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Proficiency-Based Requirements Still A Challenge For Vt. Schools

Three people stand in front of posters that say Student Learning Outcomes.
Anna Van Dine
From left: U-32 curriculum director Jen Miller-Arsenault, U-32 principal Steven Dellinger-Pate and interim WCUUSD superintendent Debra Taylor stand for a portrait. Schools across Vermont have been grappling with proficiency graduation requirements.

Proficiency-based graduation requirements have been phased inover the past several years in Vermont high schools, but 2020 is the first year all high schools statewide must have them implemented. This change has come with challenges, especially for graduating seniors.

At U-32 High School, in East Montpelier, the most recent hiccup happened just before studentssent in the last of their college applications.

In December, less than two weeks before applications were due, U-32 had to recalculate student grade point averages. Some colleges and universities were telling the school it was difficult to understand students’ performance under U-32’s new, proficiency-based system.

People seated at tables during a school board meeting
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
A Jan. 8 school board meeting at U-32 High School, in East Montpelier.

Parents like Richard Keane are concerned about the last-minute fix. He spoke during a board meeting at U-32 on Jan. 8.

"I'm an engineer, and I'm pretty damn good with math and statistics," Keane said. "I'm pretty sure that the colleges would look at this — even the changes we’re doing now — as voodoo, like a scramble to just do something to make this look better. Why wasn't this homework done before this was ever rolled out?"

Schools across Vermont have been grappling with proficiencies since 2014, when the state approved new Education Quality Standards.

But what, you might be wondering, are proficiences? An explainer:

High school used to be all about As, Bs, Cs, and Ds. You’d show up to class, do your homework, and get an average on a 100-point scale. With proficiencies, emphasis is on understanding. Students are assessed on their growth towards mastery of knowledge or skill. According to the Education Quality Standards, all high school graduates now have to show proficiency in the core subject areas.

After the new standards came out, it was up to each district to determine what proficiencies looked like at their schools. U-32 decided to ditch letter grades altogether and move to a proficiency-based grading system.

At U-32 and high schools across Vermont, however, implementation hasn’t been flawless.

"It hasn't been easy, and we have made mistakes," said U-32 curriculum director Jen Miller-Arsenault. "But I think we've done a lot of really wonderful work along the way, and we've corrected mistakes the moment we've realized we’ve made them."

"It hasn't been easy, and we have made mistakes. But I think we've done a lot of really wonderful work along the way, and we've corrected mistakes the moment we've realized we’ve made them." — Jen Miller-Arsenault, U-32 curriculum director

The class of 2020 is graduating six years after the rollout of proficiencies, so ideally, things like recalculated GPAs would have been sorted out by now. But Keane, the parent, said concerns have continued coming up. Students and parents have found themselves asking: Will this impact college acceptances? Are teachers adapting? Will students graduate on time? What about merit scholarships?

"I personally find it completely unacceptable that we're using [the students] as guinea pigs, and they're losing opportunity because of our incompetence," Keane said. "I mean, this is something we need to get sorted out and we need to get it sorted out very quickly and accurately."

Headshot of a teen with brown hair
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
Eva Jessup is a senior at U-32. As a journalist for the school's newspaper, she writes about proficiency-based grading.

But U-32 is just one high school in Vermont.

"Every school designed their system very differently," said Eva Jessup, a senior at U-32 and a student journalist who writes about proficiencies for the school paper, The Chronicle.

There's a reason for this: High schools are on their own when it comes to implementation. That’s because each school district makes its own decisions about how to implement state policy.

"Superintendents, principals, curriculum directors — they lead their systems. We support systems," Jess DeCarolis from the Agency of Education told VPR. "But we can’t be in a place where we’re dictating that, because it exceeds our regulatory authority.”

U-32 principal Steven Dellinger-Pate said not having clear criteria for implementation has been challenging.

"Just saying that we’re supposed to be in a proficiency system doesn't tell you what that should look like," he said. "That’s why you see it different across the entire state."

A man wearing a sweater with a badge around his neck, looking at a camera
Credit Anna Van Dine / VPR
Steven Dellinger-Pate is the principal at U-32 High School, in East Montpelier.

Dellinger-Pate added: "If we just had clear criteria around what implementation looks like ... then we would be able to say, 'Ok, where are we as a school, like, how far are we into the implementation?' We have to go to outside sources to see, 'Ok, how are we doing?'"

But according to Jessup, students have been feeling this uncertainty more than anyone.

"We've had to do summer school the past summer, because so many kids didn't have the standards that they needed to have hit," Jessup said. "And the GPA whole thing. We've been grading this way for three years, but suddenly colleges can't understand our transcripts. I think it's really challenging, and I don’t want to place any blame on anyone, but now we’re at a point where those initial concerns that were never really dealt with are kind of exploding in our face."

Jessup said she's interested in studying sociology or education policy when she starts college next year. She'll find out where she’s going in March, when college acceptance letters come out.

Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
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