Sixth Departmental Meeting
Articulating the District’s World Languages Program
Awarding Credit Based on Proficiency
Joan: We are delighted to welcome our colleagues from the middle schools who are joining us for our continued work with curriculum revision. We are fortunate to have this half-day professional development opportunity which allows us to have an extended time for our deliberations. The middle school teachers and I have already met to go over our discussions thus far. During my meeting with the middle school teachers we decided to record their questions. The teachers elected Christine to be the spokesperson during our meeting today. So, let’s begin.
Christine: First of all we are all excited when Joan shared with us your discussions about curriculum revision. When we middle school teachers get together, the main topic of discussion always revolves around the need for better articulation between our program at the middle schools and the expectations you have for our students when they enter the high school. We are perplexed at times when some of our former students return and tell us that they aren’t prepared to do the work at the high school. At the same time, we are confused when other students tell us that their teachers at the high school spend so much time reviewing material that they already know.
Roger: Hey, we get the same complaints from students at the high school when they move from level to level. We need to strengthen the articulation throughout the entire program. I would say that, traditionally, we have based articulation on the amount of chapters we covered in our texts. We have expected our middle school colleagues to finish half of the first year book in seventh grade and the remaining chapters in eighth grade. At the high school we try to complete the whole book in one year. Using the chapters in the textbook for a guide, as to what our students should be able to do, does not seem to be working very well.
Carol: That is why we have started to look at the proficiency levels. The descriptors for each level describe exactly what students need to do as they move through the program. The descriptors are the constant. If we can all agree to organize our program around the proficiency levels, I think we can solve our articulation problem.
Christine: Now we just need to decide how we can integrate the proficiency levels within our program.
Marta: I think our middle school colleagues have had a chance to read through the drafts for the Novice-High and Intermediate-Low. I would like to hear your thoughts about what we have drafted thus far.
Christine: We think that our students who complete two years of language study at the middle school can realistically demonstrate proficiency at the Novice-High level. We are all in agreement that using the proficiency level descriptors clarifies the direction of our program at the middle school. The textbook then becomes one of several tools we can use to help our students meet an agreed-upon proficiency level. We all know that, when we use the chapters in our texts as a way to measure our students’ use of the language, we are kidding ourselves. We expect all students to keep moving forward whether they are getting “D’s” or “A’s” and “B’s.”
Ramon: It is the same story here at the high school. My students often tell me that, even though they got “D’s” on most of the tests and quizzes in chapter four, they will try harder so that they can get “B’s” in chapter five. We really can’t blame them for this type of wishful thinking. They see the course as divided into chapters in a textbook, each chapter separate from the next with no real connection from chapter to chapter. They don’t realize the serious gaps in their learning when they get “C’s” and “D’s.”
Giselle: Using the proficiency descriptors as a foundation for our program would communicate to our students what they need to do in the language to advance from one level to the next. The descriptors really clarify for all of us–teachers, students, parents, and administrators–what we are expecting our students to do in the target language.
Christine: I keep hearing the word “do.” The proficiency descriptors really focus on the “doing.” I like that. I will be excited to tell my students exactly what they are expected to do in the language after being in my class for the year. Over time, I can even collect performances of my students so that I can show future students what they are expected to do to be proficient.
Joan: I think we have reached a consensus on using the Proficiency Guidelines as a foundation for our curriculum. Now let’s return to discuss how far our program can go. The ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines begin with Novice and end with Distinguished. In between Novice and Distinguished are the Intermediate, Advanced, and Superior levels. Each level has three sub-levels: low, mid, and high. Based on discussions among colleagues in our profession, people are pretty much in agreement that students, who begin language study in middle school, can realistically reach a level of Intermediate-Mid after four years. In our district, that would mean the majority of students at the end of their sophomore year of high school would be at the Intermediate-Mid proficiency level.
Carol: I have also read that students who learn languages like Chinese, Arabic, and Russian require more time to reach an Intermediate level compared to students who learn Spanish, French, and German.
Joan: Yes. So realistically are we saying that our Spanish, French, and German learners, who begin in 7th grade and continue through 12th grade, could demonstrate proficiency at an Intermediate-High level?
Ramon: Yes. I think most of our students could definitely reach the Intermediate-High level of proficiency. Students who take the Advanced Placement language classes should be able to demonstrate proficiency at that level. For the past two years I have taught the Advanced Placement class in Spanish. The AP curriculum is very demanding and only a few students who take the AP exam are able to score at least a “3” out of a possible “5.” If we focused our program from the very beginning on a proficiency continuum, I think our students would be better prepared to do the required work in the AP classes because they would be required to meet performance standards throughout their years of language study.
Christine: So, if our goal is to have our students demonstrate their ability to use the language at the Novice-High level by the time they complete 8th grade, we could have a district program which begins at Novice-Mid in the 7th grade and continues through Intermediate-High at the high school.
Joan: I think I hear all of you agreeing with Christine that we could have a program which begins at the Novice-Mid level in seventh grade and continues through Intermediate-High in the senior year.
Roger: How will a program based on language proficiency mesh with our current program which really is based on seat time? In our current program students move from level to level based on the number of years they take the language. Students who make at least a “D” in our classes can move on to the next level. Of course most of our low-performing students tend to drop out of language classes rather than continue. They know they aren’t prepared to do the work. However, some students are pressured by their parents to continue. They suffer because they aren’t ready to do the work at the next level.
Marta: Yes. I have often wondered why we have a system which allows students to continue to the next level when they clearly are not ready to do the work. It creates a lot of stress for both teachers and students.
Ramon: OK, but I am wondering, if we have a curriculum based on proficiency, how will our students receive credit? Can we still give a credit to students who aren’t proficient? Currently our students receive a credit for sitting in our classes and getting at least a “D” for the final grade. I think we all agree that credit for “D” work is not the same as credit for “A” work. Clearly a student who is consistently getting low grades is not demonstrating proficiency. If we have a program based on proficiency, how can we justify giving students credit when they do not meet the required proficiency level?
Joan: I think what I am hearing you say is that we should think about giving credit when students are able to demonstrate a specific proficiency level. For example, students who demonstrate language proficiency at a Novice-High receive one credit, and so on for each level.
Ramon: That is a very radical idea, but one that makes a lot of sense. Wouldn’t the notion of credit for performance really change the status quo? What would be the consequences of such a change in the system?
Giselle: First of all I think there would be a lot of anguish. I think change of any kind is very difficult for most of us. Our students, especially our high school students, are use to receiving their credits based on time spent in our classes–one year, one credit. Even if they scrape by with a “D,” they can still receive their credit.
Roger: Now that I think about it, even in the elementary grades, kids are passed on from year to year whether they can do the work at grade level or not. By the time they get to high school, giving credit based on seat time just reinforces this system. I’m sure that our system, which requires students to have a certain amount of credits to graduate, could contribute, in many ways, to the failure of our students to have success in college and their careers, especially when a credit can either mean that a student successfully met the course requirements or just squeaked through.
Marta: How would we go about changing the way students earn a credit in our classes? I agree with Ramon. I think it might be very difficult to convince the administration to change the rules for how students receive their credits.
Roger: If we can make a case for changing how students receive a credit, then I think we can convince the administration and our school board to approve the change. What if we focus on student success as the goal of our program? I think what we are saying is that we want to create a program which clearly defines what we expect our students to do at each level of proficiency. Then, we communicate these expectations to our students, their parents, and to the community at large. Our goal as teachers is to do everything in our power to help our students be successful as they move from level to level. We also communicate to everyone how important it is for every student to demonstrate their competency at each level so that they will be successful as they move forward.
Joan: So, are we saying that students receive credit when they meet the performance standards?
Roger: Yes. However, if we award credit for performance, we need to communicate to our students exactly what they will need to do to earn the credit. The German, French, and Spanish programs must have the same standards, which means we teachers need to all agree on the course content, teaching methodologies, and types of assessments we use for our students.
Carol: I think, based on our recent conversations, we are close to agreement on the type of program we want. Now, I think we need to draft the course content as well as develop new kinds of assessments.
Joan: Before we discuss course content and assessments, I would like for us to use the rest of the time we have today to discuss the notion of credit for performance. I see the performance credit as a major change in our program and a critical component of our revised curriculum.
Giselle: If the credit is tied to proficiency how do we determine which student performances are proficient and which ones aren’t yet proficient?
Joan: Maybe I could put it another way. Which of our students now are succeeding when they move to the next level?
Carol: In my classes the students who consistently get “A’s” and “B’s” are the ones who are successful and feel confident when they move to the next level.
Ramon: I definitely agree. I would say that my “A” and “B” students are competent. I am happy to give them a credit for the class.
Roger: If we decide to try and give credit for performance, I think we all will need to agree on the qualities of a proficient performance. Once we decide the characteristics of a proficient performance, we can then communicate them to our students so that they know exactly what they need to do to be proficient.
Joan: Based on our discussions today, I think we have reached consensus on a couple of key points. First, I propose we go ahead with a curriculum based on proficiency levels, beginning with Novice-Mid at the middle school, and ending with Intermediate-High at the high school. Second, I think we have made a very good argument for giving credit based on performance. I suggest for our next meeting that we continue our discussion for the Intermediate-Mid level.
Ramon: I would be happy to draft the Intermediate-Mid level for our next discussion. Also, before we end this meeting I suggest that we all think about how we are going to ensure student success. If we are going forward with having students only receive credit when they demonstrate an agreed-upon level of performance, I am concerned about the students who will require more time to meet the performance standards. In our current system, all students have the same amount of time to learn the material even though we know that some students could move along at a faster pace, while others need more time. Students who need more time usually are the ones who receive “C’s” and “D’s,” but they still get credit for the course. How are we going to give our lower-performing students the extra time and help they will need to be successful so they, too, will be prepared to earn the credit? If we are not able to answer this question, I really can’t see how the school board will let us implement credit for performance.
Joan: Your point, Ramon, goes to the heart of our discussions. Maybe this is the time to clarify for ourselves why we are even talking about organizing our curriculum on standards and proficiency.
Marta: For me, the standards and the proficiency levels provide the foundation for our program. The standards specify “what” our students will learn and the proficiency levels specify “how well” our students are able to communicate in the target language. In addition, the standards are clear and concise. I think even our students will be able to articulate the standards as they move through the program. The Proficiency Guidelines clearly describe what our students should be able to do as they progress through the levels. We still need to address the methods we will use to determine whether a student is proficient at each level.
Ramon: I am wondering if my students will be more motivated to learn if they know exactly what they need to do and how well they need to do it before they receive a credit for the course. Over the years I have asked dozens of my students to tell me their motivation for learning Spanish. You know what most of them say? They tell me they are in the class to get a credit. The majority of my students think they need two credits in Spanish to graduate. When I tell them that they can graduate high school without any credits in Spanish, they are surprised. However, at this point I use the opportunity to explain the advantages of speaking another language. Students also know that credit in a world language is a requirement for admission to most colleges and universities.
Carol: Listening to you, Ramon, makes me think that, if getting a credit motivates our students, then why not make the credit mean something? We teachers want students to be in our classes so that they can learn to communicate in another language. Students say they are in our classes to get a credit. Why can’t we put the two reasons together? I think that is exactly what “credit for performance” means. Our students get the credit when they are able to demonstrate their ability to communicate in the target language. It is a “win-win” for both teachers and students.
Joan: Our discussions thus far have really helped to clarify our thoughts. We have articulated several convincing arguments for moving ahead with our work. Before we adjourn, I would ask each of us to think of strategies we could use to help students who will need intervention and more time to meet the performance standards. Ramon has volunteered to draft the Intermediate-Mid level of proficiency for our next meeting.