Proficiency-Based Learning: A Quick Overview

Originally posted on on May 30, 2017 by Matt Drewette-Card. I have updated it slightly.

Maine has been an innovator in education for many years now, stemming back to the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, and most recently the change in state law from a traditional “seat time” high school diploma to a “Proficiency-Based High School Diploma.”  This was, is, and will continue to be another beacon of educational leadership and innovation from the state of Maine, as it has led our educational systems to engage in massive paradigm-shifting discussions about how we “do school,” has pushed many districts to make significant policy changes that are more in line with instructional and educational “best practices,” and has encouraged teachers, administrators, and districts to push the envelope for innovation in educational systems design.


What is Proficiency-Based Education?

According to the Maine Department of Education website, “Proficiency-based education refers to any system of academic instruction, assessment, grading and reporting that is based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma.

In Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back, Master Yoda decries: “Do or do not.  There is not try.”

Proficiency-based education is about drawing lines in the sand of learning.  It’s about recognizing that, if traveling to Boston, you haven’t say you’re in Boston until you’re in Boston.  It’s about knowing who you are, what you know, and what you can do; and (most importantly) where to go next.

Another metaphor I like to use involves cakes. Why cakes? Because I like cakes. No other reason needed.

Let’s say I wanted to bake a cake, but had never made a cake before. My first cake is a total failure… absolutely inedible. I studied more, came back and made a second cake that was still dreadful, yet better than the first. The third cake was actually edible, but floppy and dry. The fourth and fifth cakes I made were absolutely delicious, and the sixth cake I made I took and entered into the local town fair where it won a blue ribbon (aka 1st prize).

The question is: can I make a cake?

The answer: clearly I can. I not only made a cake, but it won first prize at the local fair! Huzzah!

In traditional education, I would be given a score of a “C” for cake making, given that the summative scores (aka the cakes baked) would be averaged together. Also, if the course on cake making had ended after my third cake, I could have passed given my most recent cake and never would have gone on to make an award winning cake because… simply put… there wasn’t enough time. So in the end, either way it was evaluated, my cake making abilities were not accurately scored or given enough time to flourish. Can I make a cake? Maybe… but according to the summative scoring, it won’t be very good.

In a proficiency-based learning environment, the most important thing is the learning target / standard / learning goal / expectation / [add your favorite lingo here]. In the cake example, it’s clear by the end that I can indeed make a cake, so any grade I get should reflect that ability. Further, time wasn’t as important as the actual learning and performance. All that mattered was the target. And I met that target at least three times, and arguably a fourth (although it was dry and floppy).


Proficiency-Based Diplomas Explained

In 2012, Maine passed the Proficiency-Based Diploma law, requiring that by 2018 all students would graduate with a proficiency-based diploma.  The proficiency-based diploma law went through a major substantive change in the 2015-2016 legislative session; a change that was intended to provide more flexibility and clarity to schools and districts across the state.  I will try and explain the most recent iteration of the law change and spare you the details of the original legislation.  A link to the current law can be found here.  Here are the proficiency-based diploma requirements, in brief:

    • To earn a diploma, schools/districts must
  • Certify that all school/district expectations have been met
  • Certify that the student has demonstrated proficiency in all content areas
      • Content areas are:
        • English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, Visual/Performing Arts, Health/Physical Education, World Language, Career & Education Development
      • A phase in strategy was added to the law in 2016 that says:
        • By 2021, students demonstrate proficiency in English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science
        • By 2022, students demonstrate proficiency in English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, and at least one additional content area of the student’s choice
        • By 2023, students demonstrate proficiency in English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, and at least two additional content area of the student’s choice
        • By 2024, By 2022, students demonstrate proficiency in English/Language Arts, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, and at least three additional content area of the student’s choice
        • By 2024, By 2022, students demonstrate proficiency in all content areas.

There are a few other details to the law, but that comprises the meat of it.  There are, of course, exceptions to the law, and these exceptions include (but aren’t limited to) students with disabilities and career and technical education programs.  Maine DoE has provided some policy on how this law impacts Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) to help districts clarify and design systems to meet the needs of all learners.  Further, the legislation originally added some funding to support this difficult transition.


Proficiency-Based Diplomas: Challenges from the Field

There are many challenges facing districts, schools, teachers, students, and communities in this shift to a proficiency-based system of learning.  Below are my top four (and in no particular order) challenges districts and schools are facing.

Defining Proficiency

How do you define “proficient?”  Maine is a local-control state, and the districts have been provided a level of autonomy in deciding how proficiency is defined.  This has been challenging, as each district has been defining and designing systems around proficiency-based learning with individual definitions of determining what it means to be “proficient.”  In my district (AOS #94), we are defining proficiency as such:

Independently apply all expectations.

We have been working with our teachers to look at and break down standards using three major criteria: content, autonomy, and complexity.  The content in a standard should be easy to identify, and the autonomy should also be assumed (although we have had to specifically identify it because that assumption was falsely being measured in our assessments).  The complexity, though, is not assumed, and it is within the complexity that we are basing most of our proficiency-based work.  We use the Marzano Taxonomy to help use define the appropriate level of cognitive complexity embedded in the standard, and then have our staff scaffold a proficiency scale based on that taxonomy of cognitive complexity.  This has helped many in our schools better identify whether or not a student has been able to “Independently apply all expectations” for that lesson, unit, etc.

Proficiency-Based Grading

There is a perception among many that if a teacher or school switches from a percentage-based system of grading to a 1-4 system of grading, they’ve successfully transitioned to a proficiency-based system.  Many teachers, schools, and districts have implemented practices to eliminate percentage based grading and adopt a rubric-style of grading, yet have not yet changed the culture of grading that poses the real need.  If, for example, a school or district has transitioned to a 4-point rubric scale and assigned a “3” as being “Proficient,” I ask the question: what happens when a student gets a “2”?  Too often, the answer remains the same as before the shift: “they fail,” or “they become ineligible,” or “they need remediation,” or “they partially met the standards.”  All of this language misses the point of a “2” on a 4-point scale.  If a “3” means the student has being “Proficient” or “Met the Standard,” then a “2” means the student is learning, and is exactly where s/he should be at the moment.  Why would we keep a student in a learning environment where s/he is constantly getting 3’s?  It’s clearly not challenging, nor in his/her zone of proximal development.  Proficiency-based learning is about meeting expectations, and then moving on to the next expectation.  In other words, proficiency-based education is about constantly challenging yourself to learn more, and thus be constantly earning a grade of a “2.”  

World Languages

Maine is a large state, and it’s a large state that is largely rural.  This large and largely rural state has a low population and ever dwindling student populations.  As such, in most rural areas finding highly qualified teachers of any content area can pose challenges.  World Languages has been one of the most challenging positions to fill across our large and largely rural state, yet is a requirement for earning a proficiency-based diploma.  In other words: no world language program = no diploma.  As a result, some high schools are resorting to computer programs (like Rosetta Stone) fill these human vacancies.  This dynamic is changing perception of teaching and learning in many ways: some positive (like anywhere/anytime learning can be a real force in engaging students) and some negative (like there is no more impactful force on student learning than an effective teacher).  

Special Education

Special Education is, and will continue to be, the real X-Factor in the proficiency-based diploma work, and it is in this area that I believe Maine will truly shine as a beacon for innovation in how educational systems and diplomas are designed and implemented.  The Department of Education released some Guidance for Students with Disabilities to help districts answer many of their continuing questions about developing systems that meet the needs of all students.  Some districts are planning to offer “Certificates of Completion” or “Certificates of Attendance” in lieu of a diploma for students with significant disabilities because those students may not be able to meet the law’s requirements of meeting proficiency in state standards.  Other districts are looking at it differently; saying that if the statewide accountability measures for students are based on standardized tests, and students with significant disabilities are measured on tests based on different standards, why not base a diploma for those students on the standards they are actually working towards?  This question poses another question: why does there have to be only one, summative, cookie-cutter diploma for all kids?  Could we design a system that effectively and explicitly synchronizes the transcript document AND the diploma document, so that schools and districts can more accurately, efficiently, and effectively communicate not only what the student has learned, but to what degree and level of depth has the student learned it?  A few districts in Maine (mine included) are working on designing such systems, and I believe that it is through innovations like these where some truly massive changes in our industrial-age education system could have significant impact.


In Summation

The proficiency-based diploma law has many supporters, and it has many sceptics.  It has many challenges and hurdles to overcome, many of which have not even made themselves known yet.  If we, the educators and communities committed to making our education systems built for and around student learning, continue to push ourselves to innovate and challenge the status quo about how we “do school,” then the end result will be a system that is focused on the needs of those who matter the most to all of us: the learners.


The Importance of Modeling Student-Centered Professional Learning

This was originally posted on the Students at the Center HUB on July 7, 2017 by Matthew Drewette-Card. I am reposting it here because: (1) I think it’s an important read, and (2) being that I am Matthew Drewette-Card, I am fully supporting this reposting and all appropriate attribution should be noted for and accounted.


Modeling Matters for Student Centered Learning

Creating student-centered learning environments is no easy task.  One of the major reasons is that teachers do not often receive enough quality professional learning that provides them with the time to design, the opportunity to actively provide choice and voice into their school systems, and are put under too much pressure to meet curriculum and assessment needs based on statewide testing mandates.  In short: professional learning doesn’t often “practice what it preaches.”  I remember sitting in a differentiation workshop once, with 300 of my close colleagues, and the person talked at us all day… about differentiation.  This is no good.  Professional learning opportunities must be intentionally and explicitly designed and implemented to model the desired behaviors and learning extracted from those opportunities.  Period. If the goal of the school and/or district is to transition to a student-centered and personalized model where transitioning can be messy, difficult, and requires the burden of the learning to be put onto the shoulders of the learner (while the educators maintains the role of the environmental facilitator and learning certifier), then professional learning environments must mirror those same design aspects.  This realization and need brought us to a recent Maine School Administrative District #46 (a part of Alternative Organizational Structure #94) full day of professional learning, focused on and around student-centered learning.  Here’s how it was designed:


Step 1: Listen to your learners

I did some data collection using a Professional Learning Needs Survey several weeks before the May 26 workshop day.  I have also been engaging in conversations and listening to teachers struggle with the many challenges they face concerning student engagement, mental health challenges, ensuring equity for all students, progress monitoring, and more.  After listening, hearing, and attempting to understand the challenges facing our teachers daily, the Professional Learning Needs Survey encouraged our staff to rank topics in the following areas:

  • Student-Centered Learning
  • Proficiency-Based Grading and Reporting
  • Student Engagement
  • Special Needs
  • Technology Integration
  • Teacher Evaluation

Understanding that different grade spans and grade levels have different struggles and needs, we looked at those data through multiple lenses:

  • Pre-K-4
  • 5-8
  • 9-12
  • Pre-K-8
  • 5-12
  • Pre-K-4, 9-12
  • Pre-K-12

Breaking down the data this way helped us uncover common areas of need from a district level all the way down to a grade-span level, and helped us to create environments and opportunities for our teachers to solve the problems that they face.


Step 2: Empower, Embolden, and Energize

Based on the survey data, the staff was separated into two different groups: PreK-4 and 5-12.  The Pre-K-4 group’s teachers guided by the instructional coaches, used a design thinking process to restructure the way they “do” Pre-K-4 school,specifically in how we group students.  Traditionally, Pre-K-4 students are grouped by age, but our teachers have been facing challenges like meeting the needs of all learners effectively.  So, the teachers came together and pushed the administration, who thankfully said “go for it”,to design something new,  which included settling on common language for  “student-centered,” “continuous and flexible grouping,” and “meeting the needs of all learners,” and  developing common instructional and personal educational values.  The teachers were given the the entire day to collaborate, dream, problem-solve, and design and were not rushed through this process, because it was clear that without a common language, nothing effective could be designed..  By the end of the day, the staff had developed proposals and those proposals are going to the building leadership and administrative teams to put them into effect for the 2017-2018 school year.  Click here to see the day’s agenda for the PreK-4 team.

  • The staff in grades 5-12 wanted to focus on their  issues with curriculum and assessment, and to collaborate on similar  challenges..  So, the  5-12 group participated in  PD designed to be  an “(un)conference”, a more flexible model of professional learning.  The morning was organized by content areas and they  worked together to align curriculum and assessment, and share grading and reporting strategies (the state of Maine has shifted to proficiency-based education).  There were no outside experts brought in, or expected tasks, instead groups were given these goals to achieve with the freedom to decide how to attain them:  identify accuracies and inaccuracies of standards, assessments, and instruction at both classroom, grade-level, and content area;
  • develop and share prototypes of common reporting mechanisms and strategies to improve student achievement and learning.  

Given the  precious gifts of time, collaboration, and trust to name the problems of practice they were grappling with and to develop (and own) the solutions our teachers  came out of the workshop with a better understanding of what to do next,equipped to tackle challenges, and energized  to perform better and be happier in the classroom.  Sounds just like the outcomes we would want for our students from student-centered learning right?  Click here to see the day’s agenda for teachers in grades 5-12.


Step 3: Learner-first mindset


Maine School Administrative District #46 and Alternative Organizational Structure #94 is focused on providing its professional staff with a simple goal: create student-centered learning environments to improve the learning and achievement of all students.  To build the culture of learning, of intrinsic motivation, and of ownership into our schools and buildings, our professional learning opportunities for our staff must be designed, implemented, and reflected upon using the same methods a teacher would use in a student-centered classroom. It wasn’t all perfect, and there were many 5-12 teachers frustrated by the seeming “lack of leadership” in the sessions… but that’s ok.  They are beginning to feel what the students feel when we begin to unravel the tangled web of learned helplessness we have unintentionally instilled in them during their schooling.  The staff are beginning to understand that compliance is not the same as engagement, and that instead of looking for someone to give them the answer, they are empowered to lead be the expert we all know they are.  The staff are learning the power and the feeling of true empathy for our students, and there is no more powerful change agent in the world than a motivated educator.


For more information on Matt Drewette-Card, follow him on Twitter, or check out his website:


For more information on Maine School Administrative District #46 and Alternative Organizational Structure #94, follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or check out their website: