Proficiency Based Education: my takeaways after seven years of teaching with this model

Proficiency Based Education: my takeaways after seven years of teaching with this model

Events that have taken place in the town that I work and live in over the past week have inspired me to write a bit about how the adoption of Proficiency Based Education in my classroom has transformed my classroom over the past seven years.

It is important to know that Proficiency Based Education is not about grading students, it is about educating them. Many people who don’t believe in this system protest about Proficiency Based Reporting and often confuse that with Proficiency Based Education.

Below you will find a snapshot of my classroom in the PBE system vs. a snapshot of my classroom years ago which operated in the tradition 0-100 grading system.

0-100 system

In the old system I would give my students an assessment to measure their understanding of some musical concepts. Imagine the following:

  • 10 questions are about naming note names on the musical staff
  • 10 questions are about note values (how many beats the notes get)
  • 10 questions are about key signatures
  • 10 questions are about using correct fingerings on their instrument
  • 10 questions are about musical symbols
  • each question is worth 2 points
  • Totaling 100 points

Now imagine that a student (this is hypothetical) gets all the questions correct EXCEPT for the questions about key signatures— they get all those questions wrong. That student receives an 80% on the assessment. MANY students will not look at the assessment when it is handed back AT ALL. They will see that 80%, shove the paper in their backpack (or throw it away) and go on their way.

From the teacher’s perspective:

-> The teacher put an 80% in the grade book for the assessment above.

->That assessment later on gets averaged together with all the students other scores.

->Over time it becomes very difficult to remember what that student struggled with on that individual assessment.

->It is clear that the student got 80% of the information on the assessment correct.

Proficiency Based System

An assessment is given on the same content as above only this time, there is no “final score” given for the assessment. This time, a score is given to the student in each of the following areas:

  • note naming
  • note values
  • key signatures
  • fingerings on the instrument
  • musical symbols

A student takes the assessment and has the same results as mentioned in the 0-100 assessment example given. Rather than seeing an 80% at the top of their paper, they will see a scoring guide that looks like this:

The student immediately sees that they are struggling with key signatures but they have a good understanding in the other areas.

A true proficiency based grade book should also be set up in this way. Rather than having percentage score after percentage score for the various assignments that a student has completed, scores should be entered under the category of the academic content being assessed (or standard).

In this system, it is more apparent to see at a glance what academic concepts a student might be struggling with so they are able to focus their attention on that particular skill.

Successes I have found with this system

I have to come out and say that the successes I have found using this system are almost immeasurable. When this system is threatened within our school community it makes me want to change careers. Proficiency Based Education is about truly understanding each student and meeting them where they are at so they can be instructed continuously without any gaps in their education. This system is not without its problems, however at it’s core it is about finding out the needs of individual students and meeting them where they are at so that they can fulfill their potential.

Since changing to a proficiency based system, my mindset as a teacher has changed completely. I have transitioned from making sure that I was teaching the material that needed to be taught to making sure the students were learning what they needed to learn. At any given time I am able to see the needs of my students individually and as a class and instruct them according to what they need the most.


A proficiency based system is designed to measure what a student has learned. It is designed to measure what their skills are. As you can imagine, this is not as easy to interpret as a 0-100 grade scale because it is designed to showcase much more information about the student than a simple percentage score. Sometimes the information that is being showcased is overwhelming and hard to understand. This is because many academic concepts are being reported out on in each subject area rather than just having one final score.

After a relatively extensive amount of research over the course of a few years, I have not yet found a reporting system that accurately and efficiently communicates students progress towards proficiency. I have found that the most effective way to communicate progress towards standards is through conferencing or narrative reporting. The reason I am putting this under the “roadblocks” category is that this is not typically the most efficient way to report out with any kind of real frequency.

There is a lot of professional development that needs to happen in order to get a whole school or district on the same page with this system. It takes strong administrative leadership and a strong vision to make this happen. We are currently in a time when administrative turnover is almost continuous, this makes it hard to make steady progress towards large goals.

Continued Reading

If you are interested in more information on this topic, along with suggestions for problem solving issues that will arise when transitioning to a proficiency based system, I highly recommend Thomas Guskey’s work. Below are links to two of his books that I have really learned a lot from:

Developing Standards-Based Report Cards

On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and reporting


I love discussing proficiency based education because it typically generates deep conversations about instruction and student learning which is the reason I got into this profession. It is not a perfect system because of some of the logistical reasons I outlined above however, I so enjoy the collaboration that comes from trying to problem solve around these issues. The work I have done in this area has made me a far better teacher and I have seen many more students flourish in this kind of environment than a traditional one.

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