Op - Ed
May 9, 2018

“Proficiency-based Learning” reform lacks in proficiency

By Rob Roper

Vermont’s student test scores are falling. It’s no longer a blip, but a trend. As State Board of Education member Bill Mathis said, “When you have two different tests showing much the same thing, you have to pay attention to them.” Those two tests are the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), which both register across-the-board drops in student outcomes.

NAEP tests fourth and eighth grade reading and math results. The latest results from 2017 indicate declines in all categories from 2015. Three of the four categories were noted as “significantly different,” and not in a good way. The Smarter Balance test is given to all kids in grades three through eight, plus 11, and, again, in all categories except one the latest scores (2015 to 2016) show a drop.

So, what is causing this decline in public school student outcomes?

Several policies can be considered suspects. Act 46 (2015) has been hugely disruptive and time intensive for school boards and administrators, taking focus away from students. The growth of publicly funded and administered pre-K, implemented in 2007 –the number of Vermont students from these “high quality” pre-K programs, matriculating through the fourth grade and thus participating in the standardized testing, has been increasing every year beginning in 2012-13, and test scores have been dropping ever since.

But the leading culprit is the adoption of “Proficiency Based” graduation standards, which began in 2014 and is on track to be fully implemented by 2020.

Proficiency Based Learning (PBL) operates on the idea that it is better to track and report educational progress based upon whether or not a student has actually become proficient in the subject for which he or she is being evaluated. If the student is not deemed proficient, theoretically he or she will receive additional support to get up to speed. While this makes sound sense on paper, the problem is, it doesn’t seem to be working in practice.

One reason may be that adopting PBL is extremely disruptive. As one person testifying before the House Education Committee put it, “When schools transition to a proficiency-based system, it entails significant changes to how a school operates and how it teaches students, affecting everything from the school’s educational philosophy and culture to its methods of instruction, testing, grading, honors, reporting, promotion, and graduation.” As a result, “All Vermont school districts are being mandated to radically reinvent how they educate students….” It is arguably the most dramatic education reform attempted in the last half-century.

Vermont is not alone in its PBL troubles. Of the 15 states that use the SBAC test, four showed significant reductions in math and English scores. Three of them, Vermont, New Hampshire and Oregon, are considered “advanced” PBL states.

Another PBL state, Maine, which began implementing the program in 2012, two years before Vermont, is rethinking the policy. According to an article in the Portland Press Herald, Rep. Heidi Sampson, a former member of the state board of education, commented, “After six years, since it passed in 2012, we still cannot prove that there’s any benefit to this approach. There is no proof. … It has gotten to be such a complex monster. Our teachers are hogtied. Our students are not learning.”

We have no idea how much money Vermont is spending to implement PBL. The state has received significant funding from non-profit groups like the Nellie Mae Foundation and the Great Schools Partnership, two advocates of this education policy (just one grant for Winooski and Burlington was $3.7 million). The Vermont Agency of Education has never identified how much of its budget is allocated to implementing PBL but noted in testimony during a House Education Committee hearing that virtually all of its educator training budget is being allocated to this project. A recent editorial indicates that Maine has spent at least $21 million implementing PBL so far.

Apart from doing a disservice to our students in terms of outcomes, PBL also puts our college-bound kids at a disadvantage. Because proficiency-based report cards and transcripts are neither standard between schools nor common nationally, college admissions offices, especially those out of state, don’t know how to evaluate them and may not have the time to figure them out. Given how competitive college admissions has become, and how many applications colleges must consider, an unintelligible transcript from a Vermont high school could mean the application gets tossed aside. The odd grading systems could also disqualify high-achieving students from merit-based scholarships.

Though it may be unfair to brand PBL as a failed concept that should be entirely scrapped, we have to ask: why are we making our kids guinea pigs in a costly, radical experiment? Vermont has always been in the top in terms of national scores, with enviable high school graduation rates. While we always want to be improving the quality of our schools and providing our students with greater opportunity, PBL appears to be a case of over-eager reformers breaking things that didn’t need to be fixed.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

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