March 25, 2012

Student choice at center of proficiency-based learning

Children choose what to do and how long they need to finish

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Sanger Rainsford is composed and courageous. General Zaroff is a cruel, cold, thrill-seeker.

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PROFICIENT: Hall-Dale High School students work on a social studies lesson Thursday in Rob Kennedy's classroom in Farmingdale. The entire school district has adopted proficiency-based education, a new education model.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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NEW WAYS: Messalonskee Middle School language arts teacher Linda Haskell instructs students in Oakland recently.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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EDITOR'S NOTE

This is the second of a three-part series on the proficiency-based education movement in Maine. This installment explores what the movement looks like in the classroom and what students and teachers think about it. Monday’s final installment examines the effectiveness of the new system and the challenges facing it.

Linda Haskell’s eighth-grade language arts class at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland was working on point of view in writing. Their assignment: compare the two main characters from Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game.”

Haskell and a student discussed what format to use.

Haskell told the student Venn diagrams could be hard to get all the writing in, “but Olivia is awesome at those on the computer.”

“You can also do a table,” she added.

Around the room, students uploaded charts, lists and written responses to a software program so Haskell could judge whether they understood “the thoughts, feelings, words, actions, goals and motivation of characters in a story.”

That’s one of Regional School Unit 18’s proficiency standards — or concepts students must show they understand before they can move on to the next one. They can also aim higher by applying a concept or connecting it to other topics.

Letting students choose the kind of work they do and how long they need to do it is at the heart of the education model commonly called proficiency-based, or standards-based, education. At least 22 Maine districts and schools have decided to adopt it and others are looking into it.

All Maine public schools may be required by state officials to institute some form of the model in the coming years.

That means more classrooms will look like Haskell’s, where students work at their own pace, chart their progress and goals and have a place to leave questions and comments.

Schools adopting the model eventually may do away with age-based grade levels, instead grouping students based on what they know and can do.

That sort of change is needed to address stagnation in the traditional American education system, according to Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

He said there are core pieces that people think about when they think about school. “And most of what we have done for the last generation, the last 20 to 30 years, has been to sort of nibble around the edges of those” but not change them.

Adopting a proficiency-based system means overhauling nearly every aspect of education, from the posters and charts on classroom walls to the way teachers spend their time and interact with students.

No school in Maine has yet eliminated age-based grade levels. The most visible change so far in most districts — and the one that has drawn the most public questions and complaints — is in the grading system.

In standards-based grading, the traditional A through F is replaced with a 1-4 scale . Students earn a 3 for showing they understand a concept and a 4 if they can also analyze and apply it.

Students must earn at least a 3 to meet the standard and move on to the next one. Those who score lower have to repeat assignments, tests or projects until they get it — it doesn’t matter how much time it takes.

A school district’s standards may also require students to show work ethic, class participation or ability to meet deadlines. Those behavioral standards are reported separately from academic ones, rather than being built into an overall grade, so parents and teachers can distinguish between behavior and learning.

By contrast, traditional education takes snapshots of a student’s abilities and behavior, then averages scores to create an overall grade.

Proponents of proficiency-based education say the system that most schools use now can mask deficiencies and doesn’t answer the most crucial question: what a student really knows.

“At the end of the day, you either know how to multiply fractions or you don’t,” Bowen said. “If you have a C in fractions, what does that mean? If you think about it, the report cards we’ve been using for generations don’t make any sense.”

‘Voice and choice’

(Continued on page 2)

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