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learn-897410_640Today when I sat down with my colleagues, I asked for help in answering the question of what a proficiency-based diploma means for English learners. It’s definitely not all in a day’s work…

The whole proficiency-based learning movement started to make diplomas mean something.

“Schools use proficiency-based learning to raise academic standards, ensure that more students meet those higher expectations, and graduate more students better prepared for adult life.”

Yes. Sure. Who wouldn’t want that for their students? I mean, I want my own children, and all of my students, to be held to the highest standards and become productive members of society.

But it’s not that simple.

I think that people forget that the district gets new students at all levels–K to 12–with all sorts of different educational backgrounds.

I have had 19-year-old 9th graders in my class who are functionally illiterate in all languages.

So what does proficiency mean for that student?

And what about students who qualify for special education services? Some will make those proficiencies, but will all? I doubt it.

So what does it mean? Nobody seems to know yet. And at least in my corner of the world, nobody is really ready to name it and tackle the issue.

Do we need two levels of diploma? Or are we willing to keep students starting with all the strikes against them (never had formal education, can not read or write in any language, already are “old” in the eyes of the school, are traumatized/emotionally scarred by life) until they finish?

That could be a really long time.

Researchers generally say it takes five to seven years to achieve in school at the level of one’s peers.

But this is assuming that you are starting with the same basic language abilities. If you’re 6 or 7, you already know the basics of reading. If you’re 10, you should know how to read quite well in your own language. Oh, and write, too.

But if you come to the U.S. school system when you are 19 and you don’t really read in your own language, that puts you a few rungs farther down the ladder. Now researchers have amended their prior assertions on the time for language acquisition; researchers say it could take 10 years or more. Add (undiagnosed) trauma, (undiagnosed) learning disabilities, and we could easily be talking about 30-year-old students being commonplace in the hallways of my school–if they stay until they are as proficient as your average .

In Vermont, there is no age cap. That means that every person who wants to attend public school can.

And that complicates things.

It’s not that I don’t want these students–my students–to have an opportunity to get an education. It’s that we need to define what it means to graduate under this new system.

This year’s 9th-graders are to be the first to graduate with a proficiency-based diploma. And now is definitely the time to define what that means for populations who fit outside the mainstream.

My colleagues and I, in looking at the proficiencies we’ve developed in our own department, have determined we roughly get students to about a 4th-grade level by the time they leave us, whether that is in grade 9 or grade 12. (The course I teach focuses on kindergarten standards: Colors, numbers, knowing your address, birthdate, naming body parts, & etc. Essential real-world knowledge. But not by any means 9th grade content.)

But then there are huge gaps between where we say they are ready for mainstream classes and what they need to demonstrate to meet graduation proficiencies at a 12th grade level.

path-1209171_640It’s a conundrum. And it has everything to do with multiple pathways to learning. But to do that, someone has to lead. Someone has to be partnering with businesses willing to take students who need to find an alternative path toward graduation, so they can demonstrate that they have the math skills, English skills, reading skills, writing skills and just plain human skills to successfully get and keep a job. Or just be a productive member of society.

But this is a HUGE job. You have to define what “counts.” And there have to be pathways cut. Students can’t just do that on their own; if they could, they’d have done it already.

Who will forge that path so students can see what they have to do?

I guess we’ll see as days pass.

But we shouldn’t wait too long…



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