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FFMHS Working Toward

Proficiency Based Education


Letter grades to be phased out per State mandate


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, February 17, 2016


   The familiar letter grades of A—F and 60—100 are soon to become a thing of the past as the Maine legislature approved a law that will require schools in Maine to phase out that grading system and replace it with a proficiency based system for Math, English and ultimately Science classes.

   According to the Maine Department of Education’s website, Proficiency-Based Education “refers to any system of academic instruction, assessment, grading and reporting that is based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level or receive a diploma.”

   “The general goal of proficiency-based education is to ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers and adult life. If students struggle to meet minimum expected standards, they receive additional instruction, practice time and academic support to help them achieve proficiency, but they do not progress in their education until expected standards are met.”

   The failure of the letter grade system to adequately describe how well a student actually knows the material was described in Ken O'Conner's book, How to Grade for Learning.  In his book, O’Conner illustrated how five different students can range from very good test results with some incompletes to all tests passed in but having a failing grade resulting in all five students—the good ones and the not so good—all receiving failing grades. 

   He shows how averaging scores in this way fails to provide a complete picture of student learning. For example, Student 2 failed every assignment and test, while Student 4 made significant progress over the course of the semester—yet they each received a failing grade. Both Student 1 and Student 3 earned high scores on the assignments they completed, but a failure to turn in work at the beginning of the semester earned them zeros and failing grades.

   Fort Fairfield Middle/High School (FFMHS) is currently working on phasing in to the Proficiency Based Education (PBE) system starting with the current 7th grade math class.  The school received a requested extension to the 2017 deadline that will allow them to work on implementation by 2021, when today’s 7th graders will graduate High School.  The program is currently being built for the 7th grade math class but will eventually expand to English per the State’s mandate.

   “PBE says you're going to meet these standards and you have to show that you've met that standard.  That's a fundamental shift on how we're teaching kids,” said MSAD #20 Superintendent, Marc Gendron.  “So, we have these specific standards, the kids take the standards and they have to show that they can meet the standards before they can move on. It's teaching kids where they are.  What changes is how we present the material and how much time people may need to do that material.”

   The internet-based tool that FFMHS chose to use is called Empower and is currently being adapted for the school’s use in PBE grading by FFMHS teachers, Sharon Kozura and Gail Doughty.  “It's a tool that lets us keep track of the standards.  Twenty six percent of the kids that are graduating this year are under the Empower network,” explained Gendron.  “Most of the schools in Aroostook County are also using this.   We are using Empower for 7th and 8th Grade math standards.”

    The PBE grading system differs radically from the former letter grade system of A thru F.  PBE uses a four digit number system graduated in scale to show a student’s progress at every particular point in the course study.  The points on that scale are roughly defined as:

1.  Does not meet the standard

2.  Partially meets the standard

3.  Meets the standard

4.  Exceeds the standard.

    Gendron says this gives students who are at a level 3 in the lesson plan—in this case, Math class—the opportunity of moving on to the next standard, or they can delve deeper into the subject, use their imagination and creativity to get to the next level of 4. “Kids don't learn at the same rate.  This forces you to teach kids where they are.  Using Empower, a teacher can tell quickly what part of English or Math a student can do and what he still needs to learn.” 

   Because the letter grading system is being phased out, by 2021 there will be no “Honor Roll” list because the four number standards-based designation system does not correspond to letter grades. 

   This system creates a classroom environment where the students are each working on the areas they need to improve in order to meet standards and relies less on the older method of a teacher lecturing the whole classroom at once.  While a full classroom lecture can still occur, the teacher is able to focus on and work with those students who need the help in a particular area of the subject, where students who have a firmer grasp of the subject are able to work a little more independently.

   “There are a lot of people who have a lot of skepticism about many of the current movements in education,” said Susan Gould Leighton, a MSAD #20 school board member.  “You will find detailed criticism of Proficiency Based, Mass Customized Learning, Common Core; and I was kind of a true believer and I have to say, like so many things in education things happen along the way where the Pie in the Sky kind of ends up being the pie in your face.  I think we have to be prepared for the fact that in good faith - like this school system always does, and the teachers here always do what is best for their students  - what will happen when this plays through.”

   FFMHS teacher, Gail Doughty says the program is getting good reviews from the 7th grade math students, so far.  “What I'm hearing from kids is they don't have to wait for others.  They have the opportunity to move on and get to the next level.  The very few that are dragging their feet, the ones that don't have a lot of ‘get up and go’ are the ones that are struggling more with it.  They can’t hide.  They are being forced to actually take a little bit of accountability and be responsible for their own education.”

   As a student progresses through the subject, the Empower program shows they are either Ahead of Pace, On Pace, or Behind Pace according to the school's schedule for that ranking period.  This has set up a system where a student who has completed all the work for their grade level may move up to the next grade level and begin doing that work, there.  Currently this program is being used for 7th and 8th grade Math and English at FFMHS and is being phased in to encompass all Middle/High school grade levels by 2021.