How Competency Based Grading Has NOT Changed Our School’s Transcript

December 13, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 7.49.30 AMMy school district implemented a K-12 competency-based grading and reporting system four years ago. The implementation included the adoption of a set of common competency-based grading practices that all teachers use in their classrooms and competency-based report cards that measure student progress toward mastery of course-based competencies. As the building principal, one of the most common questions that I am asked by students, parents, and even administrators from other schools who are considering this model for their school, is how our transcript has changed. They are surprised to learn, in fact, that little has changed about our transcript.

The purpose of our high school transcript, just like any other high school transcript, is to provide a final record of a student’s performance at our school. Our transcript lists each course a student took, their final course grade, and how many credits the student earned. Other information, such as:  Class Rank; Grade Point Average (weighted or non-weighted); Attendance Information, and Diploma Type are optional features that can also be printed on a transcript as needed.

Our transcript explains to the reader what the final grades of E (Exceeding), M (Meeting), IP (In-Progress), and LP (Limited Progress) mean. It also explains what it means for a student to get a code of NYC (Not Yet Competent) or IWS (Insufficient Work Shown), both of which result in no credit awarded for the course.

Our school has identified six school-wide 21st century learning expectations. These include a student’s ability to effectively communicate, creatively solve problems, responsibly use information, self-manage their learning, produce quality work, and contribute to their community. Since each teacher in each course at my school assesses students on these expectations, the transcript provides a summary of these grades so the reader can see a student’s progress in mastering them over the course of their high school career. (more…)

Getting Up to Speed on Grading

December 11, 2013 by
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Susan McCray, a Humanities Teacher at Casco Bay High School, talks with a student

We are getting ready to release a paper on competency-based grading in January. In the meantime, I know that lots of districts and schools are trying to figure out how to revise their grading system. There is a lot written on the topic but nothing like a video to help spark discussion and give you ideas about how to communicate the need for redesigning grading. So here are some of my favorites. You can also find examples of grading systems from four different school models at the Competencyworks wiki.

The Problem with the A-F Grading Scheme: Doug Reeves talks about zeros and the relationship to disciplinary issues, trending rather than averaging, late work and getting the work done, and teaching children resilience in Toxic Grading Practices. My favorite quote: How many have heard these words from a student: Just give me the zero. The operative word being “give.” Because they’re used to simply getting by and maybe a little smiley face will get them a D or something. No. You want to do something really scary? Get the work done. And I’m quoting this one young man now because his words were so persuasive to me: “It is such a hassle in this school man. You try to turn in this stuff in and she gives it back to you. You miss it, she makes you do it again. You can’t even get a D. It’s such a hassle in this school, man, to get a C. You might as well get a B.” Whereupon we have the wonderful spectacle of whining adolescents belly-aching all the way to the honor roll.  (Go to 5:27 – 6:06.)

Standards-Based Grading: There are books and books and lots of articles written about standards-based grading, but there are limited video resources.

On Five Musts for Mastery

December 10, 2013 by

Are there other articles or essays that you’ve seen about how technology can be used to respond to students and personalize classrooms in a competency-based environment?

There is a rapid conversation going on across our country to better understand how blended learning and education technology can support students and help them stay on pace and make progress in competency-based schools. Catlin Tucker’s Five Musts for Mastery in the EL issue on Getting Students to Mastery gives us a start in thinking about this – using technology to offer more opportunities for creativity and play; more voice and participation (what she calls student-centered learning); more choice; and timely feedback.

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Catlin Tucker

Tucker describes shared goal-setting as one of the musts. This is a must whether teachers do it with technology or not.  In almost every competency-based classroom I’ve been in there are shared vision statements, co-developed with students and the teacher, about how the classroom community will operate.  There are some fears, not shared by me, that competency education will become entirely individualized undermining the importance of helping students develop the skills and values of community-building.  However, the importance of creating shared vision or goals, a collective activity, sets the stage in competency-based classrooms that we are all in this together, supporting each other in our learning regardless of where we are starting on our learning progressions or our tempos of learning along the way. (more…)

Curriculum Model for Mastery-Based Learning

December 9, 2013 by

curriculummodelWe had begun a short unit of study on Greek heroes, immediately following an introductory unit on Greek mythology and the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus. We took time to revisit and rethink, and one of my students began frowning. “We usually just learn some stuff and take a test. It never comes up again. This is hard!” he said.

This is rigor. This is challenge and opportunity. This is the heart of mastery-based learning.  And it requires a different model of curriculum development and design. What I had been developing for the past fourteen years wasn’t working well anymore because it required that I write my curriculum as if it were a straight line heading in one direction.

In a mastery-based learning world, curriculum isn’t linear: curriculum needs to be developed from a core outward – a ripple effect. (Fig. 1) Skills and knowledge need to flourish, not remain static entities on a timeline.

A new model for developing curriculum in a mastery-based environment

The long-standing question – and the stumbling block I have come up against – is what curriculum for mastery-based learning looks like. It shouldn’t mirror traditional units of study and traditional models of curriculum. It should provide a guide for how students can demonstrate mastery because the knowledge and skills never disappear. Opportunities for continuous growth and improvement should be present throughout the curriculum, and they should be integrated and organic. (more…)

Technology Tools Lag Our Competency-based Aspirations

December 4, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 3.48.28 PMThis post was originally published by the Christensen Institute on November 13, 2013.

Last week I wrote about structural barriers inhibiting competency-based education from taking off, even when policy shifts away from seat-time requirements to welcome innovation. In addition to the organizational structures keeping educators and leaders locked into time-based habits though, there is also a dearth of technology tools to support competency-based education. Most technology tools at competency-based educators’ fingertips reflect time-based practices that resist individualized learning pathways and the ability to track an individual student’s mastery. Liz Glowa’s paper from this past February does an excellent job summarizing the extent to which existing technologies are currently ill suited to competency-based approaches.

Because competency-based models remain few and far between, however, it’s difficult to say what the most transformational edtech solutions might be. To gain a sense of the answer, I surveyed a few competency-based educators on the issue of what software solutions most egregiously lag the pedagogical developments and ambitions of a fully competency-based school.

Joseph Crawford, founder of Next Charter School, a project-based learning high school in New Hampshire, currently uses a complex array of excel spreadsheets to track students’ individual progress against competencies. He described the particular shortcomings of learning management systems in an email:

One thing that I have noticed about most, if not all, LMS’s is that they seem to attach standards to courses and assessments to courses and then allow for a means of assigning a score or grade to each assessment. This is very different than what we do. We have a battery of standards (we call them Performance Indicators), which we individually assess, based on a review of student-created artifacts or projects. The result is that each student meets indicators only when he demonstrates mastery of said indicator with evidence. We have yet to find a tool that allows us to individually assess indicators and attach indicators and artifacts in a patchwork, web-like structure (one artifact may address multiple indicators). (more…)

Education Leadership: Getting Students to Mastery

December 2, 2013 by

ASCD’s Education Leadership’s new issue Getting Students to Mastery includes articles by Grant Wiggins, Kathleen Cushman, Thomas Gus114021key and Eric Anderman. Topics include what does mastery mean, what is good enough,  how to use technology to support mastery, and instructional practices.

The essays are useful ways to generate conversation and find out how states, districts and schools are managing them. For example, in his essay “How Good Is Good Enough?” Wiggins raises an important point, advising educators to keep the big picture in mind rather than falling prey to guiding students through a linear sequence of tiny bite-sized standards:

Perhaps as a result of the lack of an overall vision for what constitutes mastery, education has a long-standing practice of turning worthy learning goals into lists of bits. One might even say that this practice is the original sin in curriculum design: Take a complex whole, divide it into small pieces, string those together in a rigid sequence of instruction and testing, and call completion of this sequence “mastery.” Although well-intentioned, this practice leads to needlessly fractured, boring, and ultimately in effective learning that never prepares students to be fluent and skilled in authentic work.

New Hampshire guards against this with its College and Career Readiness Competencies setting about a dozen large competencies for English Language Arts and another for mathematics to help teachers stay focused on that big picture of what we want kids to be able to know and do. In Maine, they are developing the capacity to assess the statewide “guiding principles”. Both states know that performance tasks and assessments are needed to make sure that we are keeping our eye on the big picture of what we expect for our kids.

The articles are all useful for thinking about classroom practice. However, remember when you are reading the articles that competency education is a whole-school practice, not something that teachers can implement on their own. We’ve learned from that experience, recognizing the importance of school-wide grading policies to enable standards-based grading (as compared to standards-referenced where students are passed on with Cs and Ds), schoolwide support systems (rather than acting as if teachers can possibly meet the needs of every student in their classroom alone) , and creating opportunities for students to advance or go deeper as they reach mastery (rather than thinking about the limits of learning within the classroom).

Barriers to Competency-based Innovation Aren’t Just Coming from Above

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Julia Freeland

This post was originally published by the Christensen Institute on November 6, 2013.

There is a clarion call from online-learning proponents to free up student time—literally. As Susan Patrick explained in her opening speech at the annual iNACOL Symposium last week, student seat-time requirements are one of the greatest barriers to personalized, student-centered learning.

Removing seat time from state regulations certainly stands to open up more opportunities for students to move at their own pace, and for educators to measure progress in terms of authentic learning rather than hours and minutes. However, regulatory barriers are only half the battle. When it comes to creating effective competency-based schools and classrooms, policy change is only a small part of a much bigger endeavor. It is necessary, but by no means sufficient.

One state, New Hampshire, provides a helpful example of how we need to consider the internal dynamics of fostering innovation, not just the external barriers that constrain it. In New Hampshire, the external barriers to competency-based education are gone altogether. In 2005, the state got rid of the Carnegie unit—the core unit around which credit hours are measured—and mandated that all high schools move to a competency-based model by the 2008-09 school year.

When the state took schools “off the clock,” something interesting happened. Some schools ran with the concept of competency-based education, undoing the age-old practices that benchmarked progress against time rather than learning. This subset of schools shifted their grading and testing policies to better reflect mastery, provided supplemental content for students falling behind or moving ahead, and made assessment more frequent and formative. Other schools, however, have remained very much the same. Even though many New Hampshire high schools today may have documents titled “competencies” in their classrooms and student handbooks or offer competency recovery to students falling behind, they have maintained the trappings of a time-based system, where students continue to move through material regardless of mastery and at a course-wide pace regardless of individual ability. These schools may still do a good job at serving students according to the traditional school model; they have not, however, embraced innovative vision enshrined in the state’s policies. (more…)

New Hampshire Rocks Competency Education Policy

November 25, 2013 by
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Paul Leather
Deputy Commissioner of Education

There just isn’t any other way to say it. The proposal of minimum standards for competency-based schools approved by the New Hampshire Board of Education is so thoughtful, so detailed, so clear – it just rocks! According to the Keene Sentinel the Board unanimously approved the proposal. Next stop: a joint legislative committee with the Board adopting the standards in January.

For anyone involved with state policy, it’s worth taking the time to read the entire thing to see how New Hampshire is reworking its core policy around personalization and a competency-based diploma. In the meantime here are some of the highlights of the policy. (Please forgive me if I misinterpreted any of the policies, and let me know so I can correct it here.)

Definitions As always, policymakers have to clarify what language means. Here are just a few of the terms clarified at the beginning of the policy. The phrase acknowledgement of achievement is used when a student has demonstrated achievement of district competencies and/or graduation competencies. It plays an important role in allowing students to be recognized for what they have learned, wherever it might take place.  Competencies means student learning targets that represent key content-specific concepts, skills, and knowledge applied within or across content domains. Mastery means a high level of demonstrated proficiency with regard to a competency; Personalized learning means a process that connects learning with learner’s interests, talents, passions, and aspirations, including actively participating in the design and implementation of their learning. Note that student voice and choice is explicit.

Local Policy for Personalization: As in most states, schools are under local control. State policy can outline expectations but it is up to local schools boards to develop the full policies.  This policy outlining minimum standards sets the expectation that the local school board shall adopt and implement written policies and procedures no later than July 1, 2015 relative to 1) meeting the instructional needs of each individual student and 2) providing alternative means of demonstrating achievement of identified graduation competencies toward the awarding of a credit for a high school diploma or equivalent such as extended learning opportunities, career and technical education courses, and distance education.  In other words, district policies have to enable students to get the support they need and be able to learn anytime, anywhere. (more…)

What Does It Look Like: Student Ownership, Voice and Choice in a Competency-based School

November 22, 2013 by

belfast1As more districts become curious about competency education, they want to see what it look like in the classroom. Of course competency education doesn’t look one way — it varies based on the degree schools are using blended learning, how they are personalizing education, how student-centered, how project-based the school is, and the design and culture of the school . However, you can certainly get a feel for what is possible by watching videos, listening to students and teachers reflect upon their experiences. So we’ve pulled together a few — most of these schools emphasize student-centeredness or personalization.  You can find other videos and blog posts about competency education In the Classroom on the wiki.


Unpacking the Standards and Learning Targets

Optimizing Personalized, Blended, Competency-based Schools

November 21, 2013 by

It is a mouthful, — personalized, blended and competency-based learning. And I assume that someone out there is going to come up with an acronym or create a name for it. Before they do, I hope problem-based or project-based will be included in that list as well since kids need the opportunity to use deeper levels of knowledge (as well as being downright fun most of the time).


I’ve made the case why we need to continue to understand each these characteristics separately as we are in such rapid stages of learning. We need a way to break it down when we talk to each other. When I ask a school in New Hampshire “how do you use blended learning?” I expect to hear about the adaptive software students are using, the online courses and competency recovery that is available through Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, how teachers are learning to organize their curriculum in units on the web so that students can advance more quickly, and how they are using tablets for those students that do not have internet access at home so they can download what they need and take it home with them.


When I visit a school in Maine to learn about their competency-based model they will tell me about their proficiency-based schools. I might hear about the transparency of the measurement targets and learning targets based upon standards, how their learning management system Educate allows teachers to track progress and principals to monitor pacing across the school, about their school-wide system of supports including daily Flex hour and reading specialists that work with individual students as well as building capacity of their teachers, their grading scheme based on depth of knowledge that targets proficiency at Level 3 (i.e. application of knowledge and skills) and how they are developing assessments for Maine’s Guiding Principles or what might others call lifelong learning competencies. (more…)

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