There is no proof…. It has gotten to be such a complex monster. Our teachers are hogtied. Our students are not learning.”

We have no idea how much money Vermont is spending to implement PBL. The state has received significant funding from non-profit groups like the Nellie Mae Foundation and the Great Schools Partnership, two advocates of this education policy (just one grant for Winooski and Burlington was $3.7 million). The Vermont Agency of Education has never identified how much of its budget is allocated to implementing PBL, but noted in testimony during a House Education Committee hearing that virtually all of its educator training budget is being allocated to this project. A recent editorial indicates that Maine has spent at least $21 million implementing PBL so far.

Apart from doing a disservice to our students in terms of outcomes, PBL also put our college-bound kids at a disadvantage. Because proficiency-based report cards and transcripts are neither standard between schools nor common nationally, college admissions offices, especially those out of state, don’t know how to evaluate them and may not have the time to figure them out. Given how competitive college admissions has become, and how many applications colleges must consider, an unintelligible transcript from a Vermont high school could mean the application gets tossed aside. The odd grading systems could also disqualify high-achieving students from merit-based scholarships.

Though it may be unfair to brand PBL as a failed concept that should be entirely scrapped, we have to ask why are we making our kids guinea pigs in a costly, radical experiment. Vermont had always been in the top in terms of national scores, with enviable high school graduations rates. While we always want to be improving the quality of our schools and providing our students with greater opportunity, PBL appears to be a case of over-eager reformers breaking things that didn’t need to be fixed.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

3 thoughts on “Roper: Proficiency-based learning not proficient

  1. Hard to understand how schools have time to teach any reading or math at all when they have to spend so much time teaching social justice tactics along with every form of sexual perversion ever imagined.

    Considering the cost of schools, not only in Vermont, but nationwide, it is a source of considerable anger to see us falling further and further behind nations all over the world. A recent conversation with the India born C.E.O. of a major corporation was further disheartening when he revealed that students in India receive training in subjects in the 8th grade that ours don’t get until 12th grade……………if at all. Someone please explain to me why we continue to listen to these N.E.A. clowns who have been taking us down this failed road for the past 4 decades?

    • Re: “Someone please explain to me why we continue to listen to these N.E.A. clowns who have been taking us down this failed road for the past 4 decades?”

      Because the Vermont electorate votes for legislators who receive the majority of their campaign funding from education monopoly special interest groups. And the special interest groups aren’t just the NEA.

      The Vermont Superintendents Association,
      The Vermont Principals Association,
      The Vermont School Nurses Association,
      The Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators,
      The Vermont Association of School Business Officials,

      …to name a few who stalk their prey at the great education monopoly watering hole.

      Not to mention the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado in Boulder, a public school advocacy group partially funded by the NEA.

      And, oh, did I mention the NEPC’s Managing Director is William J. Mathis? You know…the same William J. Mathis who is Vice-Chair of Vermont’s State Board of Education (VSBE) and Chair of the VSBE Quality Review Subcommittee. Or that the Chair of the (VSBE) is on the staff of the South Burlington High School.

      So now you know why we (have to) listen to them. They’re the only game in town…which is unlikely to change in the near future.

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