Understanding Proficiencies

Big Picture South Burlington is currently one of a few schools in state that uses Proficiency-based Graduation Requirements (PBGRs), but a statewide shift towards proficiencies is happening now. Starting with the graduating class of 2020, all Vermont Public Schools will be graduating students based on proficiencies. You can learn more about the Vermont PBGR requirement here.

In order for our community to grow and prosper, we need to help our students gain the skills that will enable them to succeed in this rapidly changing world.  At Big Picture South Burlington, we do not have grades, but rather a set of skills that students must show they have acquired by the time they graduate. We set the standards high, and provide a variety of pathways for students to meet them. For example, there are many different ways to learn how to cook a good meal; whether it be working with a master chef, reading cookbooks, experimenting with food in your own kitchen, or having an internship in a restaurant.  All those paths can lead to a delicious dinner, even though each chef had a different method of training that worked best for her.  Setting proficiencies for graduation is like setting the standard for a good meal; students really need to show they have the skills to get credit.

At Big Picture South Burlington we us Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements to determine if students are ready to graduate based on their ability to demonstrate what they know, what they understand, and what they are able to do.

Unpacking the Change

Vermont schools are transitioning to have all students graduate by means of proficiencies (skill demonstration) instead of “Carnegie Units,” (which measure the amount of “seat time” a student has spent in a class). The Carnegie system of measuring student work dates back to 1906, when industrialist Andrew Carnegie invented the system in order to standardize teaching in the US.

In 1993, Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, said the following, however, about the Carnegie Unit: “I am convinced the time has come to bury, once and for all, the old Carnegie Unit. Further, since the Foundation I now head created this academic measurement nearly a century ago, I feel authorized… to officially declare [it] obsolete… I find it disturbing that students can complete the required courses, receive a high school diploma, and still fail to gain a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated, more authentic view of life.” 

For more than a century, American high school students have earned “credits” for passing courses. When they accumulate enough credits, they receive a diploma. The problem with this approach is that credits do not always equal competency. Every year, students across the country graduate knowing calculus, while others struggle with basic arithmetic. Some leave with strong writing and research skills, while others are only minimally literate. Clearly, a high school diploma means very different things for different students.

With the Carnegie so deeply entrenched in peoples’ minds, students, parents and educators are all asking a similar question: If we don’t give credit hours and letter grades, what else are we to do? proficiency-based diploma is one option.

What is a Proficiency-based Diploma? (Excerpted from New England Secondary Schools Consortium “I Want to Know More”)

Simply put, a proficiency-based diploma is a graduation decision based on students demonstrating what they have learned. In practice, it means that every student must show—by writing a paper, delivering a presentation, or completing a challenging project, for example—that they have acquired a minimum level of  proficiency and competence when it comes to mastering the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college, work, and life.