WESTBROOK — No change is easy. Change is uncomfortable and makes us anxious as we adjust to the new landscape. But change is necessary as we move forward, particularly in our schools.

I recently retired from the classroom after 37 years of teaching. At the middle school where I taught, we transitioned to a proficiency-based model during the last few years of my career. That change was a consequence of our decision to separate the reporting of academic learning from the reporting of work habits and share this more honest information with parents and students. The change was also about being very explicit about the important learning at each grade level and how we would effectively teach and assess that learning. Finally, we made the shift to provide students and parents with clear guidelines for demonstrating proficiency in a specific area.

In previous years our data showed that some students were getting B’s or A’s in subject areas, but they were “earning” those grades through great work habits, not necessarily through their knowledge in the content area. They got their homework in on time and did all kinds of extra credit work, sometimes unrelated to what they were learning, to improve their scores on tests and assignments. The focus was the grade – not the learning.

As a high school student, I played the same game. I struggled in French class, so instead of working with the teacher to understand the content, I asked for extra credit work and organized all of the teacher’s postcards from her trips to France. I got the extra credit I needed to get a B minus and make the honor roll. This extra credit, however, had nothing to do with my ability to speak or write in French. It had everything to do with raising my score.

Thirty years later, the same traditional grading and reporting process remains in place in many schools, and at these schools, grades continue to be a random combination of assessments of work habits and scores on tests and assignments, subjectively applied by each teacher. At my middle school we were determined to make a shift. Our goal was to be honest and transparent about the learning process, including both academic skills and work habits, and accurately record and report student progress in both areas.

Making this shift is challenging. But it forced me to think about the learning experiences I was creating for my students. Was this just a fun activity that was engaging, or was this designed to move the learning forward in terms of the standards? And as a teacher who taught almost exclusively through integrated, real-life projects, I found that this approach in no way hindered my ability to provide engaging, creative work for my students. It complemented it.


Some have raised concerns about the college acceptance rate of students who have received a proficiency-based education, but this argument does not hold up. Home-schooled students have led the way in this area. And we already have high schools in Maine that have made the shift successfully and, yes, gotten their students into college – even prestigious colleges. In fact, one high school I know of that has made the shift to a proficiency-based approach regularly has over 95 percent of its graduates accepted to college.

This work isn’t easy. But it is important work. Has the rollout been smooth and effective? Probably not. Can we change this? Absolutely. And the good news is that across Maine, this shift is forcing our teachers to clarify their work and report the results in ways that dig deeper into the progress of our students. In fact, many schools report that they will continue this shift to a proficiency-based approach regardless of decisions in Augusta.

I understand that the traditional system worked for a lot of adults. Some of their voices are loud and clear for keeping the status quo. But educators in Maine are determined to support a system that works for all students. The factory sort-and-select model of “traditional” schools and grading systems should be long gone. The proficiency-based approach is a huge step forward and should not be abandoned.


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