Woodstock — Woodstock Union Middle School student Carolyn Leibly, normally an A student, thought she was doing everything she needed to do to continue her success in school this fall.
But, when first quarter grades came out, she had a bunch of B’s.
“I’ve been proficient on everything,” her father, Frank Leibly, recalled her saying in a recent phone interview. “Why am I getting B’s?”
Subsequently, Leibly and his wife met with Carolyn’s teachers and learned she needed to aim higher to earn the grades she wanted.
The Leiblys were not alone in their confusion this fall after the Woodstock Union middle and high schools began to roll out a proficiency-based grading system.
Instead of receiving traditional letter grades, students in seventh and eighth grades, and in ninth grade in the core courses of science, social studies and English, were evaluated in certain skills by their mastery — beginning, approaching, proficient and distinguished.
Woodstock’s change in its grading system is linked to an imminent statewide change in graduation requirements and an accompanying push to emphasize a more personalized approach to teaching and learning.
If Woodstock’s recent experience is any guide, other Vermont school districts should expect hiccups during the transition.
A Break From Tradition
In a proficiency-based system, teachers rely on standards such as the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards and state Education Quality Standards to determine which skills they expect students to master. They use rubrics and “I can” statements to show students what they need to be able to do to become proficient in each skill.
For instance, Woodstock ninth-grade science teacher Jennifer Stainton wrote three learning targets on a whiteboard in her classroom during a lesson last month:
“I can create a model of one factor’s influence on Earth’s climate and energy budget.”
“I can ID factors that influence climate and energy budget.”
“I can make a claim backed by evidence for the reason behind the ‘wobble’ in Keeling’s curve.”
Students receive several opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and are required to demonstrate their mastery of each skill repeatedly to establish their proficiency.
An assessment of “distinguished” — what Carolyn needed to maintain her A average — means that a student has mastered a skill and taken it to the next level, perhaps by applying that skill in a variety of contexts or in a sophisticated manner.
Ultimately, the goal is to have all Vermont students, beginning with the class of 2020, become proficient in a certain set of these skills by the time they graduate. The requirements will be set by local school boards but guided by state and national standards.
Educators describe the change in graduation requirements mandated by Act 77, which the Vermont Legislature passed in 2013, as a shift away from using “seat time” as a measurement of success to an achievement-based method of evaluating students’ abilities. It aims to help students identify and fill in knowledge gaps as they go.
“The promise of the whole approach has to do with what happens in the classroom,” said Page Tompkins, executive director of the Upper Valley Educators Institute.
While all Vermont schools are required to develop proficiency-based graduation requirements, some schools, such as Woodstock, are also moving to a proficiency-based grading system.
As schools move to a proficiency-based system, teachers have come to realize, “Wow, these (old) systems do not represent the quality of the work that we’re doing with students,” Tompkins said.
A traditional grade combines skills in a specific subject area with other factors such as attendance, the ability to meet deadlines or completing extra-credit work, Tompkins said.
“It doesn’t provide a picture of what does the student know and what are they able to do,” Tompkins said. “Grades are often (left to the) judgment of a particular teacher.”
Pushback From Parents
In Woodstock, the shift spurred anxious parents to speak out at School Board meetings, it contributed to a long-time middle school administrator’s decision to depart at the end of the year, and it hastened a merger of the middle and high schools.
“The communication piece has been rocky,” Windsor Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Alice Thomason Worth said in a phone interview in March. “It’s very complex. Some folks got information that they didn’t really understand. … Ready, fire, aim. There’s some of that. That typically happens with something like this.”
Middle School Principal Dana Peterson introduced the idea of proficiency-based grades to middle school parents in an Oct. 12 letter.
“Our focus is to support and guide students towards individual mastery of content and concepts as well as help them develop into respectful, responsible and engaged learners who commit to setting, striving and persevering to achieve goals,” he wrote.
Not much time passed before parents complained that their previously high-achieving children were confused about teachers’ expectations and that they were worried about how proficiency-based transcripts might be received by admissions officers at elite colleges and by future employers.
“Kids were confused,” said Woodstock parent Mark Lackley in a recent phone interview. “My daughter Jane (a seventh-grader) started bringing home things that I didn’t recognize as part of normal grading that I was used to.”
To complicate matters, different teachers were using the language of proficiency in different ways.
Keri Bristow, a longtime Woodstock middle school and high school language teacher and president of the teachers’ association, said language teachers have long used standards to guide their teaching. What was new at the beginning of this year was converting a numeric grade on a 100-point scale to the four-point proficiency scale in which 1 denoted “beginning,” 2 was “approaching,” 3 was “proficient,” and 4 stood for “distinguished,” she said.
Doing so involved picking a number — say 87 or 89 — to use to describe proficiency, she said in a recent phone interview.
Worth found that middle school teachers were using at least six different methods to convert a percentage calculation to a proficiency notation, she said in a February report to the School Board. In some cases, teachers were using both percentages and proficiency notations on students’ work, she wrote.
In addition to the initial confusion, Lackley said, he was frustrated to learn that the change, at least at the middle school, had been implemented without consulting the broader community.
Leibly said the message Carolyn was getting was that she shouldn’t be worried about grades and she should just focus on learning.
But, he said, “grades also matter,” if only to help parents track their children.
“I don’t sit in class with my daughter every day and see her learning,” he said. “It’s a window that I get that should be objective. ... It tells me how she’s learning (and) how effective she’s been at her learning.”
As a result of feedback from the community, Peterson sent out a second email less than a week after his first one: Letter grades would continue to be used, he announced.
Confusion among parents, students and School Board members persisted as students continued to receive feedback from teachers that used the language of proficiency sometimes mixed with traditional percentage or letter grades, spurring further discussion as recently as a February School Board meeting.
Lackley, who the board appointed to participate in a working group to help advise the high school’s transition to proficiency-based grading in November, said the high school, which so far has proficiency-based grades only for the ninth-grade core courses of English, science and social studies, is moving in the right direction.
The middle school is another story, he said at a February meeting.
Despite the administration’s decision to stop using proficiency-based grades in the middle school in October, Lackley said his daughter was still receiving proficiency-based grades from her teachers in February.
“My kid gets proficiency-based grades every day,” he said. Such grades are “clumsily translated to letter grades at the end of the term. … This is a mess.”
Lackley pinned blame on the administration, not teachers.
Peterson defended the decision to shift to proficiency-based grading at a Feb. 8 meeting by saying it was a logical next step. The teachers have been using standards-based rubrics for many years, with different teachers converting students’ degrees of proficiency to numerical or letter grades in different ways, he said, according to a video of the meeting.
“There has always had to be a conversion of what students were doing on rubrics,” Peterson said at the meeting. “It depended on each individual teacher in terms of how they were arriving at grades.”
Peterson informed the School Board in a letter dated Feb. 13 of his decision to leave his post at the end of the school year.
School Board member Jim Haff, of Killington, Vt., said this discrepancy in the grading practices of different teachers was confusing.
“There’s a misunderstanding in seventh and eighth grade of how a student can get the highest grade that’s allowable in that class,” Haff said at the February meeting.
Worth defended the grading system shift at the February meeting.
“Anyone who deeply understands the underpinnings would never question why we’re going there,” Worth said. “Our previous systems are idiosyncratic and don’t speak to each other from class to class, grade to grade.”
Worth acknowledged concerns from parents and board members about inconsistencies in the rollout of the new grading system in the middle school.
“It was too soon for them to be describing student work and student performance in the context of proficiency,” Worth said in the phone interview.
Following the meeting, Worth asked middle school teachers to return to the 100-point numerical scores or letter grades they had been using.
Board members in March accepted Peterson’s letter announcing his departure and voted to merge the middle and high schools together.
Also last month, the School Board gave Smail conceptual approval to expand a proficiency-based learning ninth-grade pilot program next year to all courses and to 10th-grade English, science and social studies courses.
A Larger Shift
Since last June, Smail and a team of teachers have overseen the pilot program, exploring proficiency-based learning and grading and informing the board as it prepares to set proficiency-based graduation requirements, in compliance with Act 77.
The pilot program aims to clearly outline which standards teachers are trying to teach, how students understand what’s expected of them, how their performance is graded and the technology necessary to switch the whole school to a proficiency-based system, Worth said.
In theory, evaluating students’ progress in this way can make it easier for students to demonstrate proficiency in various settings, allowing them to customize their learning along the way, another goal set by Act 77. For example, a student might demonstrate her understanding of the nature of matter while making glass at Simon Pearce, Smail said.
“High school shouldn’t feel like just a march through a predetermined sequence,” Smail said in an interview last month.
Proficiency-based learning is one of three related elements of change going on in Vermont schools at the same time, said Alan Tinkler, a University of Vermont assistant professor of education. The other two are flexible learning pathways and personalized learning plans, he said. The shift in students’ understanding of what they know and how they learn best will help them to take charge of their own learning, he said.
“In terms of school remodeling, advancing meaningful learning experiences, structured through teachers … we haven’t seen anything like this,” said Tinkler, whose research focuses on community-engaged practices for meaningful learning, including service learning and internships.
In contrast with high-stakes testing, proficiency-based learning helps students understand how they learn across different disciplines, Tinkler said.
While proficiency-based grades and transcripts may look unfamiliar to some college admissions officers, when combined with personalized learning plans and flexible pathways to graduation these new ways of reporting student achievement will give colleges more information about a student and his or her plans for the future, such as their field of interest, Tinkler said.
Nearly 70 New England institutions, including Harvard, MIT and the universities of Vermont and New Hampshire, have signed formal statements saying that students coming from high schools with proficiency-based grades and transcripts will not be put at a disadvantage.
(A full list is available online at newenglandssc.org/resources/college-admissions.)
Other schools, such as Dartmouth College, have not signed formal statements, but say they review students’ transcripts within the context of each school’s grading system and curriculum.
Conflict is natural during the transition to a new system, said Tinkler, but there will be a payoff.
“Even as there are certain uncertainties … that’s not what’s most relevant,” Tinkler said. “Because this entire system is built on amplifying student voice and opportunity, students involved are well positioned to have meaningful learning opportunities that allow them post-secondary success.”
In the Classroom
Proficiency-based teaching techniques aren’t always obvious in the classroom, but they are evident in the ways students receive and respond to teachers’ feedback.
During first period one morning last month, English teacher Michelle Fountain handed back essays describing why Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye lands in a mental institution to 16 freshmen sitting at desks arranged in a semi-circle in her classroom. Posters decorating the walls included text reading, “What would Atticus do?” (a reference to Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird) and “Let’s eat grandma. Let’s eat, grandma. Commas save lives.”
Regardless of where students’ grades fell on the proficiency scale, Fountain asked that they make the editing changes she recommended.
“Proficient doesn’t mean perfect,” she said.
For those who had not yet achieved proficiency, Fountain said, “I’ve given you what you need to do to get there.”
Previously, when she used a 100-point scale, Fountain, now in her 11th year of teaching in Woodstock, combined measures of a student’s abilities in reading, writing and language — grammar, usage and mechanics — into one grade. Now, proficiency-based grading allows her to break down a student’s abilities into different categories highlighting strengths and weaknesses, she said in a phone interview earlier that week.
“I think it’s much more useful overall for me as a teacher,” she said.
Also, working with the proficiency scale allows students to try again to bring their work up to snuff, she said.
Before the grading change, students would look at their grades and move on, but now they have the chance to make changes to improve their work immediately instead of waiting for the next essay.
“It’s not a grading change, it’s a philosophical change,” she said.
“I don’t want them to feel badly if they’re only approaching a standard. There’s a lot of changing the way we talk about it. Once isn’t done in many cases. It will take time to get better at the standard.”
At the end of the year, Woodstock ninth-graders’ levels of acheivement on each standard will be compiled and converted to a score on a four-point scale, Smail said in an email Friday. Those scoring 2.0 and above will earn credit for the course. Those who do not pass the course will receive a make-up plan to address areas of weakness and, eventually, earn credit for the course.
Particularly in writing, students gain maturity with time and practice, Fountain said.
During a break from Fountain’s class, Olivia Marsicovetere, a freshman from Woodstock, said proficiency-based grading has taken some getting used to, but she is learning.
“You can’t move on until you show you actually know the stuff,” she said.
Down the hall, in Stainton’s science classroom, freshman Alyana Hunt, of Killington, drew a model of the Earth’s energy cycle.
Hunt said she preferred letter grades to proficiency-based grades, but she’s willing to accept the change “as long as the school system figures out how it’s going to work.”
As Smail and his team labor to answer questions of how proficiency-based learning and grading will work in Woodstock, leadership changes are afoot on many fronts, putting the future of these new systems in question.
In addition to Peterson’s departure and the planned merger of the middle and high schools under Smail’s leadership, Mary Beth Banios, currently an assistant superintendent in Shrewsbury, Mass., will take over for Worth as superintendent of Windsor Central Supervisory Union in July. The School Board also elected a new chairwoman last month.
Neither leader has taken a stance as to the direction proficiency-based grading ought to go in Woodstock.
“Until I have had an opportunity to more deeply understand the various aspects of this initiative, I feel it would be inappropriate and premature for me to offer any thoughts around how the implementation of proficiency-based learning and grading is working at the Woodstock Union Middle/High School,” Banios wrote in a recent email.
Similarly, Paige Hiller, the School Board’s new chairwoman, declined to comment on the issue beyond noting that the program is in a pilot stage and “we are still researching the topic.”
Editor’s note: A presentation about proficiency-based learning put together by the ninth-grade teachers participating in Woodstock’s pilot program can be viewed online at: bit.ly/2o45DjZ. The School Board’s next meeting is scheduled to take place in the Rhoda Teagle Library at the school on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3213.