News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, April 17, 2014
Proficiency-based learning at DISHS
Students, teachers, parents discuss a new education model

Deer Isle-Stonington holds open forum on education

At the Reach Center in Deer Isle, Maine, DISHS English teacher Kimberly Larsen and senior Jared Gove discuss how proficiency-based learning works in the classroom on April 10, 2014 at the Reach Center.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Anne Berleant

Proficiency-based learning—where students hit specific learning targets before moving on to the next—is already a part of Deer Isle-Stonington High School.

But beginning in 2017, all secondary school diplomas must be proficiency based, per Title 20-A §4722-A of the Maine Revised Statues passed in 2011. Proficiency-based diplomas are based on students demonstrating they have met specific learning targets.

“If you don’t meet the standards the first time, you go back and correct it—with help,” said senior Jared Gove, one of a panel of students, teachers and parents introducing proficiency-based learning to the community at an April 10 forum at the Reach Center.

The learning goals are rigorous and, at least for now, based on the common core standards adopted by Maine (and 45 other states) since 2011.

“Instead of the bar being [a] 70, in proficiency based learning, the bar is [an] 85,” said English teacher Kimberly Larsen. “So students are constantly working.”

The standards are also consistent, with parents and students knowing “exactly what teachers expect.” Report cards will reflect the specific learning targets and where a student stands in regard to them.

“Grading is much more clear and consistent,” said student Ashley Haskell.

In proficiency-based learning, the learning methods may be different than the traditional path to graduation, but the goal is the same: to earn a diploma, be college-ready and have employable skills.

“Not enough students graduate with skills they need for the workplace,” said Principal Todd West.

West credits what he called “the new three Rs” of learning—1) proficiency-based, 2) personalized, and 3) multiple pathways—with already improving the DISHS graduation rate over the past five years.

In 2012, 94 percent of DISHS seniors earned diplomas; in 2013, that number was 90 percent. Both numbers are dramatically higher than the 57 percent graduation rate in 2009.

The Marine Studies Pathway, started this school year, is an example of giving students a different way to learn and earn diplomas. It combines classroom and hands-on learning as it prepares students for work in the fishing industry or to move on to higher education.

An Art Pathway will begin in the spring of 2015, and a Healthcare Pathway in the following fall, West said.

Panelist Robin Cust, parent of a sixth grader and educational coordinator at Opera House Arts, spoke in favor of proficiency-based learning. “It’s that engagement piece, that hands-on piece,” she said. “We have young people with a lot of drive, but maybe it’s not syncing with their school experience.”

The main difference in a proficiency-based learning class, said Gove, is “there’s a lot more out of class experience.”

“A better student-teacher relationship,” added student Holli Boyce.

West outlined two main parent concerns surrounding proficiency-based learning, that students will have to stay in high school longer if they can’t show they’re proficient and that the standards will be too low. Both are wrong.

“Standards are actually higher,” West said, and integral to proficiency-based learning is that the school and teachers are tasked with finding the ways students can meet learning goals.

“The obligation is on the teacher,” said West. “If a student is retaking an assignment three or four times and failing, then maybe we should teach it a little differently.”

One parent in the audience asked whether proficiency-based learning at DISHS will affect the elementary school curriculum.

“Absolutely,” said elementary school principal Mike Benjamin. “That trend is in our school now and will get stronger.”

Another parent questioned how college admissions offices would handle proficiency-based diplomas and transcripts.

Colleges compare students “from a range of high schools,” West said. Transcripts just have to explain the grading method and diploma.

Proficiency-based learning is trending through higher learning institutions as well. West pointed to the University of Maine at Presque Isle which is the “first proficiency-based college in the country.”

“Learning should teach real life,” West said. “Personalized learning has the power to transform our school so all students graduate ready for adult life.”