The supposed goal of proficiency education (and other outcome-based models, such as competency-based learning) is to ensure that all students meet certain measurable benchmarks by year’s end and that all who receive a diploma are proficient in specific areas. The model is based on the notion that every kid can become proficient, if given the time. But when time is limited, resources are stretched, and students arrive at school with wildly different experiences, strengths, and weaknesses, it is rarely the case that everyone ends up in the same place in June.
It also sets up perverse educational incentives. Because the model focuses on year-end proficiency, teachers are required to let students retake tests and must give full credit for late homework. In theory, this allows students the time they need to master each skill without undue “pressure.” In reality, as anyone with a teenager well knows, it encourages slacking.
Proficiency-based education not only warps incentives. It also perverts the curriculum itself. This is particularly true in disciplines such as literature and history, where, traditionally, the goal is to familiarize students with a body of knowledge about which they are then expected to think critically, formulate new ideas, and communicate effectively. In such disciplines, promoting skills at the expense of the content itself leaves students untethered from meaning and unable to communicate effectively about anything. (But never fear: There’s always Google. And Wikipedia. And Alexa.)