By Anneka Williams, Harwood Union correspondent

In a time of educational changes for Vermont, members of the Harwood Union High School (HUHS) community have mixed feelings about the shift to Proficiency-Based Learning (PBL).

“I began learning about standards-based and then Proficiency-Based Learning about 16 years ago,” said Amy Rex, co-principal. “After seeing models, learning how to design units and lessons with this methodology and then implementing them in my classes, I noticed significant changes in both student engagement and achievement. With that said, I am very excited that Harwood, the Washington West Supervisory Union, and the state of Vermont are making the shift.”

The shift to PBL involves a shift from letter grades to a grading system based on proficiencies. The key idea? All students must become proficient in specific aspects of a subject. Students can no longer just pass a course by getting a D or higher; they must show mastery of the content to a degree consistent with set standards.

Freshmen at HUHS have mixed feelings about the initiative. “I like PBL in the sense that it actually shows how you are doing with your schoolwork, but I think that a lot of people’s grades will go down once letter grades are taken away,” explains one HUHS freshman student.

Many other students expressed their concern that students will lose motivation when letter grades are taken away. Rex, however, stresses that the present grading system “does not provide information about the current state of a student in his/her learning process and/or what the student needs to do to meet a level of proficiency.”

One of the goals of the PBL grading scale is to give students more qualitative feedback about their progress in a class. “I am concerned,” said a HUHS freshman, that “if every student must graduate with proficiency, what will be different among students entering college?” This seems to be a valid point, as one of the main insecurities of high school students is getting into the college of their choice.

As other schools in New England shift to PBL, however, colleges must begin to recognize this shift in education and adapt to nontraditional transcripts and the PBL grading scale. PBL might even allow students to be more successful in college and beyond, according to its proponents.

It may achieve “greater accountability by the system to graduate students who have demonstrated that they achieved the knowledge and skills identified to a level which allows them to be successful in career and college,” said Rex.

While HUHS freshman have valid concerns about PBL, some of them also recognize the benefits. “I think PBL is a better way for kids to exemplify their learning,” said one freshman.

Both students and teachers recognize that the shift to PBL may be rocky. “Teachers will need to design differently and many have already made, or have begun to make, the shift,” Rex explained. “In a Proficiency-Based Learning model, teachers need to first identify what students are to learn and be able to do. These learning objectives need to be aligned with the graduation proficiencies and subsequent performance indicators. The teacher then must make these objectives and the assessment criteria to measure them transparently – a change in practice for many teachers. Furthermore, this new practice will change how the teacher and students communicate.”

PBL not only represents a change in grading scales and transcripts but also a change in the roles of teachers and students. The HUHS schedule next year will include an Extended Learning Opportunity Block, a time for students to work with teachers to become proficient in areas where they may need extra help.

Some students may even choose to pursue nontraditional types of learning such as internships or independent studies. “I am hopeful we can create a system for on-site internships – independent learning opportunities by utilizing experts in our communities,” Rex said.