Student Achievement

N.H. Schools Embrace Competency-Based Learning

By Catherine Gewertz — February 07, 2012 8 min read
Brittany Rollins, 17, a senior at Newfound Regional High School in Bristol, N.H., waits for a friend outside the school office. The school's Extended Learning Opportunity program enables Brittany to earn credits for a journalism class by spending time at a local animal shelter and writing about pet euthanasia.
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Brittany Rollins is hanging out a lot at the local animal shelter this year. Delving into the issue of pet euthanasia and writing about it will help her earn English/language arts credits toward graduation.

The 17-year-old senior at Newfound Regional High School, in the rural central New Hampshire town of Bristol, is part of one of the most aggressive statewide efforts in the country to embrace competency-based learning. In New Hampshire, this means saying that accomplishment doesn’t depend on how long students are in their seats, but whether they can demonstrate that they know their stuff.

It means letting students learn academic content in new ways. It means agreeing on what constitutes mastery, and holding all students to it, instead of letting some earn diplomas with weak skills. It means figuring out multifaceted ways for students to show what they know, and, ideally, it means letting them progress toward mastery at their own pace.

“Newfound is a school that is really pushing ahead on this,” said Chris Sturgis, the founder of MetisNet, a Santa Fe, N.M.-based organization that consults with foundations nationally on education issues, including competency-based learning.

Embracing that approach fully, however, can be tough because it challenges such basic systems as testing and grading. Brittany Rollins’ experience at Newfound Regional illustrates both how far New Hampshire has come in shaking off traditional conceptions of time-based learning, and also how far it still has to go.

‘Anytime, Anywhere’

Brittany’s off-campus work in an “extended learning opportunity” reflects the state’s emphasis on three related ideas: “anytime, anywhere” learning, which includes out-of-school and virtual programs; personalized education, which strives to tailor studies to students’ needs and interests; and competency-based learning.

New Hampshire began by piloting competency-based approaches a decade ago. But in 2005, the state gave districts a deadline: By the 2008-09 school year, high schools would have to award credit based not on seat time, but on demonstrated mastery of course-level “competencies"—the bundles of skills and knowledge that districts specify to reflect state curriculum frameworks.

New Hampshire has gone further than most states in forging the policies to enable such an approach. For instance, a few states allow districts the option of awarding credit for demonstrated proficiency rather than seat time. New Hampshire is the only state that requires districts to do so, though some districts have yet to make that change.

In Brittany’s case, she’ll be able to demonstrate mastery of her subject matter on her own timetable. She’ll prove her knowledge and skills piece by piece, in a variety of ways, as she masters them.

She says the obligation to demonstrate proficiency in new ways has unleashed an enthusiasm she doesn’t often experience in classrooms.

“I’m good at creative writing, but not as good when it comes to getting the facts, so this project is a challenge,” Brittany said. “But I like setting it all up myself. And I’m so interested in this subject that I can write more easily about it. It’s much better for me than having a teacher stand in front of me and tell me what to do.”

Brittany has to conduct in-depth research, produce articles and papers, keep a journal documenting her process, and present her work to a panel of educators and community members this spring. It’s part of New Hampshire’s move toward performance assessments that gauge not only content knowledge but crosscutting skills such as building an argument and making oral presentations.

The fact that Brittany is parceling out pieces of the English/language arts assessment as the weeks unfold shows the state’s time-flexible approach. She meets often with her journalism teacher, Dave Harlow, and the school’s extended learning opportunity coordinator, Elizabeth Colby, to discuss her progress on the eight English/language arts competencies she has targeted for completion this year. They include knowing how to write for multiple purposes and audiences; how to speak “purposefully and articulately” and listen “attentively and critically"; and how to gather, organize, and evaluate information.

A Work in Progress

While the 425-student Newfound Regional High has made big strides with extended-learning opportunities and performance assessment, other key aspects of a competency-based system have been more elusive for the school, which is part of the Newfound Regional School District.

Its report cards, for instance, are a work in progress. Ideally, a competency-based report card would have nothing but A’s and B’s, and would feature a narrative description of where students are in their journey toward those designations of mastery, said Newfound’s principal, Michael O’Malley. But now, the school’s progress reports still carry A-to-F letter grades, with a sentence or two describing students’ work habits.

The school has taken steps, though, toward the report cards it ultimately envisions: Students are rated separately for attitude and effort, so that letter grades reflect only content mastery. Next year, there will be no D’s or F’s, said Ms. Colby.

Newfound Regional has revised its grading policy accordingly. Its teachers are to give no student work less than a 50 percent score, to offset the downward pull of a bad score or two in averaging for an overall grade. Not all teachers abide by that policy, however, Mr. O’Malley acknowledged. But the idea behind it is to move toward the view that grades are fluid rather than fixed, only a momentary glimpse of where students are at a given time.

It’s hard to imagine dropping letter grades altogether, said Mr. O’Malley, when parents expect them and college admissions rely on grade point averages. “That untethering from a 200-year-old system is really rugged,” he said.

Another key revision at Newfound has been to allow students who haven’t performed well on a test to retake it after teachers “reteach” the content. This rejection of a “one-shot-and-you’re-out” approach to testing, Mr. O’Malley said, reflects the idea that mastering the concepts, regardless of when that happens, is the goal.

But the unfortunate fallout, he said, is that some students have been gaming the new system by putting only halfhearted effort into tests because they know they can retake them. School officials are now discussing how to deal with the issue, he said.

Teaching itself has had to adapt to the state’s new vision. The staff at Newfound Regional is working with a “culture change” team from the Center for Secondary School Redesign, which is overseeing a federal Investing in Innovation, or i3, grant to 13 New England high schools working on student-led learning and performance-based assessment.

Teachers must learn to become “facilitators” instead of imparters of knowledge as students take a bigger role in shaping their own learning, and must acquire new ways of evaluating their students’ work, said Joe DiMartino, the president of the Warwick, R.I.-based center.

“Most teachers didn’t sign up to be facilitators,” he said, “so it’s not a small thing to change.”

A good part of the work the center is doing with Newfound Regional, Mr. DiMartino said, is on “inter-rater reliability,” or making sure that every adult who takes part in evaluating students’ work—teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, community members serving as mentors—does so with a shared rubric and concept of rigor.

The Pace of Change

Even as Brittany earns some of her credits with out-of-school projects and performance assessments, she is earning others in traditional classrooms, with rows of chairs and desks, and taking multiple-choice and essay exams. Only about 15 percent of Newfound Regional’s students are engaged in nontraditional coursework such as extended-learning opportunities or online courses, Mr. O’Malley said.

And whatever the competencies they’ve already mastered, students in New Hampshire must still take the statewide standardized tests in literacy and math every year in grades 3-8 and 11.

“If you’re really in a proficiency-based system, you want to be able to take the assessment that matters around the time you engage with the material. So the systems aren’t perfectly aligned,” said Nicholas C. Donohue, who oversaw the early competency-based pilots as New Hampshire’s commissioner of education from 2000 to 2005 and is now the president of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, of Quincy, Mass. The foundation is overseeing similar work in five New England states.

“The federal accountability system is based on a 20th-century model, and our state expectations are based on this new model,” said Paul K. Leather, the state’s deputy commissioner of education. He expressed hope, however, that new assessments being designed for the Common Core State Standards will help bridge those two models. Plans for those tests include some performance-based tasks.

Online learning can play a part in competency-based approaches, in part because of its potential to let students pace their coursework as they like. Students at Newfound Regional High can use New Hampshire’s Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, or VLACS, to take coursework online. In this rural community, where dial-up Internet service is not uncommon, students can do VLACS coursework at Newfound’s computer lab, or from home if technology permits.

But while online learning facilitates the “move-on-when-ready” approach that is ideal for competency-based learning, it’s not a complete solution if a state’s educational vision includes real-world learning, Ms. Sturgis said.

“The ability to let kids move forward in courses and credits has to be an application of their skills, not just moving to another level of a software program or connecting with a teacher online,” she said.

The idea that students can move on when they are ready—from course to course or grade to grade—is a piece of competency-based learning that is especially hard to put into practice, advocates of the approach say. A few districts, such as Colorado’s Adams County School District 50, near Denver, allow students to do so. But almost everywhere else, that isn’t the case.

At Newfound, students still move from one grade to the next only when they have accumulated enough credits.

“These are the ‘messy middles’ of the work we’re doing,” said James LeBaron, Newfound Regional’s school redesign coordinator. “We’re in the thick of it, and we’ve come a long way. But we’re also not as far along as we’d like to be.”

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as N.H. Schools Focus On Competency


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