Proficiency Based Education: What Does It Really Mean?

May 20, 2015 Posted by Heidi Sampson - No Comments

Here in Maine we began the process in earnest toward Proficiency Based Education with passing LD1422 in 2012. Prior to the law, it was introduced on a large scale with the pilot program, Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC). RISC was initiated in Alaska and implemented in California and Colorado.  Their results have been nothing stellar, no evidence of academic improvement was apparent. In fact, many, many, three year comparisons showed downward trends in Math, ELA and Science at all grade levels.  I have included a chart below from the pilot schools as well as some forerunners here in Maine.

PBEIn some districts the original RISC model, with an alternation or two, became MCL (Mass Customized Learning) and now other variations but still based on Spady’s most complete and transformative philosophy. All these approaches have the same philosophy in common.  This is nothing new and has been around for generations being soundly rejected as a failure every time.

Outcome Based Education decades ago was the last big push to change the nature and outcomes of our public education.  It destroys traditional education, its methods, curriculum, and its means of assessment, time frames and goals. The Competency-Based model will only teach students what to think, not how to think. It will necessarily lower the bar in an attempt to equalize outcomes… and that never works.

Proficiency is such a palatable word.  Of course we want children to be proficient.

The average citizen understands what it means to be proficient;  a high aptitude, to have expertise, knack or know how, to be highly skilled, talented and very capable.

But what do the proponents of this effort really mean by proficient?

First, it is critical to understand an important distinction:

  • Proficiency relates to attitudes, responses, behaviors or actions easily scored on a machine.
  • Education involves much more, requiring well trained, experienced human beings to assess and score.


These are not the same, yet we are led to conclude they are synonymous?

The word selection is deliberately designed to neutralize the unsuspecting public and even legislators, so it will be embraced. It’s one ,among many, examples of double-speak.

So, what about where it has been tried? After billions of dollars and tremendous upheaval to school systems both large and small, the reformers have failed to deliver what they claimed. In fact, the failures were so complete that the systems were dismantled. This has happened in individual schools, districts, cities and states across this country. It happened in other countries.

A detailed study of the proficiency model of education repeatedly brings up the same names closely associated with the competency model. Those include Pavlov, Skinner, Bloom and Spady. It’s a challenge to keep up with all the changes in Maine education since our own Reform Act of 1984 and all of the ramifications of the federal programs; America 2000, Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind and now the infamous Race-to-the-Top. The consistent federal interference has not helped our state.

There is no middle ground with the move away from a time and unit based system.  Schools have been moving away from teaching academics toward skills training – for workforce labor. Workforce development has nothing to do with self-selecting career choices and building a resume to that end.  Workforce labor development is a pre-selected path based on external information, not driven by a student’s dreams, desires or determination. This teaching model is a departure from Classical Approach for Education to BF Skinner’s Behavior Modification model of education. These documented efforts:

  • Incorporate predicted treatments to yield predicted responses.
  • Replace classical curriculum with behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner’s model for training animals.


By the way, Skinner developed teaching machines (computers) and even trained pigeons during World War II to pilot and detonate bombs and torpedoes.

  • To break down complicated learning into sequences of simple skills that virtually everyone can master,
  • Their premise? If you can train a pigeon to detonate bombs, why can’t you teach human beings to respond to stimulus the same way?
  • Therefore, modify human behavior is the most significant element in today’s education

(The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America by Charlotte Iserbyt, p. 146)

If an expectation is not met, a child must repeat the drill again and again until they meet the predetermined outcome.  No need to prepare and no need to strive to do better; just do enough to get by and move on to the next standard. Subject matter will be broken down and compartmentalized.  A set of pre-determined expectations are the gate keeper to moving to the next compartmentalized subject matter.  No need to prepare; they just need to know how to properly respond by hitting the correct button.  This will enforce compliance.

Does this sound like the development of creative, innovative and independent thinkers? Or does this sound more like training pigeons?

Does this sound like we are creating competitive opportunities for them? Please consider this:

  • Independent, creative students will become the job creators.
  • Students who can manage the pressure of competition will succeed and thrive with the future challenges they will face.


The highest achievers and lowest achievers are either disheartened or disenfranchised, respectively.

Proficiency and compliance are synonymous!  Is this the workforce development we want for our children?

Proficiency Based Education operates in a manner counterintuitive to the real needs students will face.

The incessant, constant testing of each tiny, segregated standard has disemboweled every subject matter. 

  • Learning is not linear!
  • The whole picture is lost to them.
  • Truth and knowledge are irrelevant.
  • Students will be sorted and ranked using psychometric (behavioral) data collected.
  • A child’s behavior, attitude, belief system and attributes will determine a child’s ‘value’ as human capital for the global labor market.


A premium is set for a student to know how to respond to a series of questions not what is of value and substance. The former is a subjective (opinion based) assessment; the latter is the only quantifiable (factual) assessment.

Like a rat navigating a maze in a lab, children are expected to navigate the useless information with a mouse to complete their test on time.

Behavior modification has nothing to do with true education, that of acquiring knowledge, using logic, or assessing truth. But this is the focus in education now, especially with competency based education.

There are indications students are learning less.  I’ve included two sample High School Physics Exams.  At one school (a forerunner for PBE), this year’s Honors Physics seniors took a 2007 pre Proficiency Based Education basic-level Physics exam and most were unable to pass what the lower level class was able to complete 8 years ago.  (See attached example of physics exams)


Maine’s Education and Cultural Affair Committee commissioned a 2 year study to be conducted on this issue.  David Silvernail and the USM Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation posted their work April 30, 2014 titled Implementation of a Proficiency-Based Diploma System: Early Experiences in Maine. This is not a glowing report. There evidence of success is lacking:  “After an extensive review of the literature, it became evident that, while there are many conceptual pieces describing what a standards-based or proficiency-based education system should look like, there are few existing conceptual models that envelop all of the requisite elements for successful implementation. Furthermore, there is limited empirical evidence of the effectiveness of these systems, which has resulted in school districts having little historical information and no clear evidence to guide them in developing the new diploma systems.” (pgs. 16-17).

A related study sited within the same USM study stated: “In addition, this study’s statistical comparison of a proficiency-based intervention programs to nonintervention programs revealed that the intervention group demonstrated lower academic performance.” (Lewis et al., 2013, p. 3-4).

From a strictly objective scientific evidence piece of research, it would be necessary to have a separate study conducted that is not funded by Nellie Mae, the Gates Foundation or Educate Maine.  All these organizations are self-propagating and the public is not receiving evidence that is unbiased or will help to further the cause of the funding organizations. If this system was highly ineffective, with the current studies, we would not discover this until it is far too late. It’s not clear who funded the Legislative case studies.  It’s also not clear why they didn’t have for “proof of success” in their commissioned studies.

In Maine over 100 districts are not prepared to properly implement the mandated Proficiency Based Diploma system and have therefore filed and received extensions. It seems a logical conclusion to assume the legislature was misled during the passage of LD 1422.  This is not a surprise as they were only allowed to receive one perspective; only the potential of an unproven system.

Now that we have been able to evaluate the policy closer and have had
time to speak with stake holders; teachers, parents, students, college admissions personnel and special education professionals, we now have a much clearer picture of what a Proficiency Based Diploma system brings.

“Our data suggest that an additional issue with local translation of external standards and state-level legislation was evident in the lack of consistency in the definition of key features necessary in developing and implementing proficiency-based diploma systems”. (pg. 49)

The fact that curricula would have to change is another area that should be examined. School Boards are to a great extend completely unaware of what this is all about.  In many Maine districts, the School Boards have approved “A Concept” which has given the administration; cart-blanche approval to bring in anything and everything without any accountability.

If you want a system where teachers can teach and students can learn, imposing a learning culture and curricula based on an unproven ideology further clouded with problems of interpretation and implementation only complicates the goals.


We have now invested years in this experiment, with years to go. These will be years of continued interruption and false hope for the parents and students. There will be more talks, presentations, demonstrations, slide shows and testimonials aimed at convincing us that we are on a path to improvement. But in the end, after the money is spent and changes have been made, after school boards and legislatures have changed, we’ll discover what so many others did.  Our Proficiency-Based model will collapse under its own weight. We can wait for that inevitability or we can do the right thing now.