The Confusion Around Proficiency Based Grading

How do you apply to college without a GPA? For several years, this has been a question for Harwood Union seniors. When a class of sixteen were asked recently about the application process, all described negative feelings. Nervous, confused, scared, stressed, frustrated, worried, anxious, concerned, and one even remarked, “I wasn’t sure I would be on the same playing field.” The reason these Harwood students don’t have a GPA is because of the proficiency-based grading system.  

Harwood has been using proficiency-based grading for six years now. Before the switch to proficiency-based grades, two years were spent working on perfecting them. Jess Deane has been a big part of building proficiency-based grading at Harwood. She has worked at Harwood since 2013 in the science department and only switched to working at the front office two years ago. She’s been involved with proficiency-based grading from the start. 

In 2017, every department was given the list of indicators, and each teacher decided which indicators they should use in their courses. After the first year of proficiency grading, all of the faculty came together to decide on indicators everyone would use. 

That’s how Harwood came up with its original ten proficiencies. “From last year to this year, a relatively large, but still kind of small shift is that we went from ten, learning expectations down to six.” The class of 2020 was the first to be assessed using proficiencies. When that class got to the tenth grade they started getting course scores. 

Vermont wasn’t the first to implement proficiency grading. Maine used proficiencies back in 2012, but in the summer of 2018, they eliminated them from schools. Only twenty percent of students at all eleven schools that had proficiencies had exposure to elements of proficiency-based learning, meaning they had some exposure to these techniques, but only limited data was obtained. Vermont and New Hampshire are the only states currently mandating statewide implementation. A number of states—including Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, and Utah have appropriated money for competitive grants for districts to design and implement competency-based education programs. Schools all over the country and world use many different types of grading systems, whether it’s traditional letter grading or numerical values. Some schools even have narrative transcripts and ways of reporting where you don’t get a numerical score or value at all. It’s just a tighter written reflection. 

 The biggest reason the state pushed for proficiencies was that they started learning more about how the brain works, and how to best prepare students for life after high school. Vermont gave schools some guidelines for what proficiency-based grading could look like. After Harwood was given their guidelines by the state, they started working on their new grading system. “And so the work started you’re building this theoretical system with very little guidance and trying to figure out what works when you’re not actually doing it yet. And it’s really challenging.” Erin Dezell is one of three guidance counselors at Harwood. When asked about why Harwood made the switch to proficiencies, she said, “The world is changing pretty fast. That’s why we have our learning expectations.”

The world might be changing fast, but the community didn’t like the idea of proficiency-based grading when it was first introduced. Most of the adults in the community grew up in a letter grading system and their transcripts would have had GPAs. Another concern that the community had was if students are able to revise their projects then all of them would have fours. A four is the highest grade you can get on an assignment. We wouldn’t want everyone to achieve the same grade because then it would be hard for teachers to figure out what students still need help with and what they’re excelling at.

Turns out, even with the ability to revise, getting a four can be difficult. When Jess Deane gave her first biology quiz under proficiency-based grading she said, “The quiz had three different indicators on it and students had to do a model of the cell, and they had to construct an explanation about each organelle and how it functions and when I scored the quiz and gave it back, like every single student had different scores on different indicators.” After that, she knew students’ grades would still fall across the scale.

 Though it’s growing in popularity, proficiency-based grading is still not a wide spread system. Students at Harwood, especially seniors, have had their fair share of concerns and doubts about this new grading system. Seniors were concerned that colleges wouldn’t be able to compare their grades to students from schools that still have letter grading. Counselors at Harwood worked very hard to communicate with colleges to make sure they made a transcript that colleges could understand easily. “When we had our first class graduating, We sent out mailings to around 600, maybe more, schools. We had a letter explaining this shift, we provided a test transcript, we provided our school profile and sent that out to all the schools that Harwood students had applied to over the last ten years. And then we made a lot of phone calls to admission offices, making sure they understood the transcripts Harwood provided,” Dezell explained. “Now even several years after having the proficiency system, we’re still making phone calls to colleges to make sure that we’re available to answer any questions they have. We haven’t seen a significant change in our admission rates.”

One of the main concerns students and parents share is how proficiency-based grading could affect financial aid. Dezell spoke with an admissions officer from the University of Texas at Austin, who told her, “They take into account what a proficiency-based transcript means, and are interpreting our transcript based on our school profile to determine that aid.”

Proficiency systems have their pros and cons, ups and downs that Harwood is still learning after only six years. As time goes by, it’s certainly been proven that Harwood’s students who were a part of the proficiency system are having great success as adults.