Author: Chris Sturgis

What Does it REALLY Mean to Do Standards-Based Grading? (Part 2)

June 28, 2016 by
SBG

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There is so much written about grading that I’m hesitant to offer my thoughts on what is needed to do it well. And this article is certainly not a “how to” step-by-step plan on implementing standards-based grading. I’m compelled to write about it because I keep hearing about districts trying to use grading changes as the entry point to competency education. If folks are going to do that, then this blog might be helpful. Just be mindful–most in the field will recommend that you do not lead with grading. (Please take the time to check out Part 1, where I do my best to differentiate standards-referenced, standards-based, and competency-based grading.)

What does it really require to implement standards-based grading?

From what I can tell based on my conversations with competency-based schools across the country, the following are the major activities, structures, and practices that need to be in place before you introduce new grading policies and practices.

#1 Provide Additional Time and Instruction to Support Students Who are Not Yet Proficient

If you are going to commit to getting students to proficiency on all the standards for a grade level or a performance level within a course or a school year, you are going to have to be prepared for those students who are going to be “not yet proficient.” One piece of that is to have ways to provide “timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.” (That’s the fourth element of the working definition for competency-based education.)

Many schools in their first year of conversion expect after school or lunch time to suffice for teachers to be able to work with students. However, they quickly figure out that isn’t going to work and begin scheduling for Flex Hours each day. Noble High School has taken this the farthest with fine-tuned operations and multiple opportunities to make sure students are getting exactly the help they need every week. From what I can tell, it is impossible to do standards-based grading if you don’t have really strong mechanisms for providing additional instruction for students who are not yet proficient. (See The Learning Edge: Supporting Student Success in a Competency-Based Learning Environment.) (more…)

What Does it REALLY Mean to Do Standards-Based Grading? (Part 1)

June 27, 2016 by

2016-04-13 11.11.40I read a lot of clips about how districts are advancing competency education around the country, and it always seems to me that when there are any negative reactions they are in response to new grading practices, usually referred to as standards-based grading. It strikes me that negative reactions pop up when districts either use grading as an entry point (which puts all the focus on the grading and not on why competency education is valuable) or they’ve put some of the pieces of standards-based grading in place but not the entire framework necessary to make it more trustworthy than traditional grading.

How does a district implement high quality standards-based grading, and when is the right time? I’ll do the best I can to synthesize what I’ve been learning from districts, but please do not hesitate to disagree or add more nuance to these thoughts.

Before I dive deep, allow me to once more review the three types of grading systems using standards (at least that I know about): standards-referenced, standards-based, and an emerging concept of competency-based.

What is the difference between standards-referenced and standards-based grading?

In his book, Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading, Robert J. Marzano explains the difference. “In a standards-based system, a student does not move to the next level until he or she can demonstrate competence at the current level. In a standards-referenced system, a student’s status is reported (or referenced) relative to the performance standard for each area of knowledge and skill on the report card; however, even if the student does not meet the performance standard for each topic, he or she moves to the next level. Thus, the vast majority of schools and districts that claim to have standards-based systems in fact have standards-referenced systems.”

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Turning Practice into Policy

June 23, 2016 by

SchoolEvery time I get my head wrapped around ESSA, I learn a little bit more. Partially this is because US Department of Education is also getting its head wrapped around it so they can issue the regulations to guide states in implementing it. There are a lot of people talking about ESSA, and I’ve been hearing some feedback that there is different and sometimes incorrect advice being given.

The team of folks I turn to for my guidance include Maria Worthen at iNACOL and Lillian Pace at KnowledgeWorks, as well as the folks at Center for Innovation Education and Center for Assessment. Truly, they are the ones who are turning all that we are learning about implementation and practice that is shared here on CompetencyWorks into policy. And I always feel better when there are great minds working together.

It’s important to remember that ESSA is an opportunity – a HUGE opportunity. ESSA’s Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority and improvements to Section 1111 enables “states to design assessment systems that incorporate individual student growth, use multiple measures of student learning from multiple points in time to determine summative scores, and use adaptive assessments to measure where students are in their learning.” Read that again slowly and let yourself imagine what’s possible. Adaptive assessments? Could we let students demonstrate their learning based on their performance levels and just be upfront that they haven’t met grade level standards…yet?

iNACOL shared the most recent letter to the US Department of Education, and I think it is worth reprinting. For example, they encourage clarifying “competency-based assessments” to communicate that it is an assessment that supports competency based determinations, rather than a type of assessment. “Competency-based” refers to the grain-size of the content being assessed and the expected level of performance (demonstration) of that content—or more often, a particular system of learning—rather than the type of assessment. That is an important point for all of us building systems, creating new policies and implementing competency-based schools to remember. (more…)

5 Reasons Why Competency Education Can Lead Us to Improved Quality and More Equity

June 21, 2016 by

Post 8Ensuring quality and equity is as the heart of the movement to transform education toward personalized, competency-based learning. By placing the student at the center of the learning process and re-engineering around learning, pace and progress (rather than time, curriculum delivery and sorting), we can create education systems that reach every student.

Competency education is a design strategy that best serves our lowest achieving students, including low-income students, minority students, English language learners, and those with special educational needs. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Competency education is designed to identify and address gaps in knowledge and skills. We will always have students with gaps in knowledge, whether because of poverty-induced mobility, recent immigration, military transfers, or health issues. When we identify and address gaps, students have a better chance at progressing. As Paul Leather, NH’s Deputy Commissioner of Education, has pointed out, “We learn by connecting concepts and building expertise over time. If we do not learn a concept, new learning cannot be built on it” (from Necessary for Success).
  2. Transparency and modularization are empowering and motivating. They are the ingredients for student ownership. Success begets success, as students see short-term gains and clearly marked next steps. Transparency also challenges bias and stereotypes that may contribute to lower achievement.
  3. The focus on progress and pace requires schools and teachers to respond to students when they need help, rather than letting them endure an entire semester or year of failure. Many competency-based schools organize flex hours during the day to make sure there is no excuse for students going home without receiving the help they need.
  4. Competency education is a comprehensive approach that benefits vulnerable students as well as those in gifted and talented programs. Schools don’t need specialized programs that label students. In fact, students may advance in some disciplines and not in others, as flexibility is built into the core school operations.
  5. Competency education creates powerful learners. We can’t underestimate what student ownership means in the hands of students who have been denied a high quality education in the past. Furthermore, it prepares students to explore their talents, interests, and the future that lies before them. Instead of differentiating students with a single number, their GPA, we see children differentiated by how they demonstrate and apply their knowledge.

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Time Matters: How We Use Flexible Time to Design Higher and Deeper Learning

June 20, 2016 by

Post 7When learning is done on a deeper level, it takes longer to accomplish. Thus, learning experiences that allow students to delve into topics and apply their skills are often more complex to design. Schools must think about how they are structuring learning within the school day, semester, and year so they have more options for deeper learning with greater integration of standards and skills: formative assessment, complex tasks, project- or problem-based learning that is open-ended knowledge utilization (e.g., Webb’s Level 4), extended learning into the community, and capstone projects co-designed by students. Pittsfield Middle and High School has learning studios, Danville School District uses intersessions, Boston Day and Evening Academy offers month-long projects in December, and Casco Bay High School features intensives.

Although schools need to have a pool of performance tasks and performance-based assessments, deeper learning is most meaningful to students when it is authentically rooted in their own lives. Perhaps it is related to career interests, an illness of a family member, violence in their community, or a relevant international issue. Students at Chugach School District can co-design Independent Learning Plans to pursue building skills within the context of high-interest topics. ACE Leadership in New Mexico partners with employers to create projects based on authentic industry problems, allowing students to make the connections between their education and their future. Higher level learning is usually a combination of application of academic skills, application of communication skills, and demonstration of habits. Technical skills will also be included in projects that have a strong career and technical context.

Schools also need to consider the cognitive load (the level of intellectual challenge) of their curriculum. For schools that rely heavily on digital content, educators need to know the depth of learning and be prepared to supplement if it doesn’t meet the level of proficiency required by the standards. Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that all projects are not necessarily project-based learning. Deeper learning requires teachers to have expertise in assessing the application of skills and student habits. Given that the ability of teachers to design and assess more complex learning is dependent on their expertise, principals will need to provide ongoing professional development to build capacity and shared understanding, and ensure that their team of teachers includes those who can guide the more complex, longer projects as well as mentor other teachers. (more…)

Contributing Factors and Measurable Outcomes of Student-Centered Learning

June 17, 2016 by

SatCHA very important new research opportunity is available – Students at the Center, a project of Jobs for the Future, has released an RFP for a fourth study to be funded up to $300,000 as part of their Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative. Proposals are due August 5th.

According to the press release, they are seeking proposals regarding the contributing factors and measurable outcomes of student-centered learning practices that are rigorously examined. This funding will support two-year research projects that investigate the effectiveness of student-centered learning practices, the conditions that foster (and undermine) these practices, who most (and least) benefits from them and why, and the extent to which specific approaches impact the achievement and college and career readiness of students from historically underserved groups and communities. If you or a colleague plans to conduct research in this area, we hope you/they will consider submitting a proposal.

As I’m sure you remember, competency-based progression is one element of student-centered learning. (more…)

8 Ways Blended Districts Can Implement a Competency-Based Structure

June 16, 2016 by

Post 6Districts that have introduced blended learning may share the common philosophy with competency-based schools that students learn differently, requiring schools to personalize the learning experiences of students. However, they’ve started with a different entry point by focusing on how technology can improve the delivery of instruction. They may not have yet made the shift to understanding that we need to reconfigure our education system to be designed for success, rather than the ranking and sorting of the traditional system that reproduces inequity.

Depending on the strategies they have used, this means that blended districts and schools may have already developed the essential leadership and management capacities required for introducing the changes involved in creating a competency-based system. Because they see flexible pacing as an element for supporting student learning rather than focusing on fixed time for delivering curriculum, the concept of progress upon mastery has already taken root. In fact, blended classrooms where both the digital resources and face-to-face instruction are providing engaging educational opportunities and encouraging a high level of rigor for students to demonstrate mastery may have already created the capacity and a rational transition point for fully moving to competency education.

The process of blended schools converting to a competency-based structure is just beginning. Below, I highlight eight ways blended districts can implement a competency-based structure, based on insights of technical assistance providers who are working with districts across the country.

1. Invest in Leadership: In the process of planning and implementing blended learning delivery models, most districts have already found that a top-down leadership and management approach has its limits. In competency education, top-down management is generally ineffective. Leaders in competency-based districts consistently raise the importance of developing a more adaptive leadership style, such as distributed leadership or middle-up-down management. Lindsay Unified School District has experienced this firsthand. Their first and most important step in the process of change was investing in school leadership and district staff. As a team, they began to reflect on their leadership styles and discuss how to build capacity to engage others in decision-making.

2. Re-Visit the Mission and Vision: Competency education rests on a foundation of transparency, empowerment, and shared purpose. If an inclusive process wasn’t used to develop the district’s mission, blended districts may want to revisit their mission and vision by engaging the community to ensure that it reflects a shared purpose (not one defined solely from the superintendent and/or school board). Inclusive engagement processes to create a shared purpose and vision is essential for sustainability and changes in leadership. Given that we are still in relatively early stages of understanding what competency-based districts might look like as the system fully develops, the shared ownership is a critical element in the implementation process. (more…)

6 Ways to Eliminate Attribution Error on the Path to Equity in Competency-Based Systems

June 15, 2016 by

Post 5In order to create an equitable education system, we need to reduce the predictive value of race, gender, class, and disability in the classroom. In the blaming culture of the traditional educational system, we point to children or their families as the problem when students aren’t successfully learning, rather than revisit our educational designs and structures. In competency education, students who are struggling are identified quickly and receive additional supports. In addition, the continuous improvement cycle can identify and address patterns of inequity in resources, learning experiences or access to highly qualified teachers.

Given that high quality competency education rests on having respectful relationships between students and teachers, eliminating attribution error is a critical step. Attribution error is when we assume a deficit to explain behavior. For example, believing that a student who is always late doesn’t care about her education, when in fact she cares so deeply about education she drops her siblings at school and then takes three different buses to get to class each morning. We need to begin with the assumption that we are all at risk of making the wrong assumptions about students. The following are suggestions gathered during a convening on how to rid your school of attribution error. ž

1. Cleaning Up the Language of Learning: The language of learning in a traditional system is limited to smart, fast, or ahead. Students are racing ahead, falling behind, or on different tracks (even though we don’t like to admit that these descriptions still exist). In order to eliminate attribution errors, we need to let go of the adjectives and create a data-driven language of learning that indicates what level students are at on a learning progression, the pace of learning, their growth, and the depth of their learning. ž

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Tackling Issues of Equity in Personalized Learning

June 14, 2016 by

Personalized learningPost 4 has become a critical element of most next generation learning models, as we are faced with the challenge of ensuring all students get what they need to be successful in their transition to college and careers. We know we can’t reach that goal by delivering one-size-fits-all instruction. The only way we can do it is through personalizing education.

Students differ in so many ways — personality, life experiences, physical and emotional maturity, learning styles and challenges, opportunities to explore the world, responsibilities, habits for study and work, and academic skills. Thus, the overall concept of personalization and the specific approach of personalized learning is designed to improve educational outcomes of underserved populations by responding directly to individual student needs, strengths, and interests. Instead of moving students through one curriculum and the same instruction in the same set of time, personalized learning seeks to be responsive to students.

Personalized learning raises concerns about equity in two ways. First, there is a worry that personalized pathways could result in different expectations. Second, if educational experiences vary, they may also create or exacerbate/increase patterns of inequity unless careful attention is given to monitoring student progress and outcomes and providing the necessary supports for all students to achieve mastery. We know that using the same textbook and sitting in class the same amount of time has not resulted in economic or racial equity. With a focus on equity and setting the same high levels of competencies and standards for all students, many innovators see personalization and competency education as complementary approaches to better serve students and provide a more transparent structure around performance to ensure equity while still offering a more student-centered approach to learning. For more information on issues of equity in personalized learning, competency education and blended learning, see this CompetencyWorks report.

As Susan Patrick mentions in this blog, “Standards, world-class knowledge, and skills are critical as the floor (not the ceiling) of expectations for each and every student.” It is important to set high academic standards and raise learning expectations, arming students with the critical problem-solving skills to succeed in today’s globally competitive economy. (more…)

How Misconceptions About Competency Education Could Undermine Equity

June 13, 2016 by

EducationFor several years, the fields of personalized learning, competency-based education, and blended learning were having definitional issues with the terms often being used either synonymously or to describe very discrete practices that neglected to capture the overall concepts in each. iNACOL and its project CompetencyWorks have taken leadership in helping the field understand these concepts as different and relational to build knowledge in communicating these topics.

This understanding of terms and what they mean might seem minor, but has significant implications on outcomes – it affects both the quality of personalized learning models and how to approach and address systemic reforms toward competency-based education systems. How we understand these terms and the intersection between them could make the difference between creating a system that produces equity and one that continues to have zip code and color of skin determine educational achievement.

By generating a universal lexicon and addressing misconceptions and misunderstandings that arise, we can help drive the field toward blended learning and competency education with greater ease.

Miscommunications such as the ones described below can derail important conversations and add to the complexity of where blended learning and competency education overlap. They can also lead to poor implementation, lower achievement, and inequitable practices. (more…)

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