July 18, 2018
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Why proficiency-based education is so important

Erin Rhoda | BDN
Erin Rhoda | BDN
From left, Bella Koppes, 7, of Bucksport, and Aeryn Martin, 7, of Prospect, do math problems at Miles Lane School in Bucksport in this photo taken Oct. 27, 2017. The school has been transitioning to a proficiency-based learning system where students must show they have learned key educational objectives to progress through their education. "I need a little bit harder in math because I like math, and I get it done quick," Koppes said.
By Flynn Ross, Special to the BDN
Updated:

The promise of proficiency-based learning is that all students will meet expectations set forth in standards and achieve proficiency. This is a noble goal that no society in the history of the world has ever achieved. For most of human history, there were no schools, then only the elite learned to read and write with private tutors. Public schools in the U.S. are less than 200 years old, and they were designed to assimilate and civilize the masses and those who couldn’t succeed in school would go work.

Our shift from an industrialized society to an information society with an aging workforce requires that all of our children are educated to be highly literate, technologically savvy, able to analyze multiple sources of data on all sorts of topics, work well with others, communicate effectively, and be involved citizens. These are what are laid out in the Maine Guiding Principles and learning standards.

Now, we need to support schools in meeting proficiency-based diplomas.

There are some changes needed to the requirements for proficiency-based diplomas. The policy and public must ensure that students have the opportunities to reach proficiency. For example, in world languages, many school districts currently are not able to provide six to eight years of regular instruction in a second language for students to become proficient. Schools and teachers must be provided the time to meet with students who need additional help meeting standards, and they must be able to hold students accountable for studying and attempting to meet those standards.

But there are some great things happening in Maine’s public schools. In districts that have adopted and are working through the kinks of proficiency-based learning, I have talked to many students who are clear about what they are learning and why. I’ve seen fourth-graders who know they have met the standard but see the “4” — exceeds standards — described on the rubric and say enthusiastically, “I want to get a ‘4.’ I’m going to…”

For students who are struggling, I’ve seen a local high-poverty, high-transiency rate district where 30 percent of the freshman had to return for summer school to meet math standards. Speaking to some of the students, they didn’t want summer school but were really clear: “I have these three standards to meet so I can do that in the first week or two and be done.”

The teachers I work with are monitoring students’ progress every day and will group and regroup students based on their needs and work with students on certain skills during intervention times or refer students for additional services through the Response to Intervention system if needed. These schools have provided teachers the key to success in proficiency-based learning systems — more time for students to learn.

There are ways that this shift to proficiency is working well. Maine has its highest rate of high school graduation ever at 88 percent (2014-2015), which is tied with several other states in the top 10 in the nation. Maine students perform very well in comparison to other states and nations, with eighth-graders scoring fifth in the nation and ninth in the world in science and seventh in the nation and 13th in the world in math in 2011 the last time international tests were compared on the state level.

Yet, we often hear that our schools are failing with only 38.54 percent of our students proficient in math and 52.56 percent proficient in English language arts 2016-2017 as measured on the Maine Educational Assessment. But Maine students perform better than national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The problem is with the definition of proficiency, or lack of a definition. This is a responsibility of the Maine Department of Education to work with educators and the public to set minimal common standards for high school diplomas and allow local control for determining how schools will meet or exceed that standard.

State coordination of minimal expectations and supports for districts is necessary for state success in transforming schools from a 20th-century education model of sorting leaders from factory workers to a 21st-century education model of high expectations for all students. Many others states are also involved in this shift to proficiency-based learning, which is often called competency-based learning. Some states like New York and Massachusetts have decided every student will take exams in each subject area called Regents Exams or the MCAS to determine proficiency for a high school diploma. Others like New Hampshire are building local capacity to develop performance assessment systems.

We need further support and time to ensure the successful implementation of proficiency-based diplomas as proposed by Rep. Tori Kornfield of Bangor and co-sponsored by several other representatives who are thoughtfully listening and responding to their constituents.

Flynn Ross is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. These views are her own as she is not authorized to represent the university or the University of Maine System. She is co-coordinator of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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