The FWSU Story: What is Proficiency Based Learning at BFA?

Last week, I sat in the lobby during high school parent conferences and answered questions about BFA’s Proficiency Based system. As I spoke with parents, I had the opportunity to share our process and reflect upon our journey toward proficiency. The conversations were especially important given recent news coverage regarding the Class of 2020 and their college applications. The Class of 2020 is the first class impacted by Act 77, Vermont’s law the requires Flexible Pathways and Proficiency Based Graduation.

There are many aspects to a proficiency based system that distinguish it from a traditional system. There has been a focus on transcripts, “grading”, and reporting systems in proficiency systems, but the heart of a proficiency based system is clear expectations for learning. At BFA, learning scales based on our Proficiencies, Indicators and Targets provide that clarity and will be the focus of this post.

BFA high school and middle school teachers began the transition to proficiency in the summer of 2015, when the Class of 2020 was about to enter 8th grade. Teachers and administrators worked with a consultant to understand and develop “Learning Scales”, which have become the backbone of our proficiency system. A Learning Scale provides the expectations for a student in a specific skill or process. It establishes clear criteria for evidence of proficiency. A learning scale also defines the components that are lacking if a student is not proficient or the additional aspects necessary for Extended Proficiency. All assessments in the high school use a learning scale to provide feedback on student learning. All Learning Scales provide the opportunity for students to demonstrate learning beyond the “Proficient” level. We continue to develop and revise our Learning Scales.

Teachers worked with the consultant throughout the year to develop Learning Scales within their content area. At the same time, teachers worked to develop the Proficiencies and Indicators for their content area. They based their work on the national standards (Common Core, NGSS, C3…) for their discipline. Proficiencies are the broad categories (Writing, Historical Inquiry, Algebra…) for a content area while the Indicators are more specific sources of evidence within each proficiency (Write informational text, determine validity and reliability of  source, solve equations). Targets are the focus of lessons and topics that students engage with in class. Targets inform Indicators and Indicators inform Proficiency. This system allows students to understand how the work they are doing in class is related to the Indicators for a course and their level of Proficiency toward Graduation. 

Learning Scales allow us to gather a body of evidence of a student’s level of proficiency in each content area and transferable skill. A common misconception is that students are allowed to repeatedly take an assessment until they demonstrate proficiency. In reality, students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in each course and over several courses through different learning activities and assessments based on the Learning Targets. 

For example a student might write several informational essays in a ninth grade English class that all provide evidence for the same indicator based on different topics. They continue to write informational essays in subsequent English courses based on the focus of the class. Over time, we acquire a collection of evidence that shows the students progress toward proficiency regarding informational essays in particular and writing in general. It is these multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in a specific area (but in different contexts) against a consistent learning scale over time that define BFA’s Proficiency system. 

The journey to proficiency at BFA began long before the Class of 2020 started high school. We have made mistakes and adjustments along the way and will continue to learn and adapt in the years to come. Proficiency Based Learning represents a seismic shift in teaching and learning. Learning Scales helped us begin that shift. Since 2015, we have worked to develop a recording and reporting system, common assessments, and benchmarks for students. We are confident that our work provides equity and opportunity for our students and would be happy to answer your questions.

John Tague is the Principal of BFA Fairfax High School and is a regular contributor to THE FWSU STORY. You can follow him @jtague252

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