Superintendent's Notebook: Stay the course of proficiency

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In October 2016, I wrote, “the general goal of proficiency-based education is to ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to be college or career ready. Even if the statute did not exist, our goal would be the same.”

When writing it, I had no idea how accurately I would be foreshadowing what currently is happening in Augusta.

Maine is considering dismantling the proficiency statute that was passed in 2012, requiring proficiency in eight content areas: English, math, science and technology, social studies, health and physical education, visual and performing arts, world languages, and career and education development.

As of last week, the recommendation from the Department of Education is to repeal the existing statute and replace it with a new proposal that “points to a reasonable and appropriate level of achievement in two foundational content areas (English and math),” the DOE announced April 5.

Maine was second in the nation behind Rhode Island in mandating a proficiency-based system. After six years, it seems the state is more unsure than ever of what it thinks about proficiency for all and in all content areas. It might prove more beneficial and effective for the state to move to a more supportive role towards local districts that choose to implement proficiency systems than to legislate best practices in education.

Who can argue with the core beliefs of proficiency-based education? Proficiency-based practices are good for all students. It sets goals for students clearly and specifically on what we expect them to learn. Knowing your target makes it more likely that you will be able to reach the target. Not knowing the target makes it highly unlikely that most will hit the target.

Another proficiency-based core belief acknowledges that individuals will require differing amounts of practice to reach proficiency. Needed skills may come more naturally to some than to others. I require many lessons before becoming proficient in any tech area, be it my phone, computer, or operating a television; but many of our students seem innately tech-savvy and require little instruction on how to operate the latest gadget. Proficiency allows the time needed for everyone to hit the target.

Another core belief of proficiency is the need for specific feedback and the opportunity to reassess after receiving additional practice on a standard. These opportunities for additional practice ensure that more students are able to demonstrate mastery in an identified skill area when given time to do so.

Traditionally, students have received grades or feedback on their papers with little information about why the score was given, and rarely was there an opportunity to retake the assessment. The only hope was to do better on the next quiz and be given enough other assignments to bring up a low grade.

Some people are lucky enough to grow up in supportive environments, where many of the needed skills are reinforced on a regular basis. Often, these students and families want to continue with traditional teaching and grading practices. This is understandable because they were successful in such a system.

However, some of our students are not so lucky to live in such an environment. A proficiency-based system supports all students in becoming proficient, whether previously successful in a traditional system or not. Proficiency-based education ensures students have the feedback needed, the roadmap to success, and the opportunity to reach the destination.

Not every challenge in education requires a change in statute or policy. No matter what proficiency statute or amendment the state ultimately enacts, all districts should continue with best practices that lead to improved student achievement.

It takes time and practice for a new initiative to be implemented skillfully. In an era when Maine does not have enough skilled workers to respond to the current economic demand, I encourage all districts to not abandon the ship of proficiency. Stay the course, for the good of our students and for the future of our state.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at foleyb@rsu5.org.

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