Guest Blog: Vermont’s Road to Proficiency

Vermont has been on an ambitious journey to implement student-centered, proficiency-based learning for over twenty years. That journey continues to evolve today, and this blog shares some of the key points along the way.

A publication by the Vermont Department of Education in 2003, “High Schools on the Move,” addressed “the critical issues facing Vermont high schools” and identified principles that remain at the heart of Vermont’s work today. These include:

  • Empowering students, as young adults, to create and pursue their own personal goals; 
  • Providing students with a variety of education pathways in which they can pursue their goals; and
  • Encouraging students to learn and apply skills in real-world settings.

(A Report to the Vermont Legislature on Career and Technical Education)

The task force recommended a focus on personalized learning environments that would enable students to take risks in a supportive setting and prepare them for life after graduation. The What and Why of Act 77 outlines additional milestones along Vermont’s path towards the Flexible Pathways Initiative, created by Act 77 of 2013 and found in statute under 16 V.S.A. § 941. This Act was “established to encourage and support the creativity of school districts as they develop and expand high-quality educational experiences that are an integral part of secondary education in the evolving 21st Century classroom; to promote opportunities for Vermont students to achieve postsecondary readiness through high-quality educational experiences that acknowledge individual goals, learning styles, and abilities; and to increase the rates of secondary school completion and postsecondary continuation in Vermont.”

The Flexible Pathways Initiative paved the way for the inclusion of proficiency-based learning in Vermont’s State Board of Education Rules, Series 2000, The Education Quality Standards, that went into effect in April 2014. These rules state: 

  • Schools must provide students the opportunity to experience learning through flexible and multiple pathways, including but not limited to career and technical education, virtual learning, work-based learning, service learning, dual enrollment, and early college. Learning must occur under the supervision of an appropriately licensed educator. Learning expectations must be aligned with state expectations and standards. Students must be allowed to demonstrate proficiency by presenting multiple types of evidence, including but not limited to teacher- or student-designed assessments, portfolios, performances, exhibitions, and projects.
  • Students must be allowed to demonstrate proficiency by presenting multiple types of evidence, including but not limited to teacher- or student-designed assessments, portfolios, performances, exhibitions, and projects.

In an effort to develop a shared vision for both proficiency-based learning and college and career readiness, in 2017 the VT Agency of Education began collaborating with the field to develop a statewide Portrait of a Graduate (PoG). Approximately sixty educators from across the state gathered to react to the initial draft. That version was influenced by a blog post, The Graduate Profile: A Focus on Outcomes, from Edutopia by Ken Kay that stated: 

  • Unlike a mission or vision statement, a graduate profile is a document that a school or district [or state] uses to specify the cognitive, personal, and interpersonal competencies that students should have when they graduate.                      

Over the next two years, more than three hundred students, parents, educators, and community members contributed to the final version of the Vermont PoG. The PoG provided guidance in the development of proficiency-based graduation requirements and articulates the vision for learners who are prepared for success in college, career, and life. Personalized Learning Plans, a requirement in Act 77 for students in grades seven through twelve, serve as a vehicle for documenting a learner’s progress towards the attributes of the PoG.  

Fast forward to 2020. . . Vermont educators had been working hard to implement the expectations within the Education Quality Standards for local graduation requirements, however, a survey that year revealed a wide variation in requirements across the state. Depending upon the supervisory union or district a student attended, there was a range from six to one hundred thirty-five Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements. This indicated that expectations for graduation, which are determined locally and approved by school boards, were being interpreted in a variety of ways. Educators moved forward with the development of PBGRs with good intentions, however, a collective understanding for these expectations had not been developed. Unintentionally, this range in PBGRS created inequitable expectations for learners across the state.

Concern about this lack of coherence and the impact on students, especially those who move frequently or attend Career Technical Education Centers from several different sending schools, gave “birth” to the Proficiency-Based Graduation Hierarchies. Content Specialists started by determining what it means to be literate in their content area and distilled the essential information into an overarching Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirement. Critical Proficiencies represent the enduring knowledge and skills within a content area and promote high expectations for all students. Priority Performance Indicators represent the skills and knowledge that will be taught and assessed. Finally, Proficiency Scales indicate the progression of learning over time. Once this information was drafted, the Hierarchies went through an internal review process using quality criteria documents as lenses for providing feedback. After an additional two rounds of feedback from the field, the Hierarchies were revised, finalized, and posted on the VT AOE website

Since Vermont is a local control state, supervisory unions and districts are not required to adopt the PBGR Hierarchies. However, in the spirit of continuous improvement, educators are encouraged to adopt the PBGR Hierarchies, adapt them to fit their context, or use each Hierarchy to refine locally defined PBGRs.  

  • Adopt: SU/SDs may choose to adopt the AOE PBGR Hierarchies. Broad adoption of these PBGR Hierarchies will help to ensure that students who move between schools or attend Career Technical Education Centers experience common expectations. Furthermore, common expectations between SU/SDs would also allow for collaborative processes of improvement.  
  • Adapt: SU/SDs may choose to adapt AOE developed PBGR Hierarchies to fit their own local context and student needs. It is recommended that student data and local portraits of a graduate be used as the basis for differentiation between local graduation requirements and the state models.  
  • Refine: Many SU/SDs have PBGRs in place. SU/SDs can use the AOE PBGR Hierarchies as a basis for quality assurance of local PBGRs by comparing and understanding their differences (e.g., why might a PPI that is emphasized in the state Math PBGR Hierarchy not be emphasized in the local Math PBGR). These conversations, reflections, or processes of comparison (between models and local policies/procedures/practices) are part of an iterative process of PBGR improvement that all SU/SDs are recommended to engage with. 

As part of VT AOE’s continuous improvement process, members of the Student Pathways Division are working with educators in SU/SDs to support the processes of adapting, adopting, or refining local PBGRs through Participatory Action Research (PAR)

Numerous resources have been developed over time to support Vermont’s efforts to implement proficiency-based learning. The Vermont Framework for Proficiency: Resources to Support Implementation is composed of stackable documents that enable educators to access the information that is most relevant to the needs of their particular school system. It is organized from a backward-designed perspective so that the initial documents lay the foundation for subsequent work and inform decisions regarding next steps. The resources also demonstrate how different parts of the Framework for Proficiency connect and build upon one another. The hope is that by sharing these resources and Vermont’s journey, others can benefit and join us on the road to proficiency.

Guest Blog written by Pat Fitzsimmons

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