This week I was introduced to the concept of Proficiency -based learning. And I must say I was charmed by this concept. Proficiency-based learning refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education.
Defining proficiency-based learning is complicated by the fact that educators not only use a wide variety of terms for the general approach, but the terms may or may not be used synonymously from place to place. A few of the more common synonyms include competency-based, mastery-based, outcome-based, performance-based, and standards-based education, instruction, and learning, among others.
Proficiency-based teaching and learning builds upon and enhances standards-based education with the following common features:
Student centered instruction: The individual student is at the center of the learning process; the teacher acts on the expectation that all students will achieve at a proficient level given the necessary supports. Teachers adjust instruction to allow students to learn at their own rates and provide supports to all students.
Standards-based: Explicit learning outcomes or targets are derived from well-defined standards that clearly articulate what students must know and be able to do.
Student engagement: Once students understand the learning targets and proficiency levels to be attained, they take responsibility and ownership for their learning with appropriate teacher support. Students are active, intentional partners in the learning process
Students are evaluated on performance: Students demonstrate that they have become proficient at each learning outcome/target. Students are allowed multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning. Grading and credits are based on demonstrated proficiency only.
Formative assessment: On-going formative assessments are used throughout the instructional cycle to monitor student progress, provide feedback on learning goals, adjust instruction and provide additional supports.
Collaboration among educators: Teachers work collaboratively with colleagues to improve instruction based on student outcomes. Professional learning communities are focused and targeted on instructional effectiveness.
Instructional leadership: The principal and district office create the necessary conditions in the school to support teachers’ proficiency-based practice.
Learning vs. time based: Students move at their own pace. Seat time is not the measure of learning.
If students fail to meet expected learning standards, they typically receive additional instruction, practice time, and academic support to help them achieve proficiency or meet the expected standards. In practice, proficiency-based learning can take a wide variety of forms from state to state or school to school—there is no single model or universally used approach.
While schools often create their own proficiency-based systems, they may also use systems, strategies, or models created by state education agencies or outside educational organization.
Proficiency-based learning is generally seen as an alternative to more traditional educational approaches in which students may or may not acquire proficiency in a given course or academic subject before they earn course credit, get promoted to the next grade level, or graduate. While the goal of proficiency-based learning is to ensure that more students learn what they are expected to learn, the approach can also provide educators with more detailed or fine-grained information about student learning progress, which can help them more precisely identify academic strengths and weakness, as well as the specific concepts and skills students have not yet mastered.
When schools transition to a proficiency-based system, it can entail significant changes in how a school operates and teaches students, affecting everything from the school’s educational philosophy and culture to its methods of instruction, testing, grading, reporting, promotion, and graduation. Schools may also use different methods of instruction and assessment to determine whether students have achieved proficiency, including strategies such as demonstrations of learning, learning pathways, personal learning plans, portfolios, rubrics, and capstone projects, to name just a few.
Proponents of proficiency-based learning may argue that the approach greatly improves the chances that students will learn the most critically important knowledge, concepts, and skills they will need throughout their lives, and that proficiency-based learning can help to eliminate persistent learning gaps, achievement gaps, and opportunity gaps.
Critics of proficiency-based learning may argue that the transition will require already overburdened teachers to spend large amounts of time—and possibly uncompensated time—on extra planning, preparation, and training, and that proficiency-based learning can be prohibitively difficult to implement, particularly at a statewide level.