Support for proficiency-based learning in Vermont is strong in theory, but less so in practice.
That disconnect was highlighted at the Vermont Board of Education’s inquiry into proficiency-based learning held at Rutland High School on Tuesday.
The inquiry, part of the board’s monthly meeting, invited nearly two dozen witnesses to provide testimony about their experiences with the implementation of proficiency-based learning models currently being rolled out in schools districts around the state.
Testimony was given during two 2½-hour sessions Tuesday afternoon and evening. Witnesses included teachers, students and other experts in the education field. The public was invited to offer comment.
Proficiency-based learning, or PBL, is a system that assesses a student’s academic performance based on predetermined, personalized expectations, or standards. In this model, classwork is not averaged together; rather, it is used to track a student’s progress toward meeting or exceeding those standards.
Supporters of PBL tout its benefits in closing the achievement gap, promoting equity among students and improving learning engagement through personalized learning plans. The goal is to create opportunities for deeper learning in order to develop learning skills that extend beyond the classroom and will benefit students in the real world.
Critics, however, have expressed frustration and confusion over how effectively the PBL model translates student performance into a grading rubric that students, parents and colleges can understand.
Kate Toland, a social studies teacher at People’s Academy in Lamoille County, said PBL has produced “increased clarity” among teachers and students, adding that when students clearly understand what is expected of them, they can perform better.
Chris Whalen, an English teacher at Harwood Union High School in Washington County, said while he supports PBL in theory, he thinks “some of the practice is worth reconsidering.”
In his observations, PBL doesn’t produce as much “mental sweat” among students. “I’m not sure I’m seeing students consistently working harder under the new system,” he said
Student board of education member Sabina Brochu agreed with Whalen. She shared her own experience of being able to coast in some classes until the end of the semester because the proficiency-based grading model at her school only focused on the final outcome and not the work she does along the way.
A later testimony by Emily Rinkema, an instructional coach at Champlain Valley High School in Chittenden County, challenged Whalen’s mental sweat metaphor. She said making students work harder doesn’t necessarily mean they’re learning better or more.
Several students who testified gave varied but mostly positive accounts of their experience with PBL. Hope, a senior from Montpelier, who will attend Columbia University in the fall, said she has “thrived” under PBL. She said as student coming from a single-parent, low-income home, she has “relied on the infrastructure of public-school education.”
Trevor, a student from Rutland High School, said he appreciates the ways in which the flexibility of PBL has reduced stress and made expectations easier to understand. He also liked that PBG, which does not assign letter grades, making learning more collaborative and less competitive.
Student’s last names were withheld by the board.
But even PBL supporters acknowledged that the inconsistencies in translating PBL assessments into a final grade or grade-point average as some schools still do, remains a challenge.
The question of how to represent grades in a way that parents and college admissions departments will understand came up as a point of ongoing frustration though no solution was offered.
Stan Williams, an instructional coach at Champlain Valley High School, said proficiency-based grading didn’t create grading inconsistencies, it exposed them. He said the goal should be to “shrink” those inconsistencies moving forward.
During the public comment period, John Pelletier, a father of three from Stowe, cited research showing PBL’s failed implementation in other states, queried the cost to Vermont taxpayers and asked if there were any metrics in place to measure whether implementation has been a success of a failure.
Dan Cunningham, a parent with children in the Burlington School District, said that while the dislike for PBL may not be evident to the board, there is a “silent constituency” around that state that is unhappy with the “method of change.”
He commended the board for holding a hearing to solicit feedback, but took them to task for the lack of witnesses who were PBL skeptics.
While some witnesses at the afternoon session were occasionally critical, only Whalen explicitly expressed reservations with how PBL was being implemented.
Cunningham said that many teachers, parents and students will not publicly speak out against PBL out of fear of retribution by administrators who are in support of it. He suggested the board find a way to solicit anonymous feedback.
Williams, speaking after the public comment period, validated the perspectives of everyone who spoke for and against PBL as true. Even if they seemed contradictory, he said they represented that individual’s experience.
The inquiry was part of an ongoing effort by State Education Board Chairman John Carroll to make the board “more attentive to what Vermonters want us to know.”
“We want to gather a balanced view of proficiency-based learning from the people on the ground who are doing it,” said Carroll.
The board will present a report to the Senate and House committees on education in mid-February.