Proficiency-based system gets high marks from Forest Grove principals

On the plus side, student collaboration and SAT scores are up.

On the down side, pupils often procrastinate before completing their work, and Credit for Proficiency is admittedly labor-intensive for teachers and administrators.

But during a check-in with the Forest Grove School Board last week, two principals said local efforts to reinvent the way students make the grade are producing the desired results.

“We expect proficiency, and not at the expense of rigor,” Forest Grove High School Principal Karen Robinson told board members Feb. 11. “These kids are working hard, and they’re making progress.”

Since FGHS switched from a traditional grading system to a proficiency-based system four years ago — putting a far greater emphasis on demonstrated student learning than on test scores alone — that structure has undergone a giant metamorphosis. “Constant refinement” has put a laser focus on essential standards required by the state, noted Robinson.

“We are expecting more and more collaboration by students,” she said. “Their grade is based on learning and not on seat time.”

Positive behavior

Brandon Hundley, principal at Neil Armstrong Middle School, said proficiency-based learning had positively affected student behavior on campus. “We’re at 58 percent of what we had as far as referrals to the office,” he said.

Turning in homework continues to be a problem, Hundley added, but that’s because seventh-graders who’ve just come from the upper elementary school are still getting used to academic expectations in seventh- and eighth-grade. “That’s one of our biggest challenges, he said.

Hundley also applauded the proficiency system for the way it more closely links teachers to students. “It makes relationships an essential part of learning,” he said.

A “wider use of proficiency” statewide and in Forest Grove — with NAMS following suit three years ago — has become the norm, said Assistant Superintendent John O’Neill. “Now, 90 percent of a student’s course grade is based on core standards,” he said.

'Really worried'

Board chairwoman Alisa Hampton said that when FGHS became one of the first high schools in Oregon to jump on the proficiency bandwagon in 2009, she was “really worried about how it would work.” But as tweaks have been made to the program, such as clearer communication with parents, her fears have largely been allayed, she added.

Kate Grandusky worried about how proficiency grading affects English language learners and special education students, but Robinson said that one of the advantages of the system is that it “takes into account the different rates at which students learn.”

Additional improvements can always be made, Robinson said.

“There are a few kids who still wait until the end of the semester to do the work, because they know they can,” she said, referring to the aspect of Credit for Proficiency that allows pupils to turn in multiple versions of assignments until their best work emerges. “But most of them are catching on and just getting the work done from the get-go.”

Hundley noted that grade inflation — the discrepancy between report card grades and how a student performs on the SAT or ACT — is something administrators are studying.

Proficiency learning amounts to “a constant refinement,” said Robinson. “It is written in chalk. It has to be a continuing conversation.” Still, she said staff have their eye on the prize.

"Graduation is Job 1," Robinson noted.

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