The term proficiency-based learning refers to systems of instruction and assessment that are based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level, or receive a diploma.

The general goal of proficiency-based learning is to ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills that are deemed to be essential to success in school, higher education, careers, and adult life. Students progress in their education when expected standards are met, according to their own learning pace.

Proficiency-based learning is an alternative to more traditional educational approaches in which students may or may not acquire proficiency in a given course, yet get promoted to the next grade level, or graduate. For example, high school students typically earn credit by passing a course, but a passing grade may be an A or it may be a D. The awarded credit is based on a wide and divergent range of learning expectations—with some students learning more and others learning less—rather than the same consistent standards being applied to all students equally. And since grades may be calculated differently from school to school or teacher to teacher, and some courses may be “harder” and others “easier”, it may be possible for students to pass their courses, earn the required number of credits, and receive a diploma without acquiring important knowledge and skills deemed essential to their future success.

A proficiency-based system provides educators and students with more detailed information about learning. This can help them more precisely identify academic strengths and weaknesses, and specific concepts and skills that have not yet been mastered. If students fail to meet minimum expected standards (generally the state standards), they typically receive additional instruction, practice time, and academic support to help them achieve proficiency. Students and teachers can continually strategize about how best to address learning challenges.

The transition to proficiency-based learning affects everything from the school’s educational philosophy and culture to its methods of instruction, testing, grading, reporting, promotion, and graduation. For example, report cards may be entirely redesigned, and schools may use different grading scales and systems, such as replacing letter grades with brief descriptive statements (e.g. phrases such as “does not meet”, “partially meets”, “meets the standard”, and “exceeds the standard” are commonly used in proficiency-based schools). Schools may also use different methods of instruction and assessment to determine whether students have achieved proficiency, including demonstrations of learning, portfolios, rubrics, and capstone projects, to name just a few. A proficiency-based system requires increased levels of on-going feedback between learners and teachers, and elevates students’ level of responsibility and control over their learning.

Vermont’s Education Quality Standards (EQS) require that schools’ graduation requirements be rooted in demonstrations of student proficiency, as opposed to time spent in classrooms. This requirement will take effect in Vermont beginning with the graduating class of 2020.