Proficiency-Based Learning Frequently Asked Questions

**Please note the following FAQs are under review and revision as of June 2014.**

List of Questions

What is learner-centered education?
In a learner-centered learning system, students are active participants in their own learning, understand what is expected of them and take responsibility for demonstrating how they have met those expectations.

The term learner-centered learning, also known as learner-centered education or personalization, is used in reference to a diverse variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations or cultural backgrounds of individual students. A learner-centered system allows students to have a significant voice and choice in guiding their own education.

Learner-centered learning is intended to facilitate the academic success of each student by first determining the learning needs, interests and aspirations of individual students, and then providing learning experiences that are customized?to a greater or lesser extent?for each student. The school district sets the standards, ensuring high expectations and rigor, but a learner-centered system allows the student to engage in the question: how will I demonstrate that I have mastered the standard? In a learner-centered system, the structures of a school ? including scheduling, teacher assignment, even transportation ? allow for flexibility and multiple pathways in issues of instruction and assessment. For example, students may demonstrate achievement of standards via activities outside the school walls or school day such as dual enrollment early college, internships and online courses.

What is proficiency-based education?

The term proficiency-based learning refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating proficiency of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they are promoted to the next grade level, or receive a high school diploma.

The goal of proficiency-based learning is to ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers and adult life. If students fail to meet expected standards, they typically receive additional instruction, practice time and academic support to help them achieve proficiency, but students do not progress in their education until expected standards are met. These standards include content-specific knowledge and skills as well as cross-curricular skills. Examples of cross-curricular standards include such skills as critical thinking and problem solving as well as dispositions like perseverance and curiosity. In Maine, the passage of statutory language (Public Law 2011, Chapter 669, as enacted by the 125th Legislature in L.D. 1422) places student demonstration of skills and knowledge at the center of instruction, assessment and reporting. It supports student-centered learning and promotes student voice and choice in determining individual pathways to learning and demonstration of skills and knowledge.

How does proficiency-based education change the awarding of diplomas?
In a proficiency-based system, a student is awarded a high school diploma when the student has demonstrated that he or she has achieved proficiency of the Maine Learning Results standards.

How a school district implements the awarding of a proficiency-based diploma is a local decision. The district decides the set of graduation standards students must demonstrate, the assessment system that measures student proficiency and the level of proficiency necessary for graduation. Further, the school district develops and adopts policies and procedures for awarding high school diplomas that are consistent with proficiency-based learning as outlined in Public Law 2011, Chapter 669 (as enacted by the 125th Legislature in L.D. 1422). See Title 20-A, Section 4722-A for details.

How will colleges react to this new system? Will students be at a disadvantage?

For more than 10 years, adopters of proficiency-based systems have approached colleges and universities, asking whether or not a proficiency-based system would disadvantage students. Overwhelmingly, these institutions of higher education have said “no.”

In 2013, the New England Secondary Schools Consortium began approaching colleges, asking them to endorse proficiency-based learning and graduation and to pledge that no student would be disadvantaged because their school has a proficiency-based system. Many have done so (see www.newenglandssc.org/endorsement). Colleges and universities accept students from a wide range of educational settings every year, including international students and those who have been home-schooled. In considering students, admissions officers look at a variety of transcript styles to determine admissions.

What is the relationship between proficiency and a standard?

In Maine, a standard is a description of skill or knowledge deemed essential. Proficiency describes the targeted level of achievement of a particular standard ? how well does a student need to know something or be able to demonstrate a skill? Achieving proficiency is synonymous with “meeting the standard.”

What are the benefits of proficiency-based education for students, districts and parents?
Evidence from school districts around the country (such as Lindsay, Calif., and the Adams 50 district in Colorado) indicates that the adoption of proficiency-based practices leads to increased student achievement. Students report that they understand academic expectations more clearly and can identify their own strengths and weaknesses in relation to those expectations. Students are better able to connect what they are doing in a classroom activity or assignment to the acquisition of skills and knowledge. Qualitative data from within Maine suggests the same outcome (see the Maine DOE Center for Best Practice - www.maine.gov/doe/cbp/).

What educators are seeing in Maine is increased student engagement, increased personalization of instruction and increased targeting of interventions to the specific needs of students. Educators also report that implementation of a proficiency-based system leads to greater collaboration and articulation of curriculum within and across schools, more reflective practice and a greater capacity to respond to the individual needs of students. The reporting system provides parents with more specific information about their child’s growth and achievement. Parents are better able to understand school and grade-level expectations and more thoroughly support their child in achieving those expectations.

If students can retake assessments to demonstrate proficiency, how will they learn to meet deadlines?

It’s important to remember that a score or grade is not an award, but a report of achievement. If a student understands a math concept and can demonstrate it, then we must report that the student understands that concept. Proficiency-based learning systems commonly identify standards that address aspects of work ethic and behavior. These are generally encompassed in Maine’s Guiding Principles, found in the Maine Learning Results standards in Department Rule Chapter 132. If we believe that developing such habits as being on time or being organized and prepared for class are important, we should give students specific and timely feedback on these behaviors. It is important that school reporting systems report academic achievement and work habits separately. Additionally, proficiency-based districts develop interventions and sanctions to help students develop work habits like meeting deadlines: behavior interventions, Saturday school, extracurricular eligibility, etc.

Is shifting to proficiency-based education mandatory?

No. What is mandatory is that by 2018, high schools will award diplomas that certify that students who graduate have demonstrated proficiency of the Maine Learning Results standards. How schools get students there is determined locally.

What is the role of parents in the implementation of proficiency-based education in their children’s school?

Parents are their child’s first and most important teachers. A fundamental goal of a proficiency-based system is to give parents better information, which will allow them to engage in their child’s education at a deeper, more informed level. In a proficiency-based system, conversations between a parent and child are not focused on the perennial question, “Have you done your homework?” Parents are regularly informed and have access to such information as how well their child is progressing, for example, as an effective writer or in his/her ability to solve multi-step equations.

How does proficiency-based learning impact teachers?

The shift to a proficiency-based system will provide teachers with the information and structures they need to address the individual needs of their students. The following videos provide insight into these Maine teachers’ experiences:

Are there costs to school districts as we shift to proficiency-based/learner-centered systems?
While there are no additional or new costs in developing a proficiency-based learning system, the shift often requires a redeployment/reevaluation of how funds are expended. Districts shifting to a proficiency-based system dedicate time to professional development to support changes in instruction and assessment practices. Likewise, many districts evaluate their RTI system so that the interventions are targeted and timely and tied to graduation standards and performance indicators.

Who can we turn to for help? The state? Other districts? Cooperatives? Others? Where can we learn more?

The Maine Department of Education has created the web resource, Getting to Proficiency: Helping Maine Graduate Every Student Prepared. This page provides technical assistance, resources and guidance for school districts to implement the Proficiency-based Diploma, and to do so in a way that promotes student learning and achievement of the Maine Learning Results. At Getting to Proficiency, you will find a self-assessment tool that will help you understand your district’s specific needs. The site will also provide links to state, regional and national resources that districts and schools can access and use in their implementation of proficiency-based learning.

This Center for Best Practice is a collaboration between the Maine Department of Education and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, made possible by the contributions of the Maine schools that share their stories.