In my last post I talked about the three (possibly) faulty assumptions at work in the proficiency argument, and now I am going to talk about four problems with the implementation of HB 2220.

Problem #1: The implementation costs will impose a staggering burden on the professional development and financial systems of Oregon’s school districts.

The time and resources that districts across the state are going to have to invest to implement this legislation is staggering. Teachers must become acquainted with what the law says, then adjust their district-wide, building-wide and classroom policies to match said legislation. The workload that American teachers face is a heavy one. Thinking through this legislation, along with the teacher evaluation program that my district is piloting, leaves me pondering just what I am not supposed to do, so that I can comply with these new requirements.

Problem #2: Traditional incentives that motivate students to attend class will be curtailed.

Our building invested tremendous amounts of time and energy last winter and spring to develop an attendance policy that would help students be in class more. You don’t have to be in the field of education to know that class attendance is paramount to student growth. In our neighboring high school this attendance policy was very effective in helping students to be in class. Unfortunately, after months of work and very high hopes from our staff, we have learned that we will be unable to implement this policy because it uses the final grade as a motivator to deter skipping, and behavior now cannot be involved in a student’s final academic grade. If I understand the behavior component of this bill correctly, our hands are being tied with respect to punitive incentives to help students come to class. This makes me incredibly nervous.

Problem #3: There are doubts as to the effectiveness of proficiency-based systems and student achievement.

Proficiency did not help my students the first time I rolled it out. I have had to modify the system I use in many ways to make it the most effective that it can be for my students. Many of the tactics that I have used in my class will now not be available to me. My first term of teaching with a proficiency-based assessment system culminated with a pile of papers over two feet tall. Most of the assignments and assessments, some of which were three months late, were of extremely poor quality. I spent countless hours the last week of the term grading subpar work. Students who submitted the papers were shocked to learn that their work was not proficient, and that they would not pass. These students were not helped by that system.

Dan Ariely, an author and professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, shares the example of a professor at MIT who conducted a social experiment in two of his classes. In one class, this professor kept his normal due dates for assignments. In a second class he allowed students to set their own due dates. The most successful was the group that had traditional due dates. The group that set their own due dates performed worse in the course for a variety of reasons. (The research is fascinating and, if you have time, I suggest you read it over for yourself. The example I cite here is found beginning on page 6.)

Problem #4: Post-secondary education and careers do not operate on similar proficiency systems.

If we teach our students to play ball in a system that does not take behavioral skills into account, we are doing our students a tremendous disservice. Academic behavior is an incredibly vital piece of educating our young people. To separate that from a final grade is unfair to the student. Students could potentially move on to college, miss a paper’s due date, and be shocked to learn that a professor will not accept the paper three weeks later. Our children may be horrified to learn that showing up to work late is unacceptable. They could graduate thinking, “If I flip the burgers correctly, why do they care what time I come in?” It is essential that we teach our students real world skills, content and behaviors.

As we conclude, I want to reiterate that I am a firm believer and practitioner of many of the tenets of proficiency. But, like any system, it is not perfect. As we wade into the school year we will see the impact this legislation will have on our students, teachers and schools. I know that both educators and legislators have students’ best interests at heart. My sincere hope is that in June we will be happy with the choice we made.

Here is a link to FAQ about HB 2220.

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5 Responses to “The Problem with Proficiency: Part 2”

  1. Michelle Jensen says:

    Tyler, your post provides us with some valuable food for thought as we move forward with new–and hopefully much improved–assessment systems. Our students’ success depends on how well we journey together, and that we arrive together, without too much delay, at the right destination. Thanks for shining a light down the road.

  2. Hi Tyler,

    I have taken the time to read both of your blog posts and have reflected on them over the past few days. I disagree with you on some of your assumptions about the intent of HB2220, but I wanted to focus my response on the problems you identified about proficiency based grading. Regardless, I think this is a much needed conversation to have in #ORedu.

    “Proficiency” is a relative term. Depending on what region of the globe you are in, I have heard the concept referred to as standards-based, achievement based, outcomes based, and proficiency. In my opinion, all of these terms have the same basic core assumptions about how we approach grading and reporting. The two core values at the heart of the philosophy is:

    1. Grading is a means of reporting and communicating. It is very different than assessment. They are not the same.

    2. Traditional grading is not very clear because it is representative of many different things. To address this, things that represent academic achievement should be reported separately from non-academic qualities (behavior, responsibility, etc.) This is not to say value does not exist in reporting non-academic qualities, just report them separately.

    There are several people in education who have done great work regarding the benefits of this philosophical shift. I recommend reading the work of Guskey and Wormeli to start.

    To address the problems that you have identified, I find it interesting that all four of them really do not have much to do with student achievement. I feel your argument really focuses on student behavior.

    Your first problem is a pretty bold claim regarding our school district’s professional development and financial systems will experience a “staggering burden.” While I agree that with any change or reform, school districts and teachers might face bumps in the road, I don’t see the burden you are referring to. Quite frankly, I really don’t think problem #1 has anything to do with a legislation mandate. In my opinion, the spirit of HB2220 has much more to do with a belief of what an academic grade should represent. I believe it seeks to provide clarity and consistency in how we communicate achievement in school districts. I don’t think it attempts to alter how we instruct, or how we develop and improve the practices that teachers use in the classroom.

    In problems 2-4, you continually came back to student behaviors being a problem with proficiency. I really struggle to see the connection because proficiency is supposed to be representing academic achievement. Report both achievement and behavior, but report them separately! Some of the recurring things you mention in those paragraphs are: attendance, behavior, punitive incentives (how are punishments an incentive?), due dates, showing up to work late, etc. To me, the core of your argument is that you feel that students need to be taught academic content and behaviors in school and that proficiency-based systems only measure academic content. I absolutely agree with you that students need to be taught both, and I absolutely disagree with you that a proficiency based system undermines this.

    With all due respect, the way you compose your argument in this blog post paints of a picture that you have some really negative assumptions about student attitudes and non-linear paths to learning. I don’t feel that this was your intent, however, so I would love to be able to continue the conversation with you about it. It is difficult to do that when we are only responding in writing.

    I do agree with you that there are some potential problems with implementation of HB2220. I would identify some of the key problems as:

    1. School districts determining proficiency only through the means of summative multiple choice tests.

    2. School districts interpreting proficiency as only reporting academic achievement and not reporting academic behaviors whatsoever.

    3. School districts not providing clarity as to what it means to be proficient. What does this mean and who is determining it? Are schools working in PLC teams to develop common formative assessment and working together to articulate the standards that are taught in content area courses?

    4. Teachers not receiving any education or support in this transition of reporting things differently.

    Those are my thoughts, I hope to keep the discussion going. Enjoy the rest of your summer and good luck this year!

  3. Tyler Nice says:

    Hey Adam,
    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I am about 30 minutes away from heading on a camping trip, but I wanted to just throw a few things out there with the hopes of continuing a constructive conversation. (I am trying to enjoy every last minute of summer!)
    I think you hit the nail on the head by noticing that the problems I identified have to do with the separation of behavior and academics. That was the most troubling thing about this bill to me. I don’t even mind the idea of teachers separating those out, but I do see it as problematic that the state would mandate that depth of methodology to all teachers in the state. I am of the persuasion that behavior has a huge impact on one’s academic performance. And, just for clarity, when I say behavior I specifically referring to attendance, class participation, prompt assignment completion, etc. Not just students being polite in class.
    If you and I met I think you would really quickly see that I have a positive hopeful attitude toward students and creative ways to help students get ready for their next steps in life. (some of my colleagues may even say too creative) I am very open to new innovative ways to help kids grow. As I stated above, my schools conversations about proficiency were extremely influential in my classroom practices. I actually love the changes I made and where I am now. I outline a few of them more specifically in the opening of part 1.
    But, I use a blend of ways to encourage kids to fully participate. I accept late work for full credit. But, I have cut off dates to when I will accept them. My class attendance and tardies dramatically improved when I assigned minimal credit to them.
    The question becomes for me: what innovations do we allow teachers to incorporate as individuals, and what innovations do we force all teachers to adopt.
    HB 2220 says behaviors cannot be included in a final grade. I don’t think that is helpful. Sounds like you can see this concern as well. You mention that in #2 of your concerns.
    Some of my coworkers are really upset about the hard work invested in an attendance policy that will have to be thrown out. An attendance policy that has proven at our neighboring HS to increasing attendance and therefore academic achievement.
    My guess is that you are a fan of this legislation. Imagine if this were an innovation that in your experience you didn’t find particularly helpful? That is the boat that many of your colleagues find themselves.
    And of course you know how punishments are incentives! This is exampled every time you step on the brake when you see a police car:)

    Either way, it is interesting to have a conversation about it, and I appreciate the ability to have a conversation about it!

  4. Tyler Nice says:

    I wonder also if part of the disagreement lies within the distinction of a final grade for academic behaviors. I agree that we should separate behaviors from academic feedback 100%.
    We use “I can” statements at our school, and students get feedback as to their proficiency toward those statements.
    I just don’t see a problem with specific behaviors playing a role in a student’s final grade.

  5. Hi Tyler:

    Great read about proficiency-based education. As you know, with any educational reform, the implementation and execution of the new system varies from district to district, school to school, and (gasp!) even teacher to teacher.

    I have been working for the last few years at the Redmond Proficiency Academy, a public charter school in Central Oregon. The school started with 150 students in 2009 and has grown to 700+ students for the 2013-2014 school year. Interestingly, the school was founded – in part – because of several of the concerns you directly addressed (time/grading/workload, behavior reinforcement, etc.) In other words, it was difficult for staff to authentically use a proficiency-based model in time/space/schedule constrained system. After all, one of the main tenets of the proficiency model is that “time is the variable, learning is the constant.”

    To that end, I would hope that your staff could dive deep into your new attendance policy/behavior supports and actually enforce it! To give you an idea of how we address this, we have a “proficiency” and “career learning standards” grades built into the gradebook. So, yes, we report two separate grades at the end of the semester and unlike some schools, we actually tag the “career learning” grade (aka CRLS) with credits so it impacts the students’ GPA. While it may seem like we are back to a traditional grading model with this approach, the truth is we are able to analyze a report card by specific and meaningful conversations about academic and behavior/career (employability) performance.

    As you stated, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the proficiency-based model. With post-secondary institutions reporting 30-60% remediation rates, we know grade inflation is an issue at the high school level. I am curious how THS defines the proficiency model – I often hear it defined as “well, we let kids retake tests” or “oh, yeah, that’s the system with no due dates, right?” Funny stuff.

    I am convinced that ‘proficiency’ has become just another buzz word in Oregon; do schools really change the way they assess? Do students have more choice in demonstrating proficiency, including out of school activities and work experience? Do schools have systems in place to support students and personalize their learning pathways? Do students take ownership and analyze their own proficiency levels in their respective courses? And, finally, is ‘proficiency’ just a OAKS or CCSS % or is it demonstrating skill and ability in the high order skills via Bloom’s Taxonomy?

    Anyway, thanks for writing and posting this piece. I am interested to hear more about your constraints in this system and how time/schedule is impacted by the proficiency model adoption.

    Thanks again,


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