Harwood is in the midst of switching to a proficiency-based learning system, but problems reporting students’ progress have some parents worried.

At the Harwood Unified Union School District’s (HUUSD) executive board meeting on March 22 administrators from throughout the school district presented their progress in implementing the new system. Proficiency-based learning is a way of measuring a student’s success without a standardized letter grade.

The presenting group of administrators included Lisa Atwood and Amy Rex, the co-principals at Harwood; Tom Drake, one of the principals at Crossett Brook Middle School; and Sheila Soule, the director of curriculum and assessment for the Washington West Supervisory Union.

They began the presentation with a short video put together by current Harwood students that explained the benefits of proficiency-based systems.

The video explained that with proficiency-based systems students could learn at different speeds in different subject areas based on an individual’s needs.

With traditional letter grades, one “bombed” test could irreparably damage that student’s final grade, but the new system is focused on whether or not the student can demonstrate and apply knowledge in the end, no matter how long it takes to get there, the video explained.


“Using only letter grades is a pretty limited way to assess learning,” the voice of the video, Anneka Williams, said, while adding, “What we sometimes call failure is simply another step in the learning process. Since proficiency systems don’t penalize us for making mistakes along the way we can take risks and learn more.”

Essentially, traditional grades do not properly show what the student is capable of, some educators argue.

Currently proficiency-based learning has already been implemented in grades five through eight at Crossett Brook Middle School and grades seven through nine at Harwood Union Middle and High School. The team of administrators explained that they plan to have fully implemented the system by 2020, when this year’s freshmen at Harwood graduate.

Drake presented the shift as a reaction to Act 44, which implemented a 100 percent graduation rate throughout Vermont by 2020, and Act 77, which mandated that local graduation policies must include proficiency-based learning requirements.

Students are required to demonstrate proficiency in literacy, mathematical content and practices, scientific content and practices, global citizenship, physical education, artistic expression and transferable skills.


Feedback on the system has been “all over the map,” according to the administrators. They have heard from parents who love the new program and there are others who simply want to go back to the more traditional grading system.

There were many parents in attendance that voiced concerns about progress reporting in the new system, although overall they seemed to think proficiency- based learning is a good idea. One of Fayston’s board representatives, Jill Ellis, asked Rex to bridge the gap for parents who are used to seeing tangible evidence of how their child is performing.

“There’s two questions there: One is the reporting piece and how is it that we can report so that parents are really clear about where their students are,” Rex responded, while adding, “We’ve tried this system that we’re using and it’s very complicated and we may need to make some revisions to that. It’s a priority for us to ensure that parents have that understanding and it’s not too complicated.”

The other question, Rex explained, was about opportunities to students and knowing what motivates them, which is a very personal topic. “I do believe that that begins with conversation with the classroom teachers,” she said.

“This whole shift really isn’t just about proficiency-based learning, it’s about personalized learning,” Rex finished.