Will colleges understand Vermont's new school grading system?

Published: Oct. 9, 2019 at 6:00 PM EDT
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It's the very first year Vermont high schools must grade all 9-though-12 students through proficiency-based learning instead of A's and B's. And the new system has the class of 2020 concerned that colleges won't understand it, jeopardizing their chances of getting accepted.

Proficiency grading was passed in 2013 to "foster a system of public education in which every student graduates and every high school graduate is college and career ready." Schools around the state have rolled out the system in different ways.

Our Christina Guessferd spoke with students and parents at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans who believe that school's implementation has put college acceptance in jeopardy. They worry the system could diminish their chances of getting into out-of-state colleges. And with early action deadlines right around the corner, they don't have much time to work out the kinks.

"It's a little scary for applying to colleges to have it all be in their hands with interpretation," said Alex Haag, a senior at BFA-St. Albans.

Interpreting how a proficiency score of one through four compares to the traditional grading method of A through D.

"We all want to make sure that we're being accurately reflected when we apply to colleges. We don't want colleges to think we're farther down than we are, further up than we are," Haag said. "How can we distinguish students between each other when the system's a little closer than normal?"

That's the question Haag is trying to answer. He's working with the Maple Run Union School District to find a solution to the confusion.

"For about 120 years, we've been in a letter grade system. This is a big mind shift of-- we're not looking at some either ranking between kids within a group of kids. We're really trying to say this is the standard that students should achieve to, and we're trying to communicate did you meet that standard," said Bill Kimball, the assistant superintendent of the Maple Run Union School District.

So when students are considered proficient, they've met that standard. In other words, students can't fail a course.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: The idea is that if someone doesn't get something...

Bill Kimball: They have multiple times to try to achieve it again and show their proficiency.

But the superintendent's office says communicating that to colleges can be a challenge.

Christina Guessferd: Having these colleges have to take that extra step to understand what proficiency-based learning is-- does that put these kids at a competitive disadvantage?

Bill Kimball: There could be a perception that it does, and there could be that it doesn't.

"Obviously, there needs to be clarification of what this means and whether, whether it's working or not. I think at this point in time, we can probably, the board of education and the education committees can take a look and see whether this really is suited to Vermont," said Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont.

But students like Haag don't have the time to wait for them to figure it out.

"We're kind of having to slap a Band-Aid on it, do a temporary fix," Haag said.

Right now that temporary fix is an information sheet explaining how BFA's proficiency-based learning translates to traditional standards. Colleges will receive the sheet as part of a student's application.

Haag and the school district told WCAX News that when they've talked to admissions departments about the system, some have said it's not a problem, while others have said they don't get it.