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Proficiency-Based Learning

Proficiency-based learning is a key component to providing flexible and multiple pathways for Rhode Island students and is a central tenet of the Rhode Island Secondary School Regulations. 

What is Proficiency Based Learning?

Proficiency-based education is a personalized approach to education that awards credit on the basis of a student’s demonstrated mastery of desired learning outcomes—regardless of how long that learning takes. In a proficiency- based model, the level of expectation for student learning is high for all students, with each student responsible for meeting common established learning goals— or, proficiencies. Proficiency-based systems typically include these features: 

  • Clear expectations for learning – explicit, measurable learning targets in both content area skills and cross-curricular skills; 
  • Meaningful  assessments where students receive timeline and differentiated support and feedback; 
  • Students advanced upon demonstrating proficiency, not based on seat time or instructional minutes;  
  • Personalized learning opportunities where students exercise voice and choice in learning and assessment options; and 
  • Learning outcomes emphasize proficiencies that include the application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions. 

Proficiency-based learning is designed to identify and address gaps in learning to provide equitable learning opportunities for every student.  To ensure that all students succeed in meeting learning targets, educators provide more personalized learning opportunities and supports and allow students to learn at varying times and places, assess their learning when they are ready, and progress at their own pace.

Introduction to the Rhode Island Proficiency Framework

In a proficiency-based system, students earn their diploma by demonstrating mastery of skill and content.  Rhode Island has proficiency-based graduation requirements (PBGRs) where by proficiency is defined as a level of knowledge and skills that are expected to be learned signaling that a student is well prepared to progress to the next lesson, grade level, or to receive a diploma.  Mastery can be demonstrated through multiple venues, including but not limited to formative assessment, summative assessments, locally-designed assessments, performance assessments, and state and national standardized assessment. The specific course, experience, and demonstration of mastery requirements are determined by local LEA policy, but must represent the state-adopted high school content standards adopted by the Rhode Island Council of Elementary and Secondary Education in the six core content areas of:

  • English Language Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Arts
  • Technology

Why are Proficiency-based Graduation Requirements (PBGRs) important?

PBGRs assure that when students show mastery in the cross-curricular skills and knowledge in the core content areas and, consequently, receive a high school diploma, they meet the vision for a RI graduate.  A Rhode Island graduate is well prepared for postsecondary education, work, and life. He or she can think critically and collaboratively and can act as a creative, self-motivated, culturally competent learner and citizen.

PBGRs are required under the RI Secondary School Regulations.  The Secondary School Regulations, approved by the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education in 2016, require schools to have PBGRs to determine student proficiency and readiness for graduation.  This means that diplomas must be issued based on demonstrated proficiency in the six core content areas of mathematics, English language arts, science, the arts, social studies, and technology.  The level of proficiency in the six core content areas for graduation purposes is determined locally. For the purposes of graduation, proficiency is not based on a particular test, but rather demonstrated through successful completion of coursework and the performance based diploma assessment (senior project, portfolio, capstone product, or exhibition). Local policy may outline additional graduation requirements beyond the statewide minimum graduation requirements.

Rhode Island Proficiency Framework

Through the RI Learning Champions project, RIDE created a model Proficiency Framework, inclusive of content area and cross-curricular Graduation Proficiencies.

Scoring Criteria

Important Terms

Graduation Proficiencies: Focus instruction on the most foundational, enduring, and high leverage concepts and skills within a discipline. 

Performance Indicators: Describe or define what students need to know and be able to do to demonstrate mastery of a Graduation Proficiency. Performance Indicators are measurable and, in aggregate, with other, related performance indicators, they measure whether a student has met the Graduation Proficiency. 

Scoring Criteria: Describe the quality of evidence at different levels of achievement for each performance indicator. Common scoring criteria establish a clear definition of achievement of the essential skills and knowledge defined in performance indicators that is shared by teachers, students, and families. By providing descriptions of different levels of performance, common scoring criteria promote consistent expectations.

How Do I Use the Rhode Island Proficiency Framework?

Through the RI Learning Champions project, RIDE created a model Proficiency Framework, inclusive of content area and cross-curricular Graduation Proficiencies.  (View this content as a printable PDF.) An example of a content Graduation Proficiency is shown below:

Example of ELA graduation proficiency

The title and description of Graduation Proficiency #1 for ELA, Reading Literature, are to the left center of the example, and all proficiencies for the discipline are listed to the right center. Proficiencies are statements within broad categories that elicit the essential content and skills in each curriculum area that students must know and be able to demonstrate by graduation. Each content area has between 5 and 10 Graduation Proficiencies. In RIDE’s sample model, by showing evidence of proficiency for each Graduation Proficiency, students would meet their school’s requirements for graduation.

The table at the bottom shows a sample of the Performance Indicators associated with Proficiency #1 for ELA. Performance Indicators are used to assess whether or not a student has met the Graduation Proficiency associated with those indicators. In this model, Performance Indicators are grouped by grade span (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12). The high school Performance Indicators inform determinations of student proficiency and graduation readiness. The elementary and middle school grade span Performance Indicators provide learning progression milestones, and encourage schools to frame PBGRs as the outcome of a larger, K-12 Proficiency-Based Learning system.

Scoring Criteria describe the levels of proficiency for each Performance Indicator. Scoring criteria are used to create rubrics for summative assessment and support continued instruction for students. In the RI Proficiency Framework, there are four levels of scoring criteria (Beginning, Developing Proficient, and Expanding) for each Performance Indicator. It is important to note that scoring criteria are task neutral, meaning that the criteria can be applied to a variety of tasks and assessments, and are not dependent on just one assessment or assessment type. Shown below is an example of the Scoring Criteria for ELA Performance Indicator #1A for grades K-2:

Example of ELA graduation proficiency

In addition to being assessed against content area proficiencies, students are required to demonstrate mastery of cross-curricular skills. Cross-curricular skills are the cross-content skill-based standards students are expected to learn and acquire over the course of their K-12 education, including communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, research, reflection and evaluation, and collaboration. These skills are not assessed in isolation, but instead are demonstrated over a body of evidence collected across multiple curriculum areas. Performance Indicators for cross-curricular skills are viewed as being relevant to K-12 students although demonstration of proficiency in a given cross-curricular skill (like the ability to work collaboratively) would look different for a kindergartener than it would for a twelfth grader. Therefore, cross-curricular skills are not separated by grade cluster, just as they are not differentiated by content area. An example of the cross-curricular proficiencies is shown below:

Example of ELA graduation proficiency

Rhode Island Learning Champions

Building Resources to Support Proficiency-Based Learning


The Rhode Island Learning Champions project, a collaborative effort of the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Great Schools Partnership, brought together outstanding Rhode Island educators and administrators to build the components of a proficiency-based learning system. The goal of this effort, funded by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, is to support high quality proficiency-based learning from K to 12 to ensure every graduate can think critically and collaboratively and can act as a creative, self-motivated, culturally competent learner and citizen in order to be prepared for post-secondary education, work, and life.

View the Rhode Island Learning Champions Timeline

Aligned Performance Assessments

One of the key outcomes of the Rhode Island Learning Champions project was to build a network of educators across RI to develop a shared understanding of Proficiency-based Learning beliefs and practices.  The connections and conversations made between educators were powerful.  As a result of those conversations, educators within each grade band piloted and calibrated scoring of student work on performance assessment tasks aligned to the Proficiency Frameworks created by the first round of RI Learning Champions.

Below you will find samples of performance based assessment student and teacher tasks as well as student work for a variety of content areas and grade bands. The tasks have been annotated to note the important conversations and considerations that accompanied their creation, lessons learned from scoring student work, and reflections on the process and products.  Please note, these tasks are drafts that are meant to highlight the role of educators in thoughtfully designing assessment tasks aligned to clear, shared outcomes for students.  It is recommended that they will be used by educators to continue to develop and refine practices related to Proficiency-based teaching, learning, and assessing.

Scoring Criteria

Important Terms

Performance Based Assessment Tasks: In Phase Two Rhode Island Learning Champions designed and piloted sample assessments aligned to the proficiencies, performance indicators and scoring criteria in the proficiency frameworks.  The Champions used the process of piloting tasks as an opportunity to become practitioner-learners engaging in a cycle that enabled them to design, field test, reflect, and revise.

Student Anchor Work:After piloting tasks, Champions convened to calibrate, score, and annotate student work. The champions used language from the scoring criteria in order to provide annotations that articulate the varying levels of proficiency represented in some of the work. The samples of anchor work provided within each content area grade band serve as useful teaching tools for educators and students.

English Language Arts

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Animal and Habitat Informational Writing - Understanding Life Cycles and Habitat

The Fisherman and His Wife by Brothers Grimm

Poetic Interpretation of History Assessment: The Rhythm and Rhyme of Revere's Ride

Personal Narrative

Mathematics

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Let's Plan a Zoo

A Seedy Situation

Sorting Scenarios

The Perfect Storm (Name): Gale vs. Gail

Science

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Push, Pull, Play

Save Our Beaches! Coastal Flooding: Weathering and Erosion

Cells, Cells Everywhere

Tissue Dysfunction aka "Tissue Issues"

Beyond the Human Tipping Point

Social Studies

K-2 3-5 6-8 9-12

Aquidneck Island History Journal

Maps & Migration

Know Your Rights

Eight Features of Civilizations

PBL Materials and Reading

Proficiency-Based Learning Resources

Proficiency-based learning is designed to identify and address gaps in learning to provide equitable learning opportunities for every student.  To ensure that all students succeed in meeting learning targets, educators provide more personalized learning opportunities and supports and allow students to learn at varying times and places, assess their learning when they are ready, and progress at their own pace. This is a contrast to traditional systems which advance students based on seat time.  Read more: 

Performance Assessment 

Educators use a diverse array of assessment tools to measure a student's comprehension of specific elements of learning. While standardized tests measure how well students have mastered specific knowledge and skills through a series of questions, performance assessments typically require students to complete a complex task, such as a writing assignment, science experiment, speech, presentation, performance, or long-term project, to demonstrate mastery of the topic. Rhode Island has a performance-based diploma assessment graduation requirement, defined as a multifaceted assignment that serves as a culminating demonstration of student’s cross-curricular and content area knowledge, such as a graduation portfolio, senior project or other capstone product.

Reading and Materials

Note: Competency and proficiency-based learning are used interchangeably in the resources below. The readings and resources listed below are not exhaustive, but were key resources to the RI Learning Champions in exploring and understanding Proficiency-Based Learning more deeply.

PBL Resources

Proficiency-Based Learning Resources

Organizations and tools that support proficiency-based learning. 

Site Documents

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DOC - Microsoft Word

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PPT - Microsoft PowerPoint

XLS - Microsoft Excel