The Second Pillar: Proficiency Based Learning

Today's blog is from PLP Pathways contributor Kevin Hunt. Kevin teaches grades 5 - 8 on the Swift House at Williston Central School. He can be reached @kmphunt22 on Twitter.

Recently, at a faculty meeting, the topic of discussion was proficiency based learning. We watched a comprehensive video called “What’s the Deal with Proficiency Based Learning” and chatted with colleagues about some of the big take- aways and implications for our teaching.

While I was listening to the conversation, I couldn’t help but to think about our last PLP Pathways webinar and the discussion we had about proficiencies and their place within the PLP structure. Between the video and insights I heard from my colleagues, four main points of connection stood out: growth mindset, evidence of work toward mastery, personalization, and transferable skills.

Growth Mindset

Proficiency, as it is explained in the video, is a combination of knowledge and skill. In order to demonstrate that you are proficient at something, you need to know and understand the various details associated with that activity, and you need to demonstrate that knowledge and understanding by applying it to a specific task.

Becoming proficient takes practice and assumes that mistakes are going to be made before mastery is reached. Take riding a bike for an example. You can learn about where the pedals are, how the gears work, how to apply the brake, understand where and when you should be biking...and so on.

When you go to actually apply that knowledge the first time, you may wobble around and even fall over. That doesn’t mean you stop, but rather keep practicing and build from your mistakes until you become proficient. The belief that you can achieve something with practice and learn grow from mistakes is at the core of having a growth mindset.

When we encourage students to practice and we put more emphasis on communicating their growth toward a proficiency versus giving them a score on their progress, we are building a culture that is grounded in growth mindset. Imagine getting a grade when you were first learning to ride a bike. Every time you fell off, D, F...would you continue to get up and try?

Evidence Based

Another shift that we have seen across the state is the development of the PLP and the structures around creating PLPs. Many schools have been using tools such as Google Sites and Protean as a medium for the PLP. This portfolio model allows students to create goals, provide evidence of growth, and reflect on their progress, all on the same platform.

As the video linked above says, “grading does not tell the whole story,” but rather various pieces of evidence linked to a skill, target, or standard will give you a wholesome look at a student’s progress towards mastery.

On Swift House, we have students create a goal for each of the transferable skill categories and collect evidence of growth on these goals throughout the trimester. We ask that students find at least four pieces of evidence for each goal and indicate how the evidence connects to their goals. This ongoing collection of evidence allows students to not only see their progress, but it also reminds them that this process isn’t all or nothing.

It is okay to fail and make mistakes along the way. They aren’t being assessed based on an average of grades they receive; instead they are compiling evidence from various work or activities they have done, inside or outside of school, that shows they are putting the effort in and working toward achieving a goal. This model is directly related to academic proficiencies in the classroom. We use formative assessments as communication of their work toward a learning target throughout a unit and students are able to see their growth and learn from their mistakes as they work toward proficiency.


The end goal of proficiency is to demonstrate mastery. This is definitely a big shift for many educators as there needs to be a level of flexibility with student work and how they are demonstrating mastery. Students will have the ability to use various digital media, communication, and visual evidence to show they understand and have knowledge of the content. Unless you are specifically assessing the medium, such as writing, there is no longer a requirement for a standard essay or multiple choice quiz. That’s not to say these can’t be options, but if the end goal is for students to demonstrate mastery, then there needs to be flexibility and choice for the students to do just that.

Transferable Skills

In one of the last segments of the proficiency based learning videos, they discuss the link to transferable skills and how colleges are using proficiencies to evaluate prospective students. These transferable skills are often at the core of schools proficiency based grade requirements (PBGRs) and include: communication, creative and practical problem solving, integrative thinking, self-direction, and citizenship. These skills are present inside and outside of the classroom and the development of these skills will assist students throughout their lives.

One worry for many families, especially at the high school level, is how the move to proficiency based learning will affect their college enrollment. The fact of the matter is many colleges have been looking at proficiency-based reports for some years. Having a proficiency based report will not undermine your chances of getting into a college, but rather it will show the college or university the various content and skills that you have become proficient in. The colleges and universities will be able to see specific mastery for a variety of content, rather than an arbitrary grade.

As we all continue this transition to proficiency based learning, it is so important to realize that there is a network of educators who are going through the same transitions. We should continue to learn from and collaborate with each other as we embrace this shift. Even having a face to face discussion with colleagues at a faculty meeting, whom I don't regularly get to see, was so valuable in that we were able to have a conversation about worries and concerns and brainstorm different solutions and ideas together. I strongly believe that this work, at the core, is going to have a drastic and positive effect on student learning and engagement.