Traditional On The Outside, Changing On The Inside

by Matt Koucky

Note: This story was written by Montpelier High School (MHS) student Matt Koucky as part of his participation last semester in the school’s Community-Based Learning (CBL) program. As part of the overall CBL program, students get hands-on workplace experience at local businesses and organizations. In Koucky’s case he got hands-on experience in freelance writing for The Bridge.

MONTPELIER — On the outside, Montpelier High School may seem rather drab and orderly. The reader might see the building from afar as they drive to work or as they get on the highway toward Burlington, the red brick and green metal trim unchanging against square box architecture. However stagnant the building may seem, the inside is marked with the chaos of change.

In 2016, a new grading system — as well as a new schedule — was implemented at Montpelier High School. This new grading system, titled “Proficiency-Based Learning” is a statewide initiative courtesy of Vermont’s Act 77 and the State Board of Education. Scheduled to take effect in 2020, the new grading system is rooted in the idea that every student should leave high school with skills that can be transferred to the outside world. In addition, the new system requires that classes should be taught in such a way that students can gain these transferrable skills. In order to achieve this aim, the structure of classes — and the language used to refer to classes — had to change.

In the new class structure, the year is split into eight marking periods, approximately four weeks (10 blocks of class) in length, in which classes focus on one subject — for example, LeChatelier’s Principle — and the skill associated with that subject — problem solving. During the marking period, all work is “formative,” meaning it does not count toward a final grade. Formative work is reflected upon by the student and the teacher to ensure that the skill involved can be improved through dialogue. At the end of the marking period, there is a final assessment of the skill, called a “summative.” The “summative” is the culmination of the dialogue between the teacher and the student in which the student demonstrates their ability to use the skill they have learned. The “summative,” of which there is one per marking period, is the only work in which the demonstrated ability is assessed and counted toward the final grade. During what would be finals/midterms week (which has been redubbed “last chance week”) students are given the chance to redo any summative grades which they deem insufficient, or which the school requires them to redo.

One might be realizing now that this system enables an individual to do absolutely no work during the “formative” part of the marking period, ace the “summative,” and get an “A” in the class. However, one would be wrong, for in this system, 20 percent of the student’s grade falls into the category of “preparedness,” a word which in this context means “did you try on every problem?”

“Preparedness” assesses everything from the student’s contributions to class discussions, to the student’s willingness to complete and commit to doing work. “Preparedness” is, essentially, the system’s way of ensuring that each student is on task and maintaining healthy work habits, while the system reserves the assessment of a student’s understanding of the subject matter for the summative. “Preparedness” is the flour-and-water mixture that holds the “formative/summative/marking period” papier-mâché masterpiece together.

However, according to Principal Mike McRaith, “(the grading system) is not really the meat of the change.” The change at Montpelier High School goes deeper. Not only have the grading system and the schedule experienced a change, there has also been a change in instruction, as seen in the underlying philosophy of the instructional change according to McRaith: “Content — information — is absolutely everywhere. With the advent of the internet and very high powered computers in every kid’s pocket, or nearly every kid’s pocket, school’s value is about different things than just providing content. It’s about developing transferrable skills that are useful no matter what kind of job, school or career you have ahead of you. It’s about social belonging. It’s about … citizenship, and it’s about continuing to have really strong fluency in things like reading and writing and math calculation. I mean, in no way are we giving up on rigorous content. We just want that content to be accessed through skill development.”

Under proficiency-based learning, teachers guide students toward being successful and active citizens through instruction based around developing “transferable skills”  — skills which can be used in real-world applications outside the academic sphere. These skills include creativity, reading, writing, communication, problem solving, citizenship and habits of learning.

In order to teach these skills, it is necessary for teachers to engage in discussions with students about the subject matter. It is necessary for teachers to be actively involved in developing the student’s ability to create polished and refined work. It is necessary for teachers to prepare students for life after high school.

Despite its many advantages, the system has encountered some kickback.

One of the largest concerns among students and parents has been the way in which colleges might view this grading system. Many high-achieving students at the beginning of the year were concerned that colleges might be unable to accurately assess a transcript using the proficiency-based learning system of grading. In fact, after the beginning of year assembly in August, where the principal explained proficiency-based learning to the students, there was a swarm around the door of the principal’s office to discuss admissions anxieties. In response to the concerns, the principal has a few words: “you can call any college admissions (and we called several […] some of the most well-recognized names like Harvard and Yale and Middlebury) and if you call them yourself you’ll find out that they just immediately tell you it’s not a problem.”

Another concern, especially among some teachers, is that the system works better for courses in the humanities than it does for science and math courses. In any course, work is graded on a half-point scale from 1 (the lowest grade, equivalent to an F) to 4 (the highest grade, equivalent to an A/A+). In this system, a “3” (equivalent to a B-/B) is considered a “proficient” grade, meaning the student has mastered the skill being assessed. In order to get a “4” the student must go “above and beyond” to “exceed proficiency.” This means that the students have to show that not only can they use the skill, but they can do so artfully. It is at this point where some teachers find fault with the system.

In a science course or a math course, the highest grade is mastery. A 100 percent simply means you got everything right. You are “proficient” at the skill. Some teachers believe there is little room within math and science (though in science there is slightly more room than in math) to “exceed proficiency” because proficiency itself is the goal. Some teachers feel it would be wrong to give a student a “B-” because they got everything right, but didn’t do anything extra.

This is one place where edits are being considered. According to McRaith, “we need to spend more time looking at student work and then writing more … rubrics together.” Rubrics are the criteria by which teachers assess work. In order to successfully assess student work under the new grading system, the rubrics by which teachers grade work will better match the subject matter and the skills being assessed.

For any significant change, there will be some chaos, some dysfunction, some stress. Any change — and any work — requires reflection, discussion and reworking. Proficiency-based learning teaches that idea through its encouragement of a growing, shifting, transferable knowledge. Reassessing the work one has done, with the aim of improving, is the basis of proficiency-based learning, and the way administrators, teachers and students have come to view the shift toward proficiency-based learning.