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Vt. moves toward proficiency-based learning - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Vt. moves toward proficiency-based learning

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HINESBURG, Vt. - Ninth grade meant some big changes for Kyle Gorman and his classmates at Champlain Valley Union High School.

"I was curious and it was like, odd, I have never done something like this before," Gorman said.

A big new school, new friends and a new style of learning.

"I think it allows me to focus more," Gorman said.

The teaching, grading and student requirements in his core Humanities class are all new.

The changes were fueled by concern that students are leaving high school without all the tools they need for college or a job in this quickly evolving economy.

"The world we are preparing them for is vastly different," said Jeff Evans, the principal of CVU.

Evans says the school is carrying on work started by his predecessor four years ago.

"We have to do a better job in education of identifying what good learning looks like and hold kids accountable for accomplishing that before we say you're ready for the next challenge," Evans explained.

CVU is at the forefront of a shift in education in Vermont to what's called standards-based or proficiency-based teaching. The approach requires students to prove they have skills and knowledge before moving on to the next unit, grade or even get their diploma. It establishes clear learning targets students must meet for each course and provides practice time in class to accomplish skills. And it requires teachers to give constant, constructive feedback rather than traditional A, B, C grades.

"I think the biggest change is that we as teachers become academic coaches," teacher Garett MacCurtain said.

MacCurtain and Michelle Fongemie team teach ninth-grade humanities. Students start each class with a clear daily target. On this day, it is to prove they can link ideas found in different documents related to the UN declaration of Human Rights.

There is virtually no lecturing. The class period is designed for students to problem-solve together and on their own, and get "coaching" from their teachers.

Evans likens the change to the competition TV show "Dancing with the Stars." The final performance is the goal and graded, but contestants also get a lot of time to learn and practice their routines.

"You've got to give students the opportunity to try things, fail and learn from that failure. So grading everything undermines that process," Evans said. "Once you can demonstrate something, it doesn't matter how many times you fell along the way. The bottom line is you picked yourself up and you accomplished this."

About one-third of teachers at CVU use that standards-based approach. It's taken years of work to get to this point and that work is still not done. It's meant planning, researching and relearning for the teachers who have made the transition.

And teachers across the state will be doing the same soon. A new state regulation mandates all Vermont schools move to proficiency-based graduation requirements. Students in sixth grade now will be the first to graduate with the new requirements.

Reporter Kristin Kelly: Has the system-- and the system that's in place now been deficient then?

John Fischer/Vt. Deputy Education Secretary: The system now has served many students well. It always has. What we're focused on now is a system that focuses on all students.

State education officials say proficiency-based teaching will help address a stubborn gap. Vermont has one of the best high school graduation rates in the country at 87 percent. But just 60 percent of those students go on to college. The Agency of Education says many of them require remedial courses once they get there. And of those who start college, just 46 percent will graduate within four years.

"When a student goes through and they get a passing grade of 70 in algebra, they move on to the next grade. In the past we haven't been concerned about that 30 percent that the student didn't learn," Fischer said.

He says the goal of proficiency-based requirements is to get at that 30 percent, making sure students learn everything before moving ahead. And that's where that relearning comes in for teachers. Lesson plans need to be reconfigured and flexible to change for each student as he or she progresses.

"Teachers, it's hard work, so it's going to take some getting used to," MacCurtain said.

Report cards at CVU still contain traditional letter grades that everyone understands, but teachers also provide data on a 1-4 proficiency scale-- 3 is proficient-- to show exactly where that student stands in a variety of skills. And that grade no longer includes so-called habits of learning like attendance or being prepared for class. Teachers do give feedback on those, but the grade aims to reflect what a student actually knows and can do.

Teachers say the specific feedback has two benefits: It helps students know what they need to work on and helps teachers adjust their teaching.

"We know exactly where to give that kid a little extra push," MacCurtain said. "And when to sort of back off."

Kristin Kelly: Are they learning more?

Garett MacCurtain: Ahh, so I think the poll would be, we may not get to as much content in the long run, but the skills, so it's really depth versus breadth. We go into things in much greater depth, and we know that since we've made this transition over the last four years, the kids have left our humanities room much stronger as public speakers, better critical readers, and I think the biggest change has been their ability to write effectively.

Kyle Gorman says the new approach in this humanities class is making a difference for him.

"I started off not doing great in this class and I've become an honors student in this class, so I think it's great," he said.

Strong words from a self-described math and science guy.

One concern parents have raised about the move to standards-based teaching and the new grading system is how students' transcripts will be interpreted by colleges during the admissions process. CVU's principal says more and more schools across the country are moving to this approach, so colleges are familiar with it and the school has not had problems. Also, all Vermont state colleges and UVM have signed on to the state's move to the new graduation requirements.

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