Q&A: It’s About Time For Proficiency-Based Learning

EdTech, Learning, Online & Blended, PreK-12 / by

Diane Smith for the Business Education Compact (BEC) released “It’s About Time: A Framework For Proficiency-Based Teaching & Learning” this year in response to a need expressed by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), which identifies the ways that eliminating seat time and moving toward proficiency-based teaching and learning can improve student achievement.

The workbook provides a roadmap for proficiency-based learning with formative and “just in time” assessments, grouping, learner profiles, personalized learning plans, learning targets, and more. It couples activities in a blended learning environment to offer in-class review time, online learning tutorials, study packets, quick reviews, extended learning time, and flexible schedules for students.

Similar to the personalized learning plan outlined in the DLN Smart Series paper “Data Backpacks: Portable Records & Learner Profiles” produced by Digital Learning Now! (DLN), the workbook suggests Common Core aligned assessments stored electronically for district-wide use among administrators and teachers. DLN points to the ways that “Data Backpacks” and “Learner Profiles” can help teachers improve personalized learning from Day One with assessment data, learner preferences, etc., taking the concept of Smith’s electronic assessments steps further.

Smith takes a look at Robert Marzano’s definitions of “standards-referenced system” (progression through grade level, time and age) and “standards-based system” (progress through proficiency of knowledge) to identify the ways that a shift in district grading will create friction among parents, administrators, school boards, and educators. One of the greatest challenges she identifies is the risk of inconsistency and points to funding for frequent collaboration and professional development to alleviate this stress on the district.

For many states and districts, one of the greatest road blocks to proficiency-based learning are seat time policies. Smith offers solutions that change the way credits are earned, creating opportunity to earn credit inside and outside of the classroom. This encourages a whole new paradigm for structure of the classroom, making room for blended learning environments where students receive 1:1 instruction and media-rich learning time.

Smith answered a few questions for Getting Smart on the role of blended learning, badging and electronic records in proficiency-based learning:

SC: You spoke about leveraging online learning environments with independent work and personal tutorials. How do you see blended learning playing a greater role in the proficiency-based learning model?

DS: Blended learning can be a powerful tool in using proficiency-based teaching and learning effectively. Proficiency practices include a more personalized learning pathway, one in which the student has a more visible role in reviewing learning data and shaping activities and projects to show knowledge and skill. Because proficiency also pushes the barriers of time and space, allowing greater flexibility in learning environments, blended learning expands options for both the teacher and the student.

SC: You point to electronic, common assessments to test knowledge and proficiency consistently between educators in a district. How do you see storage of learner assessment data playing a role in personalized learning year-to-year for students?

DS: Districts who are sharing common assessments store these on a district server. There are several flexible options in how and when the assessments are accessed. Districts can do one of two things. They can push the assessments through to teachers’ electronic grade books with a posted date of completion. Then, the teacher adjusts instruction to administer the common assessment within the window provided by the district. This type of sharing is frequently done when districts want to collect data directly from the teachers’ grade books to determine how students are doing on a particular set of standards at a certain point in time.

Another option that districts use is to offer the common assessments for anywhere/anytime completion, allowing students to take the assessments when they are ready and prepared to do so. It is quite possible for districts to make these assessments available to students whenever the students are ready to take them. Students would have protected electronic access on a 24/7 basis, allowing them to personalize their learning pathway to the degree that they test when they feel confident about their ability to demonstrate proficient or higher levels of knowledge and skills.

SC: It’s About Time discusses the ways that grading will change due to proficiency-based learning. Do you think moving away from the letter grade system to a badging system would benefit proficiency-based learning models?

DS: I have read about several different systems that all referenced “badging,” with none of them sounding very similar. Without calling the outcome a badging system, what I think we all can agree on is that successful proficiency-based models result in important and necessary conversations about changes in traditional grading systems. When students are held to a defined level of knowledge and skill, they no longer chase points that are frequently a combination of academic and non-academic factors. These factors can include everything from regular attendance and working hard to having a good attitude and turning work in on time. These types of factors do not reflect knowledge and skill—nor should they be considered when evaluating a student’s academic achievement. Proficiency-based practices are being used successfully in many districts that have held on to a letter grade system.

Behind the continued use of the letter grades, however, is a significant amount of professional discussion and agreement on what level of proficiency is reflected with each letter grade. While many districts would like to move away from the historical letter grade model, there is significant valid concern about how likely higher education is to accept something other than an A-F system for consideration of scholarships, athletic eligibility and class ranking.

SC: How can parents help districts move toward a proficiency-based learning model?

DS: Districts must take the first step to engage parents in conversations about what a proficiency-based model looks like and the benefits of such a model to their students. Parents did not come through such a system and are justified to be skeptical and to raise concerns. Scholars have said that it will likely take at least three generations for the proficiency-based model to become the expected way of “doing school.” This is because we need to sustain these practices through the point when current students have left our system and are parents with their own children learning in a proficiency-based classroom.

Parents will value a more accurate description of what their students really know and can do as they understand the more detailed level of information that teachers have to share with them, and as they realize that non-academic factors, important though they are, cannot cloud the grades that reflect true academic growth. Parents can ask teachers what standards students must master, as well as descriptions of proficient performance. Parents can expect that teachers give them solid answers about how students are progressing on a learning continuum. They should be told whether their students are proficient in grade level standards or whether they need additional support or acceleration.

Parents can ask for documents that explain proficiency-based practices in parent- and student-friendly language. They can look for examples of how district resources, from money to personnel and time, are being reallocated to support these changes. And, most importantly, they can approach proficiency-based schooling with an open mind and an understanding that school cannot continue to reflect outdated and ineffective practices in order for each high school graduate to be college or career-ready.