Myths of Proficiency Based Learning – Andrew Jones
March 17, 2018

Proficiency-based learning is not a fad, nor is it some wild experiment that only Vermont schools are attempting to implement. There exists a bit of confusion regarding the intricacies of proficiency-based learning and the classroom implications of the shift. This has led to a wide variety of myths, misconceptions and falsehoods being spread throughout communities in Vermont. Most of the persistent myths surrounding the topic of proficiency-based learning are not grounded in any sort of empirical research, but are really more associated with emotion. The reality is that proficiency-based learning is changing the educational landscape for the better, despite what some folks might tell you. Proficiency-based learning, also sometimes referred to as standards-based learning, competency-based education and mastery learning, is not entirely new. The track record for proficiency-based learning is decades long. Chugach School District in Anchorage, Alaska, has been successfully implementing proficiency-based learning since 1994. Plenty of literature is available on the success of countless schools and districts across the United States, representing everything from rural schools to large urban districts. More than 30 states have implemented some sort of state-level policy around proficiency-based learning, with more coming on board each year. In the most recent passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed as the Every Student Succeeds Act, provisions are included to support strategies such as proficiency-based learning and personalized learning. In short, this is a national phenomenon that is recognized as best practice.

Numerous books and articles detailing on-the-ground implementation in classrooms show that proficiency-based learning practices provide far better data about students, thus allowing more targeted interventions and supports, among other benefits. It is not difficult to prove that many traditional or legacy assessment and grading practices are flawed. Researchers such as Dr. Robert Marzano, Dr. Thomas, Guskey, Ken O’Connor, and others have shown for decades that certain components of classroom grading don’t provide much information about student achievement. Even worse, many practices, such as final and mid-term exams, the use of zeros in 100-point scales, and blending behavior, like timeliness, into academic scores, can all have disastrous effects on students. Despite the apparent flaws with some aspects of “traditional” grading and assessment practices, there continues to be some resistance to proficiencybased learning.

Some argue that proficiency-based learning isn’t rigorous or doesn’t hold students accountable. On the contrary, traditional practices hold a low bar for students that allows them to play the game of school. To be proficient doesn’t mean just getting all the answers correct. To truly be proficient or beyond, requires the ability to demonstrate mastery and to apply learning, not just regurgitate facts. It is sometimes indicated that no one knows what a “3.5” or a “2.5” equates to. Yet, despite the comfort of letter grades and percentages, the reality is that the use of those symbols within traditional grading structures does not give an accurate portrayal of student proficiency. Grading and assessment expert Thomas Guskey emphasizes that percentage grades on a 100-point scale offer the illusion of accuracy and precision, when in fact there is a high level of subjectivity and low level of reliability with grades. Though a 1-4 system seems less precise, when paired with scoring criteria and descriptions of proficiency, the feedback provided can be incredibly accurate and useful in helping improve student achievement.

Another common sentiment surrounding proficiency-based learning is that it is too easy and lacks accountability. Some believe that current school practices, such as increased amounts of homework or strict deadlines, hold a high bar for students. Grades have traditionally been used as carrots and sticks with students, which is a well documented fallacy. A growing body of research on student motivation and engagement has consistently shown that using grades as a form of punishment or form of incentive does not work as much as some people would like to believe. Some will argue that proficiency-based learning doesn’t hold students accountable, or isn’t like the “real world,” but the truth of the matter is that the world has changed, and so must schools. Doctors do not practice medicine the same way they did in the 1970s — new research informs practice. We must do the same in schools.

Another common myth about proficiency-based learning is that high school students will be at a disadvantage when they apply for college. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Nearly a hundred colleges, including elite colleges like Harvard and MIT, have signed onto a “proficiency pact” that essentially informs us that students applying to their colleges will in no way be negatively impacted by having a proficiency-based transcript. In fact, a growing number of colleges across the United States prefer a proficiency-based transcript. The reality is that admissions counselors already deal with a wide variety of application materials, including items from home-school applicants, private schools, public schools and international schools. As admission counselors have said repeatedly in Vermont and elsewhere, a proficiencybased transcript will not harm a student’s chances of being accepted into competitive colleges and universities.

Despite the myths surrounding proficiency-based learning, this education reform will continue to thrive, creating more equitable learning opportunities for students and offering all stakeholders a clearer picture of student achievement. The world is evolving, and it is clear that to better support students, we need better-quality data. The shift to proficiency-based learning requires a new conception of school that is significantly different from the past. Change is hard, and takes time. Vermont educators are responding with brilliant innovation to successfully make the transition to a proficiency model of education. Personally, I am glad that my children will go through school with this system of grading and assessment.

Andrew Jones is director of curriculum in the Mill River Unified Union School District in Clarendon.