Changes at RUHS Generate Questions, Confusion – and Opportunities

Changes at RUHS Generate Questions, Confusion – and Opportunities

Recent changes in teaching, grading, and scheduling are generating questions among students and parents

There is change going on at Randolph Union High School this year – fairly significant change – and a lot of people are asking questions.

What’s with the change in scheduling? What’s this thing called proficiency-based learning? Are they really going to move away from traditional grading and report cards?  What is a personalized learning plan? How will all these changes impact my student?

Without a doubt, things are changing at RUHS this year, but they are also changing at high schools across Vermont – and there are plenty more changes yet to come.  So why all the changes, and why now? The answer begins with the recent passage of Act 77, also known as the “Flexible Pathways Initiative.” In its simplest form, the Flexible Pathways Initiative created a new set of policies that will govern how Vermont students will be educated and assessed as we move further into the 21st century.

The basic elements of these policies include flexible pathways and personalized learning plans (PLPs) for all students, which could include a blend of traditional classroom instruction and out-of-school learning, such as internships; proficiency-based graduation requirements; and new ways of assessing student performance (grading); all designed to improve educational options and life-after-high-school outcomes for students.

According to the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE), there may be as many unique pathways [to graduation], outside of the traditional in-class, in-school pathway, as there are students in Vermont. And if those various pathways are to be utilized, it will be necessary for teachers, administrators, students, and parents to be familiar with any and all school-based offerings, online learning opportunities, community work-based learning opportunities, and dual enrollment options. According to the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at UVM, PLPs can help students and families set goals and chart a pathway to graduation that’s personally meaningful to them. And by collaborating on their PLP with their teachers and family, students’ interests can be translated into real-world learning that can often exceed [traditional] standards for learning.

Under a PLP, in addition to traditional classroom learning, a student might work an internship at a local business or laboratory; take an online class; take one or more courses at a local college; or develop an independent study that combines all four. The result, if the goals of Act 77 are achieved, will be lower drop out rates, more engaged student learning, and better preparation for college or the workforce.

According to Heather Bouchey, deputy secretary of the AOE, many Vermont high schools, including RUHS, already have these kinds of alternative arrangements in place. “Act 77,” she said, “simply opened up the opportunity to all [Vermont] students.”

At RU, according to Co-Principal, Elijah Hawkes, “the critical elements of the personal learning plan are being built into a student’s personal learning portfolio and the advisory system.  Advisors help students to keep portfolios of their work, which they present to panels at the end of 8th and 10th grade.  Advisors also host twice-annual conversations with parents where students engage in short-term and long-term goal setting.  School Counselors, our Senior Project coordinator and our Director of Career and Workforce Development also work with the Advisory system and families to ensure students are choosing pathways toward graduation and beyond that meet their needs and goals.”

A second component of Act 77 is proficiency-based learning.  Under a proficiency-based learning model, a student’s education could take place in any number of settings, from the classroom to a job site to the Internet. And because those settings can be so varied, traditional ways of grading and assessing ‘proficiency’ are also evolving.

“To that end,” RUHS Co-Principal Elijah Hawkes said, “Vermont schools are changing how they score and grade student work, and how they communicate with students, parents, colleges, and employers about student achievement and progress.  As we move forward, Randolph Union will also be shifting to a system that communicates how proficient a student has become in his studies based on one or more standards.”

“At its heart,” Hawkes continued, “these changes are about empowering students and families with better information about how they are doing in their studies. Proficiency-based grading involves more precise and, we believe, more useful feedback than traditional credit-based grading systems.  For instance, instead of students getting a ‘72’ in Math, barely passing, getting a unit of credit, and then moving on to the next level, they will get feedback on several specific Math standards or ‘performance indicators’. If they can show proficiency in those standards, then we – and they – will know they are ready for the next level of work. A ‘72’ alone doesn’t give you much information at all about specific skills.  Proficiency-based systems are better at giving better information.”

“What this does,” Hawkes said, “is help students - and parents and teachers - better understand where a student excels, which could lead to opportunities for advanced work; as well as where a student may be struggling.  For instance, in an English class, a student could be excellent at reading and comprehension, but very poor at communicating it back verbally or in written form. Under a proficiency-based model, we’ll likely pick up on that deficiency much sooner and be able to focus on it. We implemented a new period at the high school this year called ‘call back’ where students have extra time to focus on specific skill proficiencies, whether advanced or remedial.”

Co-Princpal David Barnett noted that some elements of this new approach to teaching and grading are already in place at RU.  “For decades,” Barnett said, “we have graduated students by a proficiency-based assessment in Senior Project.  There are rubrics, based on standards, graded on a 4-point scale.  Because of this, students and the wider community are used to proficiency-based assessment already.  Students are also used to seeing a proficiency-based approach in their classes.  This takes the form of learning intentions - which are derived from standards - that show students what the proficiency focus is; and four-point proficiency scales on rubrics for many assignments, such as lab reports, math projects, and research papers. The new assessment and report card system that is coming for next year will just make all of this much more visible. Many Vermont schools are doing this already, and we’re able to learn from them about what works, and how to phase it in.”

Another concern among students and parents is report cards and transcripts, and specifically, whether college admissions officers will understand this new system of learning and assessment. For example: what if a college admissions officer is looking to fill that last available seat in the freshman class of a competitive university, and there are two candidates for admission. One has a “85” or a “B” in all of his subjects, and the Vermonter has a “3” or a “Proficient” in all of hers. Which applicant is more likely to get the seat?

According to Mike Stefanowicz, Director of Admission at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, the admission decision should not be impacted by whether a student has a proficiency-based or traditional transcript.

“When implemented effectively,” Stefanowicz said, “research shows that standards [or, proficiency] based learning facilitates all students achieving more.  Proficiency-based graduation requirements are [now] a statewide requirement, which is driving more schools to adopt proficiency based learning methods.  Personalized learning plans are just one the methods by which students might cultivate and demonstrate their proficiency in the standards assessed by proficiency-based graduation requirements.” 

“As far as college admission goes, we have always had to make decisions [based on] a number of variables, including letter grades, number grades, weighted GPA’s, un-weighted GPA’s, class rank provided, and no class rank provided.  Grades on a 1-4 proficiency scale are no different in terms of their value than grades on a 0-100 scale.  The key is that each transcript arrives at a college admission office with a school profile attached, showing how the grading scale works at that school, listing the school’s the graduation requirements, and describing any unique course names that show up on the transcript. It usually has a myriad of other information about the school as well.  As long as a school that switches to a 1-4 grading scale crafts their school profile well, colleges will know what the course grades mean.”

The New England Consortium of Secondary Schools (NECSS) and the Vermont State Colleges are in general agreement with Stefanowicz. According to the NECSS website:  Admissions offices receive a huge variety of transcripts, including transcripts from international schools, home-schooled students, and a wide variety of alternative educational institutions and programs that do not have traditional academic programs, grading practices, or transcripts.  Students with non-traditional transcripts—including “proficiency-based” or “competency-based” transcripts—will not be disadvantaged in any way during the admissions process. Colleges and universities simply do not discriminate against students based on the academic program and policies of the sending school, as long as those program and policies are accurately presented and clearly described.

NESCC goes on to say that 67 public and private institutions of higher education from across New England have already provided statements and letters stating—unequivocally—that students with proficiency-based grades and transcripts will not be disadvantaged in any way.

“The only word of caution I would offer to students in a proficiency based teaching and assessment system,” Stefanowicz said, “is that some colleges have very particular pre-requisites for certain majors, including many disciplines within health care, fine arts, or technology.  If a student with a personalized learning plan wants to meet his or her standards through a non-traditional pathway (like doing a Chemistry internship instead of taking a traditional Chemistry class), he or she should work with the school counselor to make sure that its clear to colleges how the student has met the standards.  In that example, colleges simply want to know that a student knows, understands, and can demonstrate the desired learning outcomes for that prerequisite.”

Finally, why all the changes in scheduling? As a number of parents have noted [some on the pages of the local paper], it appears that the new schedule is restricting students from participating in activities such as music, to the detriment of both the music program and the students’ high school experience.

“There were a number of reasons for moving to a seven period schedule this year,” Hawkes said.  “For the last ten years or more, RU students have graduated on average with 26 credits on their transcript, which is the equivalent of 6.5 or 7 classes each year.  With this data in mind, plus the flexibility a seven period schedule gives us, we thought it was reasonable to make the change as long as it had significant benefits and as long as we could ensure that students could continue to access enrichment, electives, remediation and study-time.  One thing we did this year to help with the schedule change was to create more opportunities for student athletes in a rigorously coached program to earn credit for work on Physical Education standards.  So students now have the flexibility to meet PE standards after 3 PM and take a Band class during the day.  Some students may not choose that option, but as long as we continue to think flexibly about where learning can happen, we can make sure students still have access to electives.”

Barnett added, “There are a lot of variables that go into determining what a student’s program of study looks like in a given semester, and one of the biggest variables is student enrollment and how many teachers we have. It’s no secret that Vermont is in a time of declining youth population. Here at RU we have many fewer students today than we did ten or even five years ago. In order to keep our per-pupil spending in line with state averages and mandates, we’ve had no choice but to reduce faculty over the past few years in nearly every department – from Humanities, to Fine Arts, PE, Math, Science, and Practical Arts. For instance, we had 1.3 music teachers last year.  This year we have 1.0.  Whether we are in a seven or eight period schedule, fewer teachers means fewer classes.”

We’re in a time of change,” concluded Barnett, “some of it mandated by the State; some of it a natural response to the changing times in which we live; and some of it the unfortunate result of declining numbers of young people. But we’re confident – excited really – about the opportunities that will come with personalized and proficiency-based learning. Yes, there will still be traditional indicators of learning such as SATs, GPAs, AP courses, and grades from duel enrollment classes. But what we believe will get better, vastly better, is everyone’s understanding of student interests, passions, strengths, and weaknesses. And that knowledge will guide the personalized learning plan that will prepare him or her for the next stages of their lives.”

Lastly, how are students at RUHS feeling about the changes?  In that regard, the jury is still out, but a comment following a recent study by Harvard University, conducted at schools in Vermont and New Hampshire – including RUHS – does provide some reassurance.  In preliminary findings, according to the researcher who interviewed focused groups of RUHS faculty, administrators, and students, “[It is] the students' universal experience that the school now offers them meaningful opportunities for choice and student-directed learning, and that these did not exist just a few years ago. They talked about how important this is to them and how much more engaged they are as a result.”



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