Education or aggravation?



Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

Elizabeth Pietras, Writer

As the holiday season comes to an end, exams are just around the corner, leading many BFA students, with the exception of the class of 2019, to wonder how semester exams will affect their proficiency-based scores.

In 2016, as enforced by state law, BFA switched from a traditional grading system, consisting of an A through F scale, to a proficiency based system in which all students are required to have a 3 out of 4 score in a class’s overall standards to “pass” and get credit.

With the class of 2020 as guinea pigs to the experiment, BFA’s interpretation of proficiency based scoring has changed over the years, through much trial and error.

While the growth and experience is beneficial administration, this inconsistency has left many a student confused on what their grade really means in term of knowledge and growth.

According to the Vermont Agency of Education, assessments and reporting in proficiency based learning (PBL) system focuses on “content knowledge, skills, and understanding, as well as on transferable skills. Assessments can take various forms, such as performance assessments, benchmarking, diagnostics, interim, summative, and formative assessments.” In other words, the purpose of proficiency based learning is to improve one’s score over time, not, like traditional grading, to achieve a high percentage of good scores.

For some teachers, this is their first year using the new grading system. Jana Rheaume has been a teacher in the BFA mathematics department for 15 years, and is teaching her first class of 2020 graduates this year. Due to her mixed classes, Rheaume has decided to treat the significance of the midterm the same in both grading systems.

“It’s gonna be kind of different for me because all [of my] classes have at least a couple seniors in them, so I’ve done a mixture of traditional and standards based grading,” Rheaume said, “[For kids graded through proficiencies, the significance of their midterms grade] should be about the same, 10-15%, as the seniors.”

However, this approach does not appear to align with the goals of proficiency based grading, which focuses more on growth than overall percentage.

Mary Ellen Tourville is a teacher in the BFA English department. This year will be her second year using the new grading system. Tourville says she has changed her approach to semester finals to be “proficiency friendly.”

“I used to give tests or essays, but since I’ve started the proficiency based grading, I will give students a progress report so they can see what all of their [standards] are, and then for the exam I offer a menu of options where they can pick what they want,” Tourville said, “If somebody’s not proficient in reading, they’ll have some reading assessments that they can do to demonstrate that they can get threes. They can basically pick and choose all [proficiency standards] or they choose one. They’re required to choose at least one, even if they’re already proficient because they could still demonstrate exceeding the proficiency.”

“Exceeding the proficiency,” is a term in PBL for a score of four out of four. Tourville treats midterms not as a nerve wracking assessment counting for half a semester grade, but as an opportunity for students to improve and grow, even students who exceed proficiency in all standards already.

“I will give [students exceeding proficiencies] a challenge task which will help them learn something new and push them beyond where they’re currently at. Obviously that doesn’t affect their score, but it affects their learning and I feel that’s very important,” Tourville said.

Midterms, Tourville says, are a last opportunity for students to improve their scores before the semester ends and not a huge, stressful exam. As teachers at BFA continue to use the proficiency based grading system, more are adapting to this  opportunity based strategy. However, there are still teachers who have yet to use this new system of grading or, like Rheaume, are entering their first year, thus, it may be a few years before all teachers have become as familiarized with standards as Tourville.

Nevertheless, semester exams seem to be a win for proficiency based grading, putting much less stress and pressure on students than a traditional approach, potentially improving student’s mental health, a topic covered in my previous article, The silent epidemic. While navigating through a proficiency based world can be tricky and uncertain, rest assured, semester exams are changing for the better.