On Proficiency Based Education

I first really heard about Proficiency Based Education (PBE) the exact wrong way: by finding out my school was transitioning into it, and that it would be coming right away. That’s definitely on me. I know I must have read about the process in the past, but I just hadn’t paid any attention to it. There didn’t seem to be anything that I really needed to worry about, so I ignored it.

Perhaps you’re in the same boat I was. You see “Proficiency Based Education,” and you wonder what in the world it might mean. Allow me to explain.

In a nutshell, PBE moves students away from the traditional grading system (A, B, C, D, F, on a 1-100 point scale) and over to a 1-4 scale that’s based entirely around a student’s ability to show mastery of a subject. The school comes up with a number of different academic areas within each subject and in order to pass the class (get a 2.5 or higher), the student must demonstrate the ability to do that skill.

So imagine one subject area was “can tie their own shoes.” It’s pretty simple. Either the student can or the student can’t. For our district, a student would be rated on shoe tying as follows:

1: Can’t tie their own shoes at all.

2: Can tie their shoes if the teacher helps them.

3: Can tie their shoes by themselves.

4: Can tie other knots, not just shoe knots.

On the surface, there’s a lot about this system to like. The idea that each student can show mastery of individual subject areas is appealing. Each test covers a range of areas. A student might score a 2 on one part and a 3.5 on another part. Instead of having to retake the entire test, the student could just focus in on the part they were having trouble with. In the classic design, a student on that test might have gotten an 80%, but if you looked more closely, they had one area mastered to more like a 95% level, and another was just like a 70% level.

So in that manner, it’s more granular. Students can get a better idea of what they’re doing well in and what they still need help with. That’s a good thing.

The trouble arises in the application of this new grading system. A few years ago, the state of Maine mandated that all schools switch to PBE models by this coming January. It became law. And so our school began the process. Last year was the first year that the transition was completely made for Freshmen. Tomas encountered it then because he was taking Honors Algebra II at the high school, a year ahead of the rest of his 8th grade classes.

The transition was far from smooth. First of all, the messaging that went out to students was confusing. (At least, it was confusing by the time it reached me. I found out much of it at first through Tomas, until about halfway through the year, when I finally started going to meetings on my own to try and make sense of it. I think I missed out on the early meetings because they were aimed at parents of 9th graders, and I was the parent of an 8th grader. Or maybe I just spaced it. It might have been on me.)

Students were told again and again that “a 3 is a great grade.” The takeaway Tomas had from it was to shoot for a 3, and if he managed to get a 4 on something, great. But no big deal if he didn’t. As a parent used to traditional GPAs, a 3 meant a B, and I had a hard time with the concept that we’d all be shooting for B-level work. But Tomas repeated his “3 is a great grade” line often enough, that I began to believe it.

Until I went to meetings and discovered 4s were supposed to be attainable, and to get high honors, a student would need a 3.75 average or higher. Getting a 3.75 average means you’re getting 4s and 3.5s.

Then I started worrying what this would look like for college admissions boards. I was reassured that college admissions boards deal with PBE scales all the time, and it’s no big deal. Which makes sense on the surface. But it’s not the surface that matters here. It’s the underpinnings.

Because the actual application of this grading system has left a lot of parents and students scratching their heads. I get that some parents just blow off the question entirely, saying parents who worry about what college their kid will get into so early on are just being overly intrusive into their kids’ lives. Harvard or University of Maine? Big deal. Well, I suppose I’m guilty as charged.

I’m a BYU graduate. I love my alma mater, and I’d really like my kids to be able to go there. But getting into BYU isn’t a gimme. Yes, it’s got a 65.1% acceptance rate, which seems not too bad compared to Princeton’s 6.4% acceptance rate. But Princeton admitted 1,990 students last year, and 1,314 of them attended, a yield of 66%. BYU admitted 6,520, and 5,246 of those attended. A yield of 80.5%. What does that mean? It means that students who apply to BYU really want to go there. Badly. There’s a fair bit of self-selection that happens when students apply (or don’t apply) to BYU. It’s probably a topic for a different blog post, but suffice it to say getting in isn’t a cakewalk.

Which is to say grades mean something. Good grades mean something. And even setting aside my personal stake in the game, good grades mean something to our district. A district that produces students capable of going to top name schools is a district that attracts parents who want their children going to those same schools. This doesn’t mean we should have all our teachers grade easy, but it does mean we should be sure we’re grading accurately.

And that’s where my biggest frustration with PBE comes in so far. The difference between a 1, 2, and 3 is clear and distinct. It makes sense. But how exactly a student gets a 4 is much murkier than I’d like. I’ve since learned that each teacher is supposed to be very clear about how students can get 4s. What goes into it. And so this coming year I’m going to push to find that out as soon as I can, so that I can help Tomas succeed.

Because this isn’t about me. It’s about him. He wants to succeed. He wants to get into BYU as well.

This is all coming to a head because the state legislature just changed its mind about the PBE requirements. Suddenly, going to PBE isn’t mandatory anymore. And so the question arises: should our district stick with PBE or go back to the old way of grading? There are many teachers in the district that want to stick with it, because they feel it’s a better way of grading. There are some who would rather go back to the old way, because they felt it was fine.

Having read some of the back and forth around it all, I know there’s a whole bunch of parents who are very frustrated with PBE. They feel it doesn’t bring enough to the table to warrant the unrest. I personally lean that direction as well. I feel like PBE has potential, yes, but getting to that Promised Land will come with a price: we’re experimenting with a class or two or three of students, where teachers are learning the ropes at the same time as the students.

The result of this will be that we have some years of graduates who might suffer when it comes to college entrances. I don’t see any other way to put it. Teachers haven’t entirely figured out what makes a 3 vs a 4, and how to teach in a way that everyone can reach their full potential. That’s a problem.

Is it a problem that means we need to do away with PBE? I’m not sure. But I do believe we need to do something right away to fix this gap and make sure our best and brightest students aren’t harmed in the process. That might mean changing the messaging. That might mean developing clear communication channels for parents who are confused. That might mean having sit downs with parents and teachers to make sure everyone understands what’s what.

But I’ve heard of some teachers being very resistant to giving out 4s, and others giving them out more easily. That’s the exact sort of thing PBE was supposed to move away from, was it not? So if we go through all of this sound and fury and end up with another system that isn’t really that much different than where we started, it will have done nothing but harm.

I don’t want that. I don’t think anyone does. I’ve heard reassurances from the district that won’t happen, but the proof is in the pudding.

I suppose in the end I’m willing to give PBE another year. But if we do, I think the district should have very clear procedures in place to measure whether or not its working. Compare the grades of students pre-PBE with the grades post-PBE. Have they improved significantly? Are students, teachers, and parents happy with the results? I’d rather the district be surveying those groups and going forward based on facts and figures, not promises and hopes.

Because it isn’t the law anymore. So the question shouldn’t be “How do we implement PBE as best as possible,” but rather “What’s the best system for our students?”

Yes, we’ve already invested heavily into PBE. So what? It’s a sunk cost. We should ignore the time and effort already spent and make a decision based purely on what’s best for us now. Pretend all that money and time hadn’t been spent. Is PBE still the right choice?

And move onward from there.

Here’s hoping the journey only gets smoother . . .

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