Lately, as I’ve engaged in conversations in person, webinars, works, and social media, I’ve noticed hesitancy about last level on proficiency scales. You know the one. It’s called Extending, Exceeding, Advanced, Exemplary, Expert, or Mastery on a four- or five-point scale. The level that comes just before this last level is called Meeting, Applying, Proficient or Competent. There seems to be a reluctance to use the final level and there’s even claims it’s beyond the scope of most students and so, is being avoided, an exclusive level only for those who qualify. Like Voldemort, the last level seems to be the level that shall not be employed.
I love the last level, so I have been curious as to why these feelings are so dominant and how teachers can overcome the mindset.
Why use a proficiency scale anyways?
There’s no contest. Four indicators of proficiency are more practical and accurate than 101. There is no difference between 84% and 86% and anyone who argues that there is a difference is bent on providing progress reports that average scores and use tedious, multi-faceted rubrics, and overall scores that don’t show progress of individual standards. Proficiency scales show growth over time, but they are designed for explaining students’ progress across each standard, not a sum total and definitely not an average.
And yet, despite this agreement that educators should join the proficiency scale club, and even though there are just four levels as in the BC Proficiency Scale, there’s a hesitancy to use the final level and showcase the final level. In fact, I’ve had conversations with teachers who feel it is out of reach and too daunting for their students because it’s a level that is a grade level up or far too exclusive to even the students who have reached Proficient. So obscure, they tell me, how can one possibly teach it? Proficient is the real goal, they add not the fourth. Proficient is proficient and what could possibly go beyond Proficient?
There lies the issue. The final level is not above grade level, it is reachable, and it can and should be taught…to all students.
As Tom Schimmer often comments on his Tom Schimmer Podcast, don’t get bogged down by the headings. Extending, Exceeding, Advanced, Exemplary, Expert, or Mastery, these are just the names given to each level. These levels could be emojis or numbers or letters or characters from your favourite sitcom. Hey, can we rename the four levels Lucy, Ricky, Ethel, and Fred? What about Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte? Elaine, Jerry, George, and Kramer? Okay, I’m getting carried away. You get my drift. What’s in a name? Absolutely nothing! It’s what’s below that counts, but not necessarily what’s generic.
Most provinces, territories and states that have implemented a four- or five-point proficiency scale, provide a generic explanation for each level; that is, criteria that signals educators to the general expectation of each level. That’s got to mean something, right?
Let’s dive into BC’s proficiency scale language then. Emerging and Developing seem clear: an initial understanding and a partial understanding. In other words, students are just starting to get it and then they somewhat get it. The language for Proficient is where things get a little sticky: The student demonstrates a complete understanding. Complete means complete as in full, perfect, comprehensive (according to Webster’s Dictionary)? What, then, goes beyond complete? Then there’s Extending; a sophisticated understanding. If complete means perfect, what the heck is sophisticated? The language here is so confusing for teachers, no wonder educators can’t fathom Extending!
Let me offer some guidance. Ditch the dictionary definitions of the words, complete and sophisticated. Consider these portrayals instead. When one eats a complete meal, they’ve generally got something on their plats from all four food groups, like a piece of chicken, a green salad, some rice, and a glass of milk. The meal could, if challenged, be topped. A more sophisticated meal, if you will, may be a cheese souffle starter, and then fillet mignon with peppercorn sauce, garlic mash, and sauteed green beans as the main course. So, complete doesn’t mean full as in full stop. It’s just complete. Extending is another level of complexity on top of that.
What I’m trying to explain is, like the headings, don’t get too hung up on the language the Ministry of Education provides. It’s four levels. Level one is not as sophisticated as level two, and level two is not as sophisticated as level three, and level four is more sophisticated than level three.
The proficiency scale is four levels of proficiency
The fourth level is one more level, no matter what it is called, and that can be motivation for students to push further than the third level. And that’s the purpose, so students see there is an opportunity to accept a challenge and learn more or polish their skills even further. This extrinsic motivation to level up isn’t always a bad thing. In the book, Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal), Heather Lyon explains the engagement matrix, four quadrants describing the relationship to an external person or payment as well as the relationship to a task. Lyon explains that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation aren’t the bad and good clubs that we’ve come to associate them with. Students who are non-compliant, for example, could be intrinsically motivated to not complete a task as opposed to being non-compliant because they must have a carrot. Likewise, a student who is not yet absorbed by a task, forgetting about any form or payment or the time commitment, but is interested might be extrinsically motivated because there is positive relationship to the person requesting the task be done as well as the payment for doing so. Lyon writes, it “it is not a bad thing to aim for getting to the interested level [including the extrinsic motivation]” because “this is where engagement starts” (pg. 78). So, while absorbed is the goal, to move a student beyond interested, “we must strengthen the relationship with the task,” but to get there, interested is an important step.
How can we view the four-point proficiency scale in a different light, then, so educators see its form and function? The first step is to move beyond seeing Proficient as the target.
As I was researching for this post, I stumbled across Tom Schimmer’s tweet from 2020 (below). If we view Proficient as meeting expectations, then educators will naturally have a difficult time viewing the next level as anything but above grade level.
What if the entire proficiency scale was considered the target? The target is the standard. Hit the target, hit the standard. Then, the scale answers to what extent did students hit the target? Emerging, Developing, Proficient, or Extending?
The entire proficiency scale is the target. It’s varying degrees of reaching the target. Proficient isn’t the only target. It’s not about which level is “enough,” it’s about providing opportunity to reach proficiency at four levels. At Emerging, a student has met the target at the Emerging level. At Developing, a student as met the target at the Developing level. At Proficient, a student has met the target at the Developing level. At Extending, a student has met the target at the Extending level. Each level is more demanding. So, Extending, then, is simply more demanding that Proficient.
Here’s another analogy. In a few conversations with an educators, they proposed that Proficient is the goal and Extending is a separate goal. When the moment comes that a student needs that separate, then they’d have to find some novel way to push them forward and advance their learning. I love the idea that the teacher will advance learning and provide learning past Proficient, but what troubles me is the view that Extending is only attainable for those who have reached Proficient. Using their explanation, Proficient is like top floor of one building and Extending is a whole other building.
With that rationale, a student reaches Proficient first, and then takes the elevator back down, gets in a taxi, fights rush hour traffic, navigates another crosswalk, tips another door man, and must ascend the floors of another building.
That’s not Extending. Extending is part of the same standard, and, thus, is part of the same building. It’s a goal along the same trajectory not a different trajectory! It’s not a whole other building; it’s the same building.
And if we start viewing it as part of the same building, maybe educators will see as attainable as well as teachable to all.
Skill development and the subsequent analysis of that progress using a proficiency scale is different than the delivery of a total number of correct answers for a test or total score for an essay or project that was calculated from a multi-category rubric that includes both essential criteria (connected to the standards/curricular competencies) and non-essential criteria (layout, organization, bells & whistles). The latter examples are often revealed as something to the effect of 14/21 or 18/30. These totals are either accepted or rejected by caregivers and/or students because the percentage translation is either acceptable or undesirable, completely ignoring the essential criteria because the overall grade overshadows the learning opportunity’s purpose. When this happens, a caregiver’s or student’s reaction is to do corrections or add extra glitter or a few more sentences to supplement a score that can be artificially inflated, and what’s worse is this practice has been encouraged by the educator! The purpose of Extending, ultimately, has been skewed, making it more about the superficial as opposed to the standard’s objectives which should be about degrees of quality.
Each level of the proficiency scale, as well, needs to focus on the verb and rigour embedded in the standard. This supports the educator in determining what learning opportunity best meshes with the standard. When criteria exemplify the verb, Extending becomes an opportunity to create more complexity. Early stages of learning in which lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy are used as the foundation for learning, is not yet at the four levels of proficiency. That is what a learning progression is for. In other words, if the curricular competency is “Analyze patterns, trends, and connections in data” (Science 9), understanding those patterns, trends and connections is foundational, but not yet analyzing, so if a student shows exemplary understanding, they would not be showing sufficient evidence of analyzing. They shouldn’t be assessed at Extending because they aren’t at the standard yet. By the same token, a student who is Proficient at analyzing patterns, trends, and connections in data doesn’t reach Extending by evaluating patterns, trends, and connections in data,” because evaluating is different verb and a whole other skill set. Analyzing involves examining and breaking ideas into parts, while evaluating involves defending and making judgments. “Blooming up,” as some call it, encourages the notion that Extending is a whole other building mindset.
If we can agree that Extending is simply the fourth level of a four-point scale, let’s talk about how we can clarify this criteria. Previously, I mentioned that the generic criteria from the MOE might create confusion, so that leaves us to determine criteria for each standard (or curricular competency in BC). It’s hard to come up with criteria, especially criteria that uses asset-based instead of deficit-based language. The single-point rubric seems to be the saving grace for the teacher who struggles with explicitly defining the criteria for each level because they only need to come up with criteria for one. And, in the past, many teachers, including myself, have used Proficient as the goal because of many reasons already outlined above.
The single point rubric is a useful tool, and, when I shifted my mindset from using criteria for Proficient down the center to criteria for Extending down the center, suddenly, I found myself with another dilemma. Extending isn’t always accessible to all students. The nature of the single-point rubric is to provide individualized feedback to each student. The levels that come before Extending are also obscured. Students don’t know where they are at, only that they have been provided feedback on how to improve. These individualized goals can have a positive, profound impact on students, but hiding the entire scale and each level’s criteria doesn’t do students justice when, come progress report time, they are surprised to learn that despite their several attempts and detailed feedback, they have not yet made it to Emerging.
I decided that all the criteria, from Emerging to Extending, needs to be down the center and in order of complexity.
Sadly, not only is this single-point rubric cumbersome, but it also doesn’t identify where one level begins and another ends, so, I turned it on its side.
As explained in my last two posts, I Want to Change the World One Proficiency Sequence at a Time and A Proficiency Sequence in Action, with the criteria presented as a sequence, the teacher hasn’t hidden Extending criteria from view, but provided it in plain sight. When one provides formative learning opportunities, practicing each level, not only is the criteria visible, but the opportunity is also there, making Extending equitable for all. This sends the message to students to I can as opposed to I can’t.
We can’t have a conversation about Extending without talking about other stakeholders, namely caregivers.
One of the problems I see firsthand is when caregivers equate levels of proficiency with success; the lower the level, the less successful their child appears to be. I’ve heard many parents grow frustrated that their child is only Emerging or Developing for a curricular competency, assuming that this achievement is because the “student isn’t trying and didn’t do their best.” (Tim Cavey, “We Are All Developing Learners,” Teachers on Fire Magazine).
Extending, by the same token, is often revered as the regal A, and as such, if a student has always achieved A’s, they must get Extending to maintain that pattern and satisfy the caregiver (and sometimes themselves) who believes that A’s lead to success: honours classes, post-secondary institutions, and scholarships.
All stakeholders need to be shown that the goal of the proficiency scale is to provide insight into the learning process, not a finite judgment of learning. That learning is a process and just because Joey or Molly are Emerging or Developing, that isn’t necessarily a reflection of attitude or behaviour, but of their progress at this one moment in time. It sometimes takes time for a student to develop a skill. That means educators encourage the messiness of mistake-making and encourage risk-taking and creativity because using the proficiency scale, students know that early attempts will be discounted later when progress has been shown.
Kids don’t enter a course pre-set with all the skills and knowledge needed to be successful. If that was the case, why am I teaching them? I tell my students all the time, you better be making mistakes because that shows me that this learning is new and it’s through the mistakes that I can show you how to move forward. Learning takes time.
Doing corrections are a learning opportunity to relearn areas misunderstood. Through the process of correcting, students refine the skill and will do better on the next attempt. Retakes are also suitable, but if time in class has been provided with access to peers’ responses or exemplars of various levels of proficiency, a retake might not work. Retakes sometimes mean more labour for the teacher because they have to create another assignment or test. This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t provide retakes or redoes. If it works for the teacher, it works for the teacher.
I’ve shifted to providing multiple learning opportunities of the same standard for all students, preferring to have students learn from each other, their errors, and their successes, using all the feedback provided (whole class, individual, and peer to peer) to develop or solidify proficiency at the next, timely learning opportunity. For example, in Socials Studies 8, one curricular competency students have been working on is Inquiry. A layer of this broad competency is interpreting and assessing graphic forms. Each day, students broaden their understanding of various graphic forms: pictures, charts, maps, etc. After collaborating in small groups a few times, students are given an independent learning opportunity. Feedback is given. Students use the feedback from a former learning opportunity to support their progress on a subsequent learning opportunity. Time to process feedback is encouraged. Pulling out former learning opportunities while working on a new learning opportunity is encouraged.
By shifting to multiple learning opportunities for all to see the growth and consistency, I’m trying to change the landscape of assessment and learning as a process like the curricular competency itself. Doing so gives me the chance to see what type of learning opportunity I should provide so I can ensure success.
Learning continues beyond Proficient and beyond Extending. Because the focus is on skill development, when a student reaches Extending, it doesn’t mean the learning stops for that standard. With each new unit, novel, lab, speech, or play, new foundational content becomes a new means of application of the skill. With a variety of learning opportunities, students see different ways to express their proficiency. Voice and choice are key players. The proficiency scale, then, could be viewed like a spiral of learning. With each new learning opportunity, Extending becomes an attainable goal and students becomes stronger learners.
Learning goes on and is only limited by our mindset as educators.