Vt. ed officials admit proficiency-based grading causing confusion

Published: Nov. 12, 2019 at 1:53 PM EST
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After the resignation of a Franklin County high school principal last month amid growing tensions over student transcript issues, Vermont education officials are admitting the rollout of the proficiency-based learning system has caused confusion.

"Without any clear blueprint, it was a struggle," said former BFA principal Chris Mosca, who resigned last month amid growing tensions over student transcript issues.

The problems at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans started at the beginning of the school year. Many parents of students reached out to WCAX with questions about how the state's proficiency-based learning will affect transcripts that colleges look at and why BFA struggled to develop a clear grading system while other high schools didn't.

Mosca says the state should have provided better guidance to high schools on how to implement the system.

"The law doesn't really speak about the grading piece, and neither does our regulation," said Vermont Education Secretary Dan French. He says that is the important distinction between proficiency-based learning and proficiency-based grading.

Under Act 77, Vermont high schools must implement proficiency-based learning. It's a system in which students have to show they've mastered a skill before progressing to the next level. So, they can take an assignment or a test multiple times until they get it right. The state board of education set a regulation deadline of 2020, but left it to each school district to decide how to grade under the system.

"'Is proficiency-based grading a requirement?' And our response in that guidance is no. You can still do proficiency-based learning without the grading piece," French explained.

That's why some high schools, like Burlington High School, are still grading with traditional ABCs, whereas BFA tried to make the switch to a proficiency-based, one-through-four scale. "There's been all kinds of approaches in Vermont, which is perhaps part of the confusion," French said.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: Why leave it up to the high schools to decide how to implement this?

Dan French: Yeah, it's a great question. We are a local control state.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: Some of them, especially BFA, felt like it would have been helpful to have some kind of blueprint.

Dan French: Yeah, I think so. But that once again is indicative of our state. I've been an educational leader in Vermont for 20 years, so I'm always a little suspicious when folks ask for the state to come help them fix something.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: Did the flexibility of the implementation leave certain students in certain districts at a disadvantage because maybe their district was struggling?

Dan French: Yeah, well it's unequal opportunity and unequal distribution of opportunities as a variable in our state. And I can think of districts that have really done a fine job conceptualizing this and doing it, and others that have really struggled with it.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: How can you make it less challenging?

Dan French: Well, I think that's where we need to start talking about, you know, identifying these issues.

French encourages the districts that have figured out how to make transcripts college admission officers will understand to share what they've learned with the others. "I'm always sort of amazed that we don't do a better job with sharing with each other. Schools and schools districts still work in relative isolation from one another" French said. "We do a lot of reinventing the wheel."

Reporter Christina Guessferd: So, collaboration and communication will be key moving forward?

Dan French: Absolutely, absolutely... It isn't as simple as just trying to figure out from the classroom perspective what's the best way to do proficiency-based learning, you also have to think about who are the consumers of that data -- and students certainly are one of the primary consumers -- but we also have these external consumers of the data, including parents, community members, colleges, and the federal government. So, I think it's something that districts need to consider and they need to set up their software so it can do both.

French acknowledges part of BFA's problem with transcripts was that software piece, setting it up to calculate proficiencies in a way that accurately reflects a students' abilities.

If your school is having transcript troubles, the Agency of Education wants to hear from you.