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Reports from Policy Analysts

Proficiency-based Education: Innovation for Improvement or Servant of Standards?

Submitted On: Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Analyst: Stires, Susan

Proficiency-based Education: Innovation for Improvement or Servant of Standards?

Submitted by Susan Stires

Operating under a 2012 state law, K-12 school administrators and teachers in Maine are working to implement proficiency-based education, which is also known as competency- or mastery-based education.  At least thirteen other states have adopted similar laws or state board policies, and are in the process of implementation. Most implementation is flexible, and in Maine the local districts must decide on the learning outcomes and what projects, performances, portfolios, or other assessments students will need to undertake to be considered proficient.

Proficiency-based diplomas in the areas of English, math, science and social studies will be required by 2021, thereby affecting this year’s entering high school classes. (Additional subjects, specifically arts, health, physical education, and a second language will be required by 2025.) Although a few high schools are ready for this major change, many have barely started to define what skills and concepts will be considered and how proficiency will be determined at the high school level. This change from a diploma based on credits earned, is difficult for some administrators and teachers to accept. Most teachers from the high schools, which are ready, credit strong leadership from their principals.

Since students will advance based on their demonstrated mastery of skills and concepts, teachers must be prepared to provide differentiated instruction and support in order for some of them to progress. Time is an important factor for students and teachers. In the schools with the new system in place, teachers report big gains for struggling students, and some students report how much the support has helped. Still, there are school level concerns about special education students; teacher concerns about monitoring individual student progress; and parental concerns about a new grading system. 

In two of its NCTE Policy Briefs, Fostering High-Quality Formative Assessment and Adolescent Literacy: Cause for Concern, there is support for the some of the tenets in Maine’s proficiency-based educational policy. This is also true for the 2016 NCTE Education Policy Platform. One NCTE resolution from the past (1983), Resolution on the Humane Aspects of English as a Discipline, casts a warning, however, if skills alone become the basis of an education, “… NCTE [should] discourage a narrow pedagogy which focuses on specific language skills…and emphasize the importance of the full, humane discipline of English.” 

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