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.