Vermont’s Act 77 requires high schools to change their graduation requirements from a credit based system to one based on proficiencies starting with the Class of 2020. High schools throughout the state have seen this shift as a challenge, a problem or, in the case of BFA Fairfax, an opportunity. Teachers at BFA were ready to use the law to change the fundamental way we look at learning. We knew it would be a lot of work, but we knew that change was essential.
The traditional model of education is based on the work of the “Committee of Ten” in 1892. Our system was based on earning credits through seat time and point collection. Students could pass classes and graduate with a 65% average. Think about it: a student could learn about two-thirds of the material in any class and pass. How successful would you be in your work if you missed or did not understand one-third of your job’s requirements? Students became skilled at “playing school”, that is, gathering just enough points to get by or gathering every possible point available regardless of the level of learning involved. We hoped to use Act 77 to shift the focus away from grades and toward learning.
Our first step was to adopt the Transferable Skills, a set of skills that are essential for success in college and careers and apply to all content areas. In 2015-16, we worked with “Communication” in all classrooms. Teachers collaborated to determine the essential knowledge, skills, and understanding for their content area which would become the Proficiencies, Indicators, and Targets within our Proficiency Based Graduation Requirements. Teachers had to debate the question: “What is essential for all of our students regardless of their future path?” We used a consistent process to prioritize the Transferable Skills and our Content Proficiencies. The conversations were rich and the resulting proficiencies comprehensive and attainable.
While this work was being completed, the Class of 2020 entered high school. We thought we were ready. We had created the new Freshman Core interdisciplinary team to provide all ninth grade students with a common curriculum and a common set of teachers to support them. We had proficiencies and learning scales. As it turned out, we also had a lot of questions: How would we tell that students were indeed proficient? How would we recognize student achievement? How would we report student progress? How would we communicate with students and families? Every time we answered a question, three more came up!
In December 2016, a team of teachers and administrators from BFA joined colleagues from other high schools in our area to compare progress and share strategies. We learned that we were not alone in our journey. We were ahead in some areas, on track in others and we were exposed to some new questions. The most important thing that came out of this meeting was the creation of a model that captured the intent of our proficiency system. The “spiral” represents our desire to help students develop a body of evidence that included content indicators and transferable skills. It includes regular exhibitions where students demonstrate their progress “at this time”.
A team of teachers, known as the PBGR Oversight Team, was formed to answer the unanswered questions and create a path forward. With this graphic as our guide, we worked to develop a structure for the exhibitions, created a scale to describe a student’s level of proficiency, introduced single point rubrics to help students reflect on their learning, and developed a glossary of terms for consistent language and communication. At the end of the 2016-17 school year, we had redefined the structure of the school year, created a flexible schedule with different length courses and offered new courses to provide additional choices for students.
Over the summer, we shared videos that explain Proficiency and detail our plan for Student Recognition. We created a website that provides the latest information about Proficiency at BFA. On Tuesday, September 26th, we will provide families with information about Monitoring Student Progress (which will be available on the website) at a Parent Information Night.
We feel that we have made tremendous progress and truly taken advantage of the opportunity to change our expectations for student learning at BFA. All students will demonstrate their proficiency in all areas prior to graduation. Reflection, feedback, and continuous progress are essential components for learning and are present in all our work. Students will have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways beyond the classroom through the development of their Personalized Learning Plans. All learning counts.
BFA remains committed to providing the best educational opportunities for our students. Beyond being a law that we must follow, Act 77 has given us permission to rethink our educational practices. We have made great progress, and we have more work to do. We plan to provide internships, community service and research opportunities for all students in their junior year. Seniors will participate in a Capstone experience as they prepare for graduation to demonstrate their readiness for college or career. We are working to answer the questions associated with those opportunities. And there will certainly be more questions as we go.
John Tague is the High School Principal at Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax. You can follow him on Twitter at @jtague252.