May 28, 2018

Guest Column: Standards-based learning

By the CVU school board


While CVU is at the forefront of the move toward standards-based learning in Vermont high schools, many schools, districts and even states around the country have already transitioned to a standards-based system. CVU is paying careful attention to the successes and challenges faced in these places, and is using this information in its work tailoring a CVU-specific version of SBL to better track student learning, allow for more targeted intervention and achieve clearly specified standards for each student.

We thought our community might appreciate learning about the larger context of this educational change, so here’s a snapshot of what’s happening around the nation.


In 2012, after a decade of research and exploration, legislators in Maine passed a bill requiring all schools to move to proficiency-based learning and graduation. High school students now graduate based on evidence of proficiency (or excellence) on agreed-upon standards rather than on seat-time and credit count. Last year, CVU visited a school in Maine that was at the forefront of this work. Valuable insight was gained from students, teachers, and parents—both about aspects of the system the CVU team loved and those that were unlikely to be a good fit for our community.

New Hampshire

There are many high schools in New Hampshire that have moved to competency or standards-based models, but two that have been watched closely are Sanborn High School and Spaulding High School. The state conducted detailed studies on the effects of SBL on learning and community in these schools and found decreases in discipline issues, increased engagement, decreased failure and dropout rates, and increased rigor. CVU will be visiting Sanborn High School in December to look closely at its report cards and transcripts, talk to teachers and students and meet with the special education department.


Kentucky has been a leader in standards-based report cards. It has gone to a statewide common reporting format, which builds consistency and provides more calibrated information for colleges and universities. CVU has an exploratory report card committee working on creating options for faculty and community. The Kentucky model has been helpful in this process.


Starting in the fall of 2013, all students in Oregon are supposed to receive grades based solely on academic factors. In order to support and encourage the move to standards-based learning, the Oregon legislature passed a bill in 2011 requiring the change. Teachers and districts are now figuring out how to define “academic factors,” and how to separate behaviors from achievement. There are many similarities between Vermont and Oregon, and CVU will be paying close attention to what can be learned from the state.

Other states

Colorado and Alaska are also ahead of Vermont in the move toward standards-based systems. Districts within both states have taken fairly radical approaches, some completely getting rid of traditional seat-time requirements and basing graduation only on proficiency. This means some students are ready to graduate at 16, and others at 21. Obviously there have been many challenges to such extreme changes, but in each case, learning has improved. While CVU is not interested in making that type of move in the near future, there’s a lot that can be learned from looking at the extremes.


Vermont schools are moving toward standards-based learning. Elementary schools around the state have been providing standards-based information to parents for decades, but until recently, that level of information has often stopped when students reach middle or high school, to be replaced by a single letter grade based on a variety of factors. Standards-based learning at CVU will bring meaning and consistency to grading and reporting, and, more importantly, will help improve learning for all students. Educational and brain research supports a move away from traditional grading and time-based learning. While there is controversy at times around implementation and the difficulty of changing from a known system, mounting evidence indicates that this approach is right for student learning. Most colleges and universities are moving in the same direction, and we are working very closely with admissions officers to ensure a smooth transition.

“Setting specific goals for student achievement and then tracking progress regarding those goals is one of the most powerful actions a teacher, school or district can take,” said Dr. Robert Marzano, education expert and founder of the Marzano Research Laboratory. Standards-based learning requires this care and attention to students’ achievement. CVU is excited to continue to apply what is known about learning to how our community’s students are educated. Stay tuned for more information and opportunities for feedback.

Williston Representatives to the CVU School Board include Jeanne Jensen, Jonathan Milne, Chairman David Rath and Polly Malik. Contact information for them is printed one page 5 of the Observer every week.


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