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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…)

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…)

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…)

Reassessments and Retakes: A Necessary Part of a School-Wide Grading Policy

October 21, 2013 by

“Lawyers who finally pass the bar exam on their second or third attempt are not limited to practicing law only on Tuesdays” – Wormeli, 2011

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Rick Wormeli

We allow people to retake their driver’s license exam as many times as they need to in order to demonstrate competency. The same is true of other professionals such as teachers, lawyers, doctors, and electricians who are required to pass a certification/licensure exam. Reassessment is a part of our real world. I find it ironic, then, that, as educators, we cringe at the thought of allowing reassessments in the classroom in an effort to “prepare kids for the real world!” I held this belief until a few years ago when O’Connor and Stiggins (2009) and Wormeli (2011) helped set me straight. Reflecting back, I now cringe at the harsh reality that, from 2001 to 2006, I sent hundreds and hundreds of students into the real world without the opportunity to reassess to solidify their learning.

At my school, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire, we believe in the concept of reassessments so much that we actually have a school-wide common procedure that supports its use in all classes. In fact, we have a number of school-wide common grading procedures that are designed to support our competency-based grading and reporting system, one that is now in its third year of implementation K-12 in our district.

In a competency-based system, reassessments are a necessary part of the learning process. “True competence that stands the test of time comes with reiterative learning. We carry forward concepts and skills we encounter repeatedly, and we get better at retrieving them the more we experience them.” (Wormeli, 2011). Making reassessments a school-wide practice changes the learning culture for students from one where they are trying to earn enough points to pass to one in which they are held accountable for everything they need to know and be able to do. Reeves (2000) describes the cultural shift that will happen over time as schools implement such a policy. “The consequence for a student who fails to meet a standard is not a low grade, but rather an opportunity – indeed, the requirement – to resubmit his or her work.” Indeed, that cultural shift is happening today at my school. (more…)

Competency-Based Grading and Common Core Math: A Perfect Match?

September 18, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2My Uh-Huh Moment

Over the summer I spent the day with my math team as we prepared for the implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics into our school. We were working on an intense math problem when I had one of those uh-huh moments – the kind I used to describe to my students when I taught high school math in Andover, Massachusetts. The problem was a simple one to understand, but it had many layers of complexity to it for math teachers:

Imagine you are a peasant, and your ruler told you that you could have as much land as you could mark off by walking in one day. What is the most amount of land you could reasonably claim? Give your answer in square miles and be prepared to support and defend your work.

Among the questions that came to mind when thinking about how to solve this problem were these: How many hours can a peasant reasonably walk in a day? How fast can a peasant walk? How many breaks will the peasant need to take? Are there hills, mountains, or other physical obstacles that the peasant will encounter? What kind of tools will the peasant have to navigate with (i.e. a compass or a GPS)?

Very quickly, a group of us began to debate these questions and create a list of assumptions that we would use to derive our answer. We debated what type of a shape would produce the biggest area. With some trial and error and use of some mathematical formulas, we agreed that a circle might be the theoretical shape that would yield the biggest area, but the square was the shape that would be easiest for the peasant to trace, assuming they had a compass or could make use of a reference point such as the sun for direction. (more…)

Competency Moves Beyond Courses

September 16, 2013 by
Sarah Luchs

Sarah Luchs

As a recipient of Next Generation Learning Challenge’s (NGLC) most recent wave of investment, New Hampshire-based Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) is getting some much-deserved buzz (most recently in Forbes and Ed Week). VLACS will redesign its current online model to move beyond course-based competency measures and toward an entirely competency-based design for learning.

The new model, called Aspire, is free of all the conventional dictates. Learning is not confined to a class, a building, a set block of time, or a subject-bound course. In the journey to personalizing education, this is a giant step forward, in my opinion. Up to this point, course structures (and the content that defines them) have disproportionately shaped the competency discussion and available options. I’m not opposed to learning in a course per se and the course experience itself is being revolutionized by new technologies–  also good. I just think the Aspire model creates some new possibilities that are long overdue and fundamentally exciting. Let me tell you what I mean.

Competency Reflections: Past and Present

I spent over a decade of my career prior to joining NGLC working for the Ohio Department of Education and state level policymakers. In Ohio, we created a provision known as Credit Flexibility that afforded students the option to earn credit for demonstration of previously learned knowledge and skills and/or to determine the means of their learning for any graduation requirement. Long story short, it didn’t benefit as many students as intended, in part because the system wasn’t built to implement this kind of flexibility, and schools, districts, and states still lacked the tools to enable it. It’s been my hope that NGLC—which funds innovative school models like VLACS-Aspire as proof points to demonstrate what’s possible, and shares knowledge in order to accelerate the adoption of new practice—will help position education systems to embrace and support innovative provisions like Credit Flexibility and benefit many more students. (more…)

In the News!

August 15, 2013 by

csmlogo_179x46Hi all – Just wanted to let you know there is a very good article in the Christian Science Monitor on competency education called Is your student ‘competent’? A new education yardstick takes the measure.  Sanborn Regional High School and Making Community Connections Charter School are both highlighted in the article.


Student-Owned Differentiated Learning

August 13, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-26 at 11.54.19 AMThis post was originally published by The Learning Pond  on July 18, 2013.

Once again, I have found a way to visit a remarkable school, share the details with all of you, and NOT pack my Prius and drive around the country.  EdJourney continues, this time with a charter school that is pioneering and sharing a remarkable arc of student-owned, differentiated, competency-based learning, and doing it with a fraction of the resources other schools have to spend.  A few days ago I posted a short blog and video asking “Why can’t all schools look like MC2 School”, a middle and upper school charter in Manchester, New Hampshire.  Yesterday I had the chance to spend an hour on the phone with Kim Carter (@kimQED), Executive Director of the QED Foundation and lead learner at MC2 to learn more about what they do and how they do it.  Their websites contain gold mines of rubrics, templates, self-assessment tools, and more.  Read on!

MC2 was originally a public alternative school that has since been converted to charter status.  They currently operate a campus in Manchester and have additional schools in development that will operate under the charter.  In 2009 they won a New Hampshire state award for competency-based learning, which is now a standard for all New Hampshire schools.  They offer a highly personalized learning program to students from a very wide range of backgrounds, and it is not through large allocations of dollars; they receive just over $5,400 per student per year to operate the school.

MC2 has collected a rich set of resources on their Wiki page.  I won’t try to explain it all here, but suggest it is a treasure trove of wheels that you will not have to reinvent.  They are leading the way in busting the outdated notion that we can’t assess “21C” skills. You will find clearly articulated rubrics for their full range of graduate essential performance standards as well as the tools that students and teachers use for cooperative assessment. You can see how students develop their portfolios of demonstrated understanding over time.  And there is a clear window into how the school operates and allocates the precious resources of time and people. (more…)

Changing To a Competency-Based Grading System: A Student View

July 24, 2013 by

Screen Shot 2013-07-19 at 8.59.59 AMMy New Hampshire high school made the shift to a competency-based grading and reporting system two years ago. Educators who talk to me about that experience often want to know what that change process looked like from a student’s perspective. Surprisingly, most students were comfortable with the shift provided that they believed the school and teachers were effective at explaining how their grade would be calculated. The students who seemed most reluctant to change at the beginning were the ones who were already performing at a high level in the old system. These kids knew how to play what I like to call the grading game. They didn’t always test well, but they knew they could always compensate for that by doing all their homework, raising their hand every day in class, and bringing in canned goods on Thanksgiving week for extra credit points. The problem is that these behaviors made the assumption that, if students had good study habits, then they must have learned. When we think about it this way, it seems outrageous to support a system that doesn’t directly connect to competencies – the ability of a student to apply content knowledge and skills in and/or across the content area(s).

To help educators understand what I went through when my school made this shift, consider the following set of fictitious letters between a student and I. These letters are adapted from actual scenarios that I faced in the first year of implementation.



Dear Mr. Stack,

I am writing to you to express my displeasure that our school changed its grading practices for the upcoming school year. I have always been an “A” student. I do all of my homework, I always raise my hand to participate in class, and I always turn in my assignments on time. I am not; however, a good test-taker. In the past my teachers have always known this and they have compensated by giving me extra credit opportunities, making my homework worth more points, and giving me lots of participation point opportunities.

With this new grading system, it seems all the emphasis is being placed on doing well on tests. Homework is worth practically nothing. It seems due dates don’t matter. I am very concerned that I am no longer going to be an “A” student.

Why would our school change to a system that is going to hurt kids like me? I am very discouraged.


Nicole (more…)

The Envelope Please…And the Winners Are…

July 18, 2013 by

The Next Generation Learning Challenge announced the Wave IV Cycle 1 winners this week. (Disclaimer: I’m one of the reviewers for NGLC.) There are a number of grants that are going to offer valuable insights into competency education. One of the things we will need to pay attention to is the difference between those that have a full competency-based infrastructure that is similar to or expanded beyond our working definition, and those that may emphasize proficiency (or mastery) without the same level of formality. We really need to understand what are the key elements to which we need to have absolute fidelity.

We are also starting to see 2.0 versions from the leading innovators, including New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy, Boston Day and Evening Academy, and Florida Virtual School.  They are exploring moving to fully competency-based learning progressions rather than using courses to organize units of learning. They are also moving toward new information systems and integration of what we are learning from experiential learning, mind-body connections, and social-emotional learning.

A few of the winners are described below:


Launch Grants

VIRTUAL LEARNING ACADEMY CHARTER SCHOOL (NH), the statewide online charter school is redefining “school” to mean wherever learning occurs, whether in a classroom, online, or in the community through VLACS Aspire, a 100% self-paced competency-based approach (rather than a course-based curriculum), that harnesses the face-to-face learning potential of internships, service-learning, and distributed learning team-based projects. (more…)

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