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What is Proficiency-Based Learning?

posted Jul 26, 2014, 12:32 PM by Todd West
A sneak peek at the next Mariner Moment article in the Island Advantages... 

Deer Isle-Stonington High School seeks to create a school that works for every student.  For us, this means that each student who enters high school earns a diploma signifying that the student is prepared for a variety of post-secondary options, including both college and modern, fulfilling careers. Proficiency-based learning, or teaching the most essential skills students will need and then making sure that students actually learn those skills, is an important component of such a system.  

There are two major differences between proficiency-based learning and the traditional classroom.  First, strong performance in one area cannot average out weak performance in another area.  For example, in a traditional English class, a student’s high grades on vocabulary tests might average out deficient scores in writing, specifically spelling, grammar, and mechanics.  As long as the student’s overall average is at least 70%, the student will earn credit and move on.  In a proficiency-based English class, a student would need to demonstrate proficiency in both vocabulary and writing in order to earn credit.  Even if the student’s overall average is greater than 70%, the student must demonstrate mastery of all standards in the course to earn credit.

Second, students must demonstrate proficiency in all standards in a course before moving on.  If students have yet to master a specific skill, such as using fractions in a math class, they must continue working until they can demonstrate that they have mastered that skills. Skill gaps are identified and addressed… no more passing the buck!  If a student doesn’t learn something the first time around, teachers keep working with the student but do not pass them on hoping the student will “pick it up later.”

Proficiency-based learning requires teachers to be very clear about what students need to learn. In every class, students and parents know precisely what teachers expect—no guesswork is required.  Common, consistent methods are used to evaluate student learning in a proficiency-based system.  While the learning expectations are fixed, teachers and students have more flexibility in how they choose to meet those expectations.

It is also important to note what proficiency-based learning in not.  While proficiency-based learning requires standards, the Common Core State Standards are not synonymous with proficiency-based learning- a school or community could base its system on any set of standards.  Proficiency-based learning is also not synonymous with standardized testing.  In fact, proficiency-based learning requires schools to develop more authentic assessments beyond just paper and pencil tests that more accurately determine if students have learned the breadth of topics taught in school, not just those topics on high stakes standardized tests.

Awarding proficiency-based diplomas is currently required by state policy.  However, DISHS believes strongly that proficiency-based learning offers a better education for all students- students who struggle in school, students who excel, and every other kind of student you can picture.  As a school, we are fully committed to providing an excellent education to each of our students, and therefore are committed to awarding proficiency-based diplomas starting with the Class of 2019 even if state policy changes- it is the right thing to do for our students.

We look forward to an on-going dialogue with students, parents, and the entire community over the next five years about proficiency-based learning.  We believe strongly that proficiency-based learning will improve the education we can offer each of our students- a goal shared that is shared by everyone in our community!
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