Category: School Processes and Practice

Making Sense (or Trying to) of Competencies, Standards and the Structures of Learning

June 9, 2015 by
math comps

From Building 21 (Click to Enlarge)

States, districts, and schools are developing a range of different ways to structure their Instruction and Assessment system (the set of learning goals of what schools want students to know and be able to do; the way they can identify if students have learned them; and, if not, how they can provide feedback to help them learn it). I’m having difficulty being able to describe the differences as well as the implications. The issue of the importance of the design of how we describe what students should and/or have learned has come up in meetings about assessment, about learning progressions (instructional strategies that are based on how students learn and are designed to help them move from one concept to the next), and with the NCAA over the past month.

So I’m doing the only thing I know how to do—which is to try to identify the different issues or characteristics that are raised to see if I can make some sense of it. For example, here are a number of questions that help me understand the qualities of any set of standards and competencies:

Is it designed to reach deeper levels of learning?

Some structures clearly integrate deeper learning and higher order skills, whereas others seem to depend solely on the level of knowledge based on how the standard is written. We could just use standards and forgo an overarching set of competencies. However, the competencies ask us to ensure that students can transfer their learning to new situations. It drives us toward deeper learning.

Is it meaningful for teachers for teaching and for students for learning?

As I understand it, much of the Common Core State Standards was developed by backward planning, or backing out of what we wanted kids to know and be able to do upon graduation and then figuring out what it would look like at younger ages. Much less attention was spent on structuring the standards based on how students learn and meaningful ways to get them there. The learning progression experts are emphatic that it is important to organize the units of learning in a way that is rooted in the discipline and helps teachers to recognize where students’ understanding is and how they can help them tackle the next concept. That means the structures are going to be different in different disciplines. Thus, we need to understand how helpful the structures of the standards, competencies, and assessments are to actually help students learn. (more…)

The End of the Big Test: Moving to Competency-Based Policy

May 25, 2015 by

TestThis post originally appeared at Getting Smart on May 19, 2015.

What’s next? With all the frustration surrounding NCLB and big end of year tests, what’s the new policy framework that will replace grade level testing? For a state ready to embrace personalized and competency-based learning, what are the next steps?

This post suggests the use of assessment pilots and innovation zones where groups of schools apply and become authorized to operate alternative assessment systems. But first, some background.

Jobs to be done. To get at the heart of value creation, Clayton Christensen taught us to think about the job to be done. Assessment plays four important roles in school systems:

  1. Inform learning: continuous data feed that informs students, teachers, and parents about the learning process.
  2. Manage matriculation: certify that students have learned enough to move on and ultimately graduate.
  3. Evaluate educators: data to inform the practice and development of educators.
  4. Check quality: dashboard of information about school quality particularly what students know and can do and how fast they are progressing.

Initiated in the dark ages of data poverty, state tests were asked to do all these jobs. As political stakes grew, psychometricians and lawyers pushed for validity and reliability and the tests got longer in an attempt to fulfill all four roles.

With so much protest, it may go without saying but the problem with week long summative tests is that they take too much time to administer; they don’t provide rapid and useful feedback for learning and progress management (jobs 1&2); and test preparation rather than preparation for college, careers, and citizenship has become the mission of school. And, with no student benefit many young people don’t try very hard and increasingly opt out.

But it is no longer necessary or wise to ask one test to do so many jobs when better, faster, cheaper data is available from other sources.

What’s new? There have been six important assessment developments since NCLB was enacted in 2002: (more…)

What’s Your Dream Grading Tool? NYC Educators State Their Must-Haves

May 20, 2015 by

Must-HavesWhat is your dream mastery-based grading tool?

This design challenge drew a roomful of educators from twenty mastery/competency-based schools around New York City—and reps from seven educational technology companies that offer mastery/competency-based grading platforms.

The aim was to create a city-wide list of ‘must have’ and ‘nice-to-have’ features and functions of a dream mastery-based grading system—and to foster an unprecedented level of information-sharing and intense collaboration between mastery-based schools and the companies that provide the grading platforms, tools, and trackers they use.

Mastery Grading Must-Haves:

  • User-friendly, intuitive design
  • Parent login, student login (separate)
  • Bulk upload of custom standards and skills
  • Ability to edit and copy outcomes during the school year
  • Ability to share competencies across different courses
  • Ability to customize competencies/outcomes by class
  • Ability to track assignments across years and across courses
  • Centralized by student for all classes (a student can see all his/her present/past classes in one place)
  • Multiple modes of viewing student progress (by course or competency)
  • Progress Reporting (24/7 student views, parent views)
  • Excel reporting (ability to import/export students scores and data)
  • Ability to create/upload rubrics that link to competencies/outcomes
  • Ability to link assessments and grades to rubrics
  • Communication feature for students, parents, teachers, and administrators
  • Compatible with STARS (citywide grading tool for NYC schools)
  • Visual signal or alert pushed to users upon outcome/comp being met
  • Reliable tech support and PD

Source: Mastery Collaborative from www.digitalready.net

(more…)

Setting the PACE: Teacher Assessment Practices in a Competency-Based Education System

May 18, 2015 by
Wordle

Wordle created by Ellen Hume-Howard

I continue to be amazed and impressed by our staff’s progress over the past five years related to our implementation of a competency-based education system. Our grading, assessment, and instructional practices have changed significantly during this time, as our teachers have continued to push forward in their quest to impact student learning.

Over the past two years, our focus has been on assessment. Our staff’s knowledge and growth related specifically to the assessment of students’ competency has grown significantly. Memorial School, an elementary school in Newton, NH, is part of the Sanborn Regional School District. Sanborn was one of four districts (Sanborn, Epping, Rochester, and Souhegan) to participate in a first-in-the-nation accountability strategy called PACE (Performance Assessment for Competency Education), which was recently approved by the US DOE. This joint venture between the NH DOE, the Center for Collaborative Education, the Center for Assessment, and the four participating school districts entails a reduced level of standardized testing (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in NH) and involves the creation of locally developed, rigorous, comprehensive performance assessments by teams of teachers. These high quality performance assessments are designed to support deeper learning, and will be integrated within the units of study that students are currently engaged in, thereby creating no disruption to the learning process.

The benefits of this work are numerous. First and foremost, this effort is reflective of educators at literally every level within the State of New Hampshire working in unison to better educational experiences for our students—from teachers in the classroom to Commissioner Virginia Barry and Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather. Everyone involved truly felt that a single standardized assessment should not be the only factor determining a school’s and its students’ success. In the PACE model, the standardized assessment for reading and mathematics would be taken once at each level (elementary, middle, and high school), with complex, multi-part performance assessments administered to allow students to demonstrate and apply their knowledge in quite sophisticated ways. The performance assessments were created by teams of teachers, and were developed as part of the units of study that students would be engaged in during the mid-March to May timeframe, thereby allowing the assessments to be integrated within the daily activities that students and teachers were engaged in. Additionally, the assessments have been vetted by local, state, and national assessment experts and have provided teachers with the opportunity to look at their assessments through a critical lens of their own, something they are doing now on a consistent basis. (more…)

A School’s Journey to Promote Student Achievement and Ownership of Learning

May 5, 2015 by

Roger Vadeen

Our journey to a true competency-based system has been a long yet rewarding one.

It began with the stark realization that the status quo wasn’t working for our students and far too many of our kids were either not graduating from high school or receiving diplomas and finding themselves ill prepared for the twenty-first century workforce or for college. As you will find, there have been a lot of steps along the way and it has been hard work.

In 2006, a group of principals, teachers, and Adams County School District 50 leaders took a plane north headed for Anchorage, Alaska. Our destination was a small school district near Anchorage called Chugach School District. We had heard about the work of the Chugach District from the Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC) and we were intrigued by the possibilities. I was especially interested to learn more about how students were being authentically engaged in goal setting and making decisions on what they needed and wanted to learn. I heard that students in Chugach were highly engaged in their learning and were taking responsibility for their own learning at levels that surprised even the Chugach teachers. I traveled a long way see this approach to education in action and I was not disappointed.

Following our week-long visit to schools and workshops with the Chugach School District leaders, teachers, and students, we were convinced this approach made sense and we were determined to figure out how we could reinvigorate learning in our district and in our schools. (more…)

Pushing the Envelope with Student Centered Learning at VLACS

April 14, 2015 by
Steve Kossakoski

Steve Kossakoski

There are a handful of schools pushing past the concept of organizing learning based on credits to take advantage of the incredible flexibility that a framework of competencies of standards allows. Virtual Learning Academy Charter School  (VLACS) is one of these innovators, showing us a possible direction for a personalized education system. (Chugach School District and Bronx Arena are other credit-busters.)

I recently spoke with Steve Kossakoski, CEO of VLACS, to learn about how they are working to redefine what it means to learn and go to school in the twenty-first century.

Reflecting on Innovation and the Power of Student-Centered Learning

Kossakoski started off the conversation explaining that by embracing the tenets of student-centered learning (personalized; competency-based; anytime, anywhere; and learners exerting ownership over their learning), they have started to push the envelope of their own thinking.

He remarked, “In my opinion, competency-based learning alone will not significantly change the model or the outcomes of today’s school. There are a lot of schools converting to competency-based frameworks, but without significant structural change, it will be difficult for these schools to take advantage of the opportunities that a student-centered learning model offers. For example, some schools have created broad overarching competencies while curriculum and instruction still looks the same. Other schools are integrating competency-based approaches within the traditional curriculum while continuing to expect that all learners will master the same set of competencies within a 180-day academic year. I’m a bit concerned that schools will only tinker around the edges of possibility and end up reinventing the traditional model but with a new coat of paint.”

“As an online school, we have a great deal of freedom to innovate, so, as we designed our services based on the tenets of student-centered learning, we worked from the perspective of what’s possible when the limitations of a time and place-based system are removed. We realized that until you provide students with the opportunity to design their own learning pathways, they won’t really own their learning. Offering learners a choice of courses and projects provides kids with some ownership. But how much ownership is it, really?”

He explained that they began to examine the continuum from individualization to personalization. He explained the difference, “Schools tend to individualize by providing learners with a limited set of options. However, personalization requires engaging the learners in a conversation and asking, ‘What do you want to do? Where and how do you want to learn?’ Learners may want to learn in a traditional class, online, in the community, through self-study, or by participating in a project. We are trying to dig deeper into what it means to personalize learning and to extend the capability of our school to fully personalize education. We don’t want learning to be bound by the courses we offer.” (more…)

Advice for School Principals on Implementing Competency Education

March 4, 2015 by
Brian Stack

Brian Stack

This past week, I had the pleasure of spending some time with school principals from Henry County, Georgia in an effort to help them get ready to start their own competency education and personalized learning journey. Henry County has committed to a redesign structure framed around five personalized learning tenets: Learner Profiles, Competency Based Learning, Project Based Learning, 21st Century Skills, and Technology Enabled Learning. Work is now underway in their schools to move their plan into action from just a few cohort schools to all of the schools in their county. As a high school principal from New Hampshire who underwent a similar school redesign just five years ago, I came to Georgia to offer these great principals some words of “wisdom” from a practical sense, using my own redesign journey as a guide. The experience for me personally was an opportunity to reflect back on what I have had to do as a school principal to help support this massive change process in our school community. The focus of this article is to share some of that advice for other principals who are likely to start this kind of work in the coming months or years.

To frame my advice, I will use the work of Kotter (1996) on leading change in an organization. Although Kotter’s work was written originally for the business world, it can easily be transferred to education. It is a perfect guide for principals who are leading a transition to competency education in their school. To illustrate his research in a practical manner, Kotter (2005) later wrote a fable about a colony of penguins living on an iceberg off the coast of Antarctica who discover that their iceberg is going to melt over the coming season and they need to convince the colony that they need to relocate and change how they live. Five years ago our school district used this fable to help our administrators, myself included, understand their role in the redesign and change process. The fable follows Kotter’s multi step process for successful change and will frame my advice for principals.

1) Set the stage by creating a sense of urgency and pulling together a guiding team. (more…)

Shifting the Culture in Learner-Centered Environments

February 18, 2015 by

Picture CollageIn 2012, the Maine Legislature passed into law LD1422, An Act to Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy. The key element of this legislation is the transition to a standards-based educational system in which graduation from a Maine high school is based on students demonstrating proficiency.

The policy was set, but what does it mean to a district and school to ensure their students are proficient? What had to change? I’ve worked in one district that has undergone the transformation and I’m currently working in another that has started their transition to a proficiency-based system. Each one began by transforming the culture to a learner-centered approach. In both districts, consultants from the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, a division of Marzano Research, provided us with training and resources to aid in our implementation of this challenging work.

It starts with fully embracing the fact that students learn differently. As we put our beliefs that learners learn in different ways and in different time frames into practice, we began taking bold steps toward creating a meaningful, personalized learning experience for each child. Early on, we gleaned the importance of including all stakeholders, including community groups, students, staff, and parents, in thinking and talking about a culture of learning. (more…)

In Search of the Goldilocks Scale

January 15, 2015 by
Porridge

Too hot? Too cold? Just right!

We have learned a lot over the past five years as our district has implemented a competency-based model of grading and assessing. Competency-based grading and assessment requires a significant shift in the way we think about assessment—its purpose and its meaning. Our school, Memorial School in Newton, NH and our district, the Sanborn Regional School District, moved to this model five years ago. We continue to learn more about what assessment of students truly means as our overall understanding of assessment practices (our assessment literacy) increases.

When we moved to this model of grading and assessment, our elementary teachers made a wholesale change to grading with a four-point rubric. There would be no number scale (100 point scale) and there would be consistency across grade levels horizontally and vertically. The grade scale rubrics we used would identify the expectations around each level. Our learning curve was steep as we created the rubrics, but we found that our learning was not going to stop there. It continues to this day.

Our first year, we identified our rubric indicators as E (Exceeding), M (Meeting), IP (Inconsistent Progress), and LP (Limited Progress). The chart below reflects this first attempt at our rubric scale. The first roadblock came after the first progress report was distributed. As an educational staff, we looked at IP as what the descriptor outlined—inconsistent progress. A student was able to demonstrate competency, but it was on an inconsistent basis. Many parents provided feedback that it just “felt negative” (the word inconsistent). We decided that “In Progress” was also an accurate indicator, and parents agreed. We made the change immediately within the “Level” while keeping the performance descriptor the same. (more…)

Navigators of Learning

January 8, 2015 by

CompassImprovement comes from knowing where you are going, where you are starting, and the strategic steps to get you there. This is true whether you are retooling a business or choosing towels for a newly redecorated bathroom. When my district began to move to a learner-centered, proficiency-based educational system, we met with the community of parents, learners, educators, and business leaders to set the vision for the school. We now use this vision to create the action plans we will follow to get us to the vision.

But when working with students, we stray from this plan. Teachers’ goals are simple: improve students in their thinking and skills. The execution is the tough part. Giving students a letter grade is not a strategy for improvement. It is as helpful as a coach telling a team they lost without reflecting on why the loss occurred. Athletes know the goal of the game is to win, and reminding them of this is not a strategy.

Tony Dungy, the former head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts (as described in Henry Cloud’s book Boundaries for Leaders), knew that if he was going to win the Super Bowl, he would need to not just measure how many wins or losses the team had. Instead he would need to measure penalty yards and turnovers. He then gave the athletes strategies on how to improve those areas. If they executed the strategies, he theorized they would win. He was right. Teachers need to do the same. We cannot simply give students a final grade when they are not even sure what strategies they can use to improve – or worse, aren’t even clear on what they are trying to improve. A well-crafted progression of competencies can give the teacher and the student the guidebook needed to create successful strategies for continuous improvement. (more…)

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