On February 20, 2019

Delay of proficiency-based learning mandate sought

By Lola Duffort/VTDigger

The president of the Vermont-NEA asked lawmakers to consider pushing back the deadline for implementing proficiency-based graduation requirements in the state’s high schools to 2022.

Proficiency-based learning asks that student progress be assessed on the skills they can show they have, not seat-time in a classroom. The state’s Education Quality Standards, which were adopted by the State Board of Education, require that Vermont students graduate based on demonstrated “proficiencies” by 2020.

The mandate has transformed the way educators teach as well as the report cards and transcripts students take home. But the shift has not been without controversy in many communities, and in Maine, once considered a trailblazer in proficiency-based reforms, lawmakers recently scrapped the state’s requirement that schools move to the new system.

Lawmakers in Vermont haven’t introduced any bills considering a rollback so far. But as the 2020 deadline approaches, legislators have been taking testimony from education officials to check in on progress.

VT-NEA president Don Tinney told lawmakers last week that the new system has been unevenly rolled out across the state’s schools, creating a significant amount of confusion for teachers, parents and students.

“It’s a cliche to say that the devil is in the details, so I will say that the snafus are in the implementation,” Tinney told the House Education committee Tuesday.

Tinney said he planned to ask the union to survey its 13,000 members to get more comprehensive feedback on the subject, and that he would hesitate to reach any “general conclusions” about the reform until he had seen the results.

But Tinney also expressed skepticism about a proficiency-based system, whose merits he said were, for the time being, largely unproven. He emphasized that districts were “all over their map” in their application of the mandate.

“Anyone would be hard-pressed to find any two school districts that have implemented this new approach in the same way,” Tinney said.

Jay Nichols, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, testified last week that most high schools had partly or completely converted to a proficiency-based system. But he agreed that schools were taking vastly inconsistent approaches from one another, and said in an interview that he didn’t have a problem with the concept of a delay, especially if it came with additional resources and guidance from the state for lagging districts.

“I’d rather have it done well rather than haphazardly,” he said.

State Board of Education Chair Krista Huling, who teaches in South Burlington, said the board has been talking about revisiting the Education Quality Standards in general anyway. She, too, acknowledged that nearly every district has approached proficiency-based learning in a different way.

“For years, on the state board, we’ve talked about the need for more guidelines,” she said.

She also argued that many of the changes schools are making – like converting from traditional letter grades to a 1-4 numbering system for measuring learning – aren’t actually mandated by the board’s rules.

Huling also cautioned that educators often feel new reforms are started and then quickly dropped before being fully implemented in a “treadmill of initiatives.” Postponing the deadline, she said, might not solve the problem of uneven implementation.

“I do worry about delaying and creating more ambiguity instead of less,” Huling said.

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