Recognizing Outstanding Student Achievement in Competency-Based Schools

July 8, 2019 by

Student in CornfieldCompetencyWorks recently received this inquiry from an administrator of a school that was working to deepen its competency-based learning practices:

One question we are thinking about is how to honor academic achievement and progress in proficiency-based grading/reporting. We are finding, for instance, that naming students to an “honor roll” for Quarter 1 is a difficult fit for a system that intentionally honors growth over time. Are there new or different ways of honoring academic achievement and progress that are emerging as schools transition to proficiency-based systems?

This is an important question that many people in the field are grappling with. The challenge is in part because “honor roll” feels like a vestige of the ranking and sorting mechanisms of traditional grading systems. At the same time, competency-based systems are developing ways for students to achieve and demonstrate deeper learning, as well as ways to recognize these achievements. The field doesn’t have a single way of approaching this, but there are some emerging strategies and ways of thinking about it.

The following quotation from Steve Lavoie, written while he was principal at Richmond Middle/High School in RSU2 in Maine, recognizes the tensions in transforming between traditional and competency-based practices. He wrote on CompetencyWorks,“Decide what issues are critical and that you’ll ‘go to the wall for.’ You will be faced with questions that tie to the traditional system. Expect them and decide ahead of time whether or not you are willing to ‘die on that hill’ prior to the question being asked. Questions relating to GPA, class rank, Top Ten, and honor roll should be anticipated. Your stakeholders may believe they are important components that should be retained. Issues like these feel like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, but they are not critical issues that should interfere with the implementation of the big picture. They can be made to fit your program. Be prepared to give in on some issues but stand firm on the critical ones like your core belief that all students need to demonstrate proficiency on all standards required for graduation. That would be the hill to die on.”

In the CompetencyWorks Issue Brief, Progress and Proficiency: Redesigning Grading for Competency Education, Chris Sturgis wrote, “It’s unlikely that the need for ranking will ever be absolutely obsolete.
Highly selective colleges and those who want to attend them are going to want to be able to identify the ‘best students’ through some mechanism that recognizes distinction.” In the same issue brief, Brian Stack, principal at Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire, asks, “Why not instead set a bar that you will use to distinguish an ‘honor graduate,’ and any student who is able to reach (or exceed) that bar gets the distinction at graduation. From year to year, the number of honor graduates will change, but the standard never would. Every student would have the opportunity to be considered an honor graduate, provided they meet the requirements.”

Here are a few examples of schools that use honor rolls within CBE systems:

  • Cumberland High School in Cumberland, Rhode Island required students to have met all of the school’s “Learning Quality” standards in order to qualify for honor roll. (There was presumably also a requirement related to academic standards.)
  • Three Rivers School in Pembroke, New Hampshire, converts competency-based grades into numeric grades, and uses averages of those numeric grades to assign students to three different honor-roll levels.
  • When I worked at Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, Massachusetts, grades were assigned as Beginning, Approaching, Meeting, and Exceeding, with possible “+” or “-” levels. To achieve honors for the trimester in a particular course, a student had to achieve the following criteria: (1) Meeting- or above in every academic standard for that course, (2) Meeting+ or above in half or more of the academic standards for the course, and (3) Approaching+ or above in every habits of work and learning (HOWL) standard for the course. I just checked their current grading policies and see that the only change since I left in 2009 is that the HOWL grades must be Meeting- rather than Approaching+. They also have a set of cutoffs to receive high honors.

Pull-Out QuotationIn addition, some schools have ways of recognizing students who have achieved deeper levels of learning. Competency-based schools provide all students with these opportunities, not just “gifted” students. In Rose Colby’s book Competency-based education: A new architecture for K-12 schooling, she provides several examples of grading scales and definitions (Chapter 7) that could form the basis for honoring academic achievement and progress in proficiency-based grading. For example, “The student consistently exceeds the performance standards for the grade level. Understands and applies key concepts and skills with consistency and effectiveness.” The Mastery Transcription Consortium is also developing ways to recognize students who have developed “Foundational” vs. “Advanced” competencies.

Schools have developed a variety of innovative ways to recognize outstanding achievement. In a session I attended at SXSW EDU in March, a presenter explained that his school allows students who have gone above and beyond, or who have developed amazing projects or products, to audition to present their project to the whole school. (This includes projects that they have done outside of school, which makes great sense within a competency-based model.) Students at Big Picture Learning schools often do in-depth work through internships and other projects, and they are able to present their work during quarterly exhibitions and during the school-wide “pick-me-up” meeting that starts each school day. Four Rivers Charter Public School permits both students and staff to nominate students for Polaris Awards that recognize outstanding student performance in relation to the school’s six character virtues.

A student’s level of progress, rather than their level of achievement, could also be a focus of recognition. Chris Sturgis wrote on CompetencyWorks, “…districts and schools do need to put into place the structure to allow students to achieve at high levels and be an over-achiever. We also need to make room for those students who may not be at the highest grade levels but have shown the greatest growth. They too are high achievers.”

Many competency-based schools are undoubtedly addressing these same issues in additional ways not mentioned here. Your strategies and reflections in the comments box below would be greatly appreciated, or email me at elevine (at) inacol (dot) org.

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Eliot Levine is the Aurora Institute’s Research Director and leads CompetencyWorks. Follow @eliot_levine

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1 Comment »

  1. Comment by Joy Nolan 7:46 pm, July 10, 2019

    Thanks for this, Eliot. Celebrating learning can be moving and uplifting, and like all other aspects of education, we need to get it right, which may mean unlearning and improving upon ideas and practices that don’t serve our students as well as possible. Chris’s ideas about honoring progress are cool, and so is the practice of sharing out and recognizing excellent project-based learning.

    In NYC’s Mastery Collaborative, we encourage educators to think beyond the benefits to those who are recognized via traditions that focus on sorting, such as honor roll, valedictorian, etc., and to consider what these traditions message to all the learners in a school, including students who do not and will not see their academic efforts over the years recognized in these ways. One school we work with that has been deepening their mastery-based practices recently realized they need to rethink honor roll, and start recognizing students whose mastery has grown most, as well as students who have reached high levels of mastery. Both are amazing and meaningful accomplishments, let’s celebrate both, especially as this is a more equitable way to roll in a world (our world) that inequitably advantages and disadvantages students in many ways that can show up on transcripts.

    We know that mindsets for learning: growth mindset, and its less famous but powerful cousins, value mindset (there is value for me in the effort and time I put into academic work) and belonging mindset (My school is for me; I am part of a community, and it matters that I am there) are vital dispositions that power the multidimensional set of achievements every student must reach to graduate high school. Do we foster or discourage these mindsets by separating out a small number of students who “really” got there in some way that may have to do with technical aspects of credentialing systems, and a variety of answers to “What’s in that grade?” What aspects of learning we are valuing over others, when we post honor rolls and choose valedictorians based on GPA?

    We know that learning is a cognitive process that is not most helpfully framed as a competition nor as a race. We know that ideally grades are neither rewards nor punishments, but instead messages about where a student is in terms of mastery of key skills and knowledge. And we know that schools are both places of learning, and issuers of credentials . . . and we need to be thoughtful about all aspects of practice.

    It’s beautiful, positive, and energizing to lift up students’ worthy accomplishments. Focusing on GPA may blind us to other aspects and stages of learning that are worthy of celebration—especially since access and opportunities are far from equally available to all students, the education system is not equally responsive to students of all racial and social identities . . . and these realities dramatically affect GPAs. Hoping for more ideas about how to honor learning in ways that do justice to the principles of mastery-based learning . . . great to see this conversation happening in the CWorks community. Thanks!

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