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February 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 5

Making Standards Serve the Student

In Colorado's Adams County School District 50, competency-based education has made learning the constant and time the variable.

David, a high school student who lagged behind his peers academically, sat in the back of the classroom with his hood up. He never participated, rarely turned in homework, and often dis-tracted other students.
Last year, David's school switched to a competency-based learning system. He was placed at an appropriate learning level and empowered to learn at his own pace using his own learning style. Teachers saw immediate improvement. The same boy now stands taller, is ex-cited about his classes, and even helps other students.
This true story comes from Adams 50 School District just north of Denver, Colorado. Three years ago, Adams 50 implemented competency-based learning. David's story, which mirrors many others in the district, suggests that competency-based learning could be the next frontier in education.

Standards, not Standardization

In the early 1990s, educators and policymakers began to identify exactly what students needed to know at each step of their schooling. Many states developed standards for each grade level so that, theoretically, students would start each school year in the same place as their peers and be ready to learn the next set of information. More recently, the common core state standards were created to establish shared national expectations for all students.
Some fear that the pressure to get all students to the same level will lead to less and less student engagement. But educators don't have to be stifled by standardization. After all, simply identifying what students need to learn doesn't prescribe how, or how fast, they should learn it.Consider how engaged children are when they play video games. In a video game, the player must show competence in one level before moving on to a more challenging level. Players progress through the game at their own pace without waiting for others. Failing is no big deal; they know that if they keep trying, they will eventually advance. Each player has ownership over his or her own performance.
Competency-based learning systems function the same way. Students progress through levels on the basis of their demonstrated proficiency, not their age or grade level. Advanced students can move ahead faster, and students who need more help can take extra time.

How One District Developed Competency-Based Learning

With nearly 75 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and 40 percent of them English language learners, Adams 50 School District historically had low achievement scores and a high teacher turnover rate. In 2006, school board member Marge Rinaldi attended a session at the Colorado School Boards Association's annual conference and heard Richard DeLorenzo, former superintendent of Chugach School District in Alaska, describe that district's approach to competency-based learning. Rinaldi brought the Chugach model to the attention of Adams 50's then-superintendent, Roberta Selleck, and they got to work.
But taking a reform model initially designed for the 200-student Chugach district and making it successful in the 10,000-student Adams 50 district had its challenges. One of the biggest challenges was finding the funds for the professional development and curriculum writing for teachers that the new system required. The district did this, in part, by making perhaps its most difficult decision—closing several schools and thereby eliminating those full-time teaching positions. In addition, many teachers decided that a competency-based system would not work for them, and they left the district voluntarily. Fewer teachers meant increased class sizes, but it also enabled the district to raise remaining teachers' salaries in light of the massive project they were about to undertake.
From the beginning, Selleck worked to generate community and teacher buy-in. She sent selected teachers, board members, central-office staff, and administrators to a symposium to help them understand the model and how it might work in their district. She then invited the Alaskan team to the district to work with teachers, answering their questions and addressing their concerns, aiming for a goal of 85 percent teacher buy-in.
Adams 50 staff then began the process of translating all of the district's existing standards into 16 curriculum levels. Levels were intentionally narrow in scope so that students could move through them faster and experience a sense of accomplishment. The district de-veloped broad measurement topics that span all performance levels; for each measurement topic, learning targets specified what skills to include and how to measure those skills at each level. Measurement topics and learning targets were created for all subjects from mathematics and literacy to physical education and technology.
For example, one of the learning targets for the measurement topic literary analysis states that students should be able to "make a variety of connections to text (text to text, text to self, text to world)." At Level 4, this learning target specifies that students should be able to "identify text as fiction or nonfiction and explain why."
Because there are many curriculum levels, each classroom includes students at a range of performance levels. One teacher, for example may teach Levels 3–6 in one class. To address the challenge of teaching several levels of students, Adams 50 departmentalized subjects, even at the elementary level. Teachers specialize in one content area, such as literacy, and teach that content to students at various levels.
Although teachers acknowledge the challenges of implementation, they also recognize that the district has worked hard to compensate them: Adams 50 teachers are some of the highest paid in the state. With that higher salary comes a higher level of responsibility.

Visiting a Learner-Centered Classroom

At first blush, supporting learning pathways for each student may sound overwhelming, but a visit to a typical teacher's classroom reveals that it is not as complicated as it may initially appear. Dania Stopher, a teacher at Adams 50's Hodgkins Elementary, teaches two literacy classes for levels 3–8. One class contains students at five different performance levels.
Today, Stopher's class is reading fiction and is focused on the measurement topic narrative comprehension. Stopher leads the class first to give context and background infor-mation on narrative comprehension. After she has checked for understanding (for example, asking, "Who is the protagonist in the story?" and "Where does the story take place?"), students break into small groups or work independently. One group works on the Level 3 learning target for narrative comprehension ("Infers a character's underlying motivations, attributes, and feelings") by reading a passage and then predicting what the character will do next based on the character's motivation. Other students work in pairs to align characters' actions to appropriate character traits using index cards, thereby addressing a Level 4 learning target for narrative comprehension ("Identifies traits of characters").
Although their teacher is their primary resource—answering questions, guiding their thinking, and giving feedback—students often help one another, and each student actively participates in determining his or her own path to proficiency. To demonstrate knowledge of narrative comprehension, one student might decide to build a diorama, another to create a book cover, and others to enact a role-play or write poems.
The teacher maintains a binder for each student containing the district's measurement topic and learning target matrices (See examples on the district's wiki.) for Levels 3–8. When she introduces a measurement topic, students go to their binders to determine which learning target(s) within that topic they need to focus on that day.
Teachers use a four-point rubric to assess student work and determine proficiency in each learning target (see fig. 1). When the student reaches proficiency in all learning targets within the measurement topic, the teacher administers a district-created, multiple-choice test. Students who score 3 or 4 are deemed ready to move on to the next level. To track student progress, many teachers use charts or spreadsheets printed in a binder or kept in electronic folders. The district is currently exploring software that will enable teachers to input progress clearly and frequently as well as enable parents and students to access a student's progress at any time.

FIGURE 1. Scoring Scale for Learning Target Proficiency

Students receive standards-based progress reports that list all of their current courses and corresponding levels and track how many learning targets they have completed in each measurement topic. This report provides a comprehensive view of where each student is in his or her academics.

Does It Get Results?

At the end of 2010–11, Adams 50's second full year of its competency-based education system, test scores were improving. All scores across the district in grades 3–7 increased—some by only 2 percent (3rd grade reading increased from 39 percent to 41 percent) but some as much as 8 percent (7th grade mathematics increased from 14 percent to 22 percent) (2011 CSAP Results, 2011).
Although high school scores increased very little, if at all, district administrators weren't surprised. They knew that students in the lower grades would be the first to see gains because the learning gaps are identified when they are younger. But elementary students who are benefitting now will continue to benefit from the system as they move into middle school and high school.
Competency-based education is producing positive results in others districts, as well. For example, the Lindsay Unified School District in California is in the fourth year of its performance-based system. Since 2009, the district's scores on the California Standards Test have consistently risen in all grades and subjects (GreatSchools, 2011). Diploma Plus, an al-ternative program with 27 schools in four regions across the United States, also uses this model to help students who are at risk of dropping out and those who have already dropped out. Students in these schools work on projects and assignments with clearly defined competency expectations and are promoted or allowed to graduate as soon as they have demonstrated achievement of these goals. When compared with schools serving similar students, Diploma Plus programs generally have higher attendance rates, retention rates, and passing rates on state tests (Diploma Plus, n.d.).

Uncommon Outcomes

Standards, especially the common core state standards, can be a platform from which to individualize student instruction. For instance, if a student transfers schools, teachers in common core states will now be able to understand where the student is relative to the standards and help that student according to his or her needs. In addition, a universal set of standards allows outside agencies, such as zoos or museums, to tailor their education programs to the standards so that students who participate in these programs can earn school credit. This à la carte ap-proach to education opens the doors for students to truly explore their interests (Kendall, 2011, p. 36).
The most powerful promise of standards-based reform, however, lies in the kinds of individualization happening in Adams 50. There are many students across the United States like David, the boy in the back of the class with his hood up. And many more students don't have their hoods up but still struggle every day to keep up or sit bored and unchallenged while they wait for the teacher to move forward. Although overhauling longstanding school struc-tures is a daunting task, our students deserve no less.


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