Standards-based graduation requirements
Rutland High School - Rutland, VT
Three New England states – Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire – have passed laws in recent years that require high schools to move to standards-based graduation requirements. “This approach focuses on students’ demonstration of proficiencies and skills, rather than the time they spend sitting in a class,” says Greg Schillinger, Associate Principal of Rutland High School in Rutland, Vermont. In Vermont, the requirement takes effect with the graduating class of 2020; consequently, schools across the state have been planning changes to transition to these Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements.
While Rutland High School had shifted its focus to standards-based learning prior to Vermont’s legislation, faculty formalized this work with a three-year plan to implement Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements. Schillinger reports that the work has gone well and is paying off. He adds that NEASC resources have actually helped make the transition easier. “We are able to use NEASC’s annotated bibliography, model schools program, and other resources to help implement best practices, be accredited and fulfill state requirements – all at once,” he says. Schillinger believes that NEASC resources are helpful in part because standards-based learning has already been a part of accreditation expectations for two decades. “NEASC’s ‘challenging and measurable 21st century learning expectations’ are the definition of standards or proficiencies at the state-wide and national level,” he says.
Rutland’s three-year plan began in the 2014-15 school year with work to determine standards for all core courses. Faculty created 3 to 6 overarching standards for each department that aligned with Vermont transferable skills, the state-required school-wide standards. Within each course, teachers developed prioritized standards that lined up with these department standards. Once course standards were mapped, teachers spent the 2015-16 school year adapting their instruction, assessment and feedback. “Instruction and assignments are planned around what a student should be able to do by the end of the course, rather than around subject matter,” Schillinger says.
In the 2016-17 school year, Rutland is implementing proficiency-based grading, with teacher feedback that references the standards and inclusion of the standards on report cards. “It’s not a grade or a number anymore, but about whether students are meeting course standards, like analyzing text deeply enough,” Schillinger notes. This change shifts the nature of student-teacher conversations around grades as well. “Students used to ask to do extra credit to move an 89 to 93, for example,” he says, “but the extra work may have been unrelated to where they needed improvement.” He says that students now get specific feedback about areas for improvement and that interventions address students’ deficits. “Standards-based feedback has also changed student outlook on what they’re trying to achieve,” he says, “making it about learning, rather than just making an A.”
Rutland is tracking student and school-wide progress in meeting course standards, but Schillinger adds that the accreditation process has also helped Rutland High School ensure that it is achieving a standards-based learning environment. “It starts with the self-reflection,” he says. “In every situation we have to ask ourselves: does this help us reach our school-wide learning expectations?” Schillinger notes that accreditation is the only comprehensive third-party look into how schools are supporting standards-based learning, which can be helpful to schools making the transition. “NEASC actually looks to see if curriculum documents are aligned with school-wide standards and if schools are allocating resources to ensure they can meet the Proficiency-Based Graduation Requirements,” he says.
All of Rutland’s course standards are now tied to 21st Century Learning Expectations, but Schillinger notes that there isn’t a direct one-to-one match in all cases. “Not everything we teach can be encapsulated in a handful of school-wide standards,” he says. “Likewise, not every course can teach to every school-wide standard.” Schillinger doesn’t believe that schools need to have every single assessment or proficiency scale perfectly rewritten to switch to standards based grading – but that this work does take planning. Rutland High School starts one hour later each Wednesday, during which teachers meet by course level in professional learning communities (PLCs). Faculty meetings and in-service time have also been devoted to facilitating discussions of how to meet school-wide standards. “A teacher may love to teach a certain text or subject,” Shillinger says, “but if it addresses a standard we’ve already met, we need to teach something else.”