‘Competency’ Approach Challenges Colo. District

By Christina A. Samuels — March 26, 2012 8 min read
Saulamon Miller, a 10-year-old in a multiage class at Hodgkins Elementary School in the Adams 50 school district near Denver, takes part in a hands-on lesson. The district moved four years ago from traditional grade-level progressions to “competency-based learning.”
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Faced with stagnating student achievement, the 10,500-student Adams 50 district in Westminster, Colo., launched an improvement initiative in 2008 that eliminated old notions of grade-level progression.

Instead of placing students in a grade based on their age and marching them through year by year, the district started what it then called a standards-based system, with students working on academic material that matched their developmental levels. They move on only when they can demonstrate mastery of a particular academic skill.

The approach the suburban Denver school district adopted corresponds with an educational philosophy that has received a flood of attention in recent years: a competency-based learning system that seeks to end traditional seat-time requirements and 180-day calendars, and move toward “anytime, anywhere” education that eliminates scheduling barriers and takes advantage of technological advances in providing instruction. (“States Loosening Entrenched ‘Seat Time’ Requirements,” March 7, 2012.)

But four years into the effort, Adams 50’s work shows how hard instituting such changes can be, even with broad support.

For example, the district divided its curriculum into 10 academic levels, expanded those to 14 levels when 10 were deemed too broad, and then has had to tweak the levels again when the state adopted new literacy and mathematics standards.

The initiative also continues to be challenged by state testing requirements, which force Adams 50 to group students by grade, even though those students may not have been working on the particular academic areas that the tests cover.

And incorporating the approach into the district’s two high schools has been bumpy. The competency-based model is currently being used in the 9th and 10th grades in those schools, but Adams 50 is working through what level-based learning means for grade point averages and class ranks.

Even the most experienced teachers have been left feeling like first-year educators in the wake of the changes, district leaders say they have heard.

‘Humble’ But Committed

The district leaders say they are still committed to the sweeping changes.

But “we’re very, very humble about our work,” said Pamela Swanson, who was appointed the superintendent of the district in December. She had served as Adams 50’s interim superintendent since the departure last June of Roberta Selleck, who had ushered in the standards-based changes.

Teacher Kathy Zook's multiage class of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at Hodgkins Elementary School in Westminster, Colo., takes part in an exercise that utilizes math, science, and social studies skills. Hodgkins has been one of the success stories in a four-year-long effort by the Adams 50 school district to convert to a system of competency-based learning.

One reason for that humility: test scores. Of 19 schools in the district, 10 are in the lowest or the second-lowest category that Colorado gives its schools—"turnaround” and “priority improvement,” respectively. The district itself is also in “turnaround” status.

Hidden within the rankings, however, are score increases at individual schools. Ten schools saw scores on the Colorado Student Assessment Program go up between 2009-10 and 2010-11, even if the increase was not high enough to move them out of turnaround or priority improvement status. One elementary school saw a 44.7 percentage point gain in CSAP scores in that time period. Six schools saw their state test scores drop. Three schools—a new school, a preschool, and an alternative high school—did not test in that time period.

While Adams 50 has gotten attention for its efforts, competency-based learning has a foothold in 36 states, according to a 2012 issue brief from the National Governors Association. That means those states “provide school districts and schools with some flexibility for awarding credit to students based on mastery of content and skills as opposed to seat time,” the NGA brief said.

It went on to note, though, that a common challenge for many such efforts is that other education structures within the state may work against that flexibility. For example, student-level data may be housed in systems that prevent teachers from getting all the information they need to evaluate if a student has fully mastered the academic content.

States also vary in how much they encourage districts to take advantage of such flexibility. New Hampshire is a leader in that area: It is the only state that is requiring its high schools to do away with Carnegie units, which award academic credit based on seat time, and instead award credit based on mastery of course-level competencies. (“N.H. Schools Embrace Competency-Based Learning,” Feb. 8, 2012.)

Connecticut offers districts the ability to separate seat time from credits, but recently, a coalition of district superintendents said it would like to see the state embrace even more widespread change. Every school leader in the state signed on to a proposal that, among other changes, would require that students advance to the next level on the basis of content mastery and would offer year-round learning opportunities.

Going It Alone

In contrast to the competency-based reforms that have been driven by states, the changes in Adams 50 were led entirely by district leaders, a bold move in a community that already had a full set of challenges.

District enrollment is about 72 percent Hispanic, 19 percent white, and 5 percent Asian. The remaining students are African-American or black. About 45 percent of students are English-language learners, and 81 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

The district also faces declining enrollment, high student mobility, and aging facilities, school leaders say. In 2006, under the state ranking system that existed at the time, the district was placed on academic watch, the lowest level before state takeover.

In its history of how the competency-based movement got started, the district credits former school board member Margaret Rinaldi for bringing the idea to Adams 50.

Ms. Rinaldi had attended a symposium hosted by the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, based in Wasilla, Alaska. The organization was founded in 2002 by Richard A. DeLorenzo, a former superintendent of the Chugach district in Alaska who developed a standards-based instructional approach for the 250-student system he oversaw. The model won the rural district national attention—and an admirer in Ms. Rinaldi.

“I’ve always felt that students should master material before they move on,” Ms. Rinaldi, a former teacher, said in an interview. “And the success they were achieving at Chugach was pretty incredible. It just seemed like a fit that would be good at the time.”

In 2008, a team of educators visited Alaska and the Chugach system, then returned to spread what they had learned among their colleagues. In February 2008, more than 85 percent of the teachers voted to move forward with the competency-based system, and the school board and the teachers’ union endorsed the change.

Adams 50 piloted the program in one elementary school in 2008-09 before rolling it out to elementary and middle schools in 2009-10.

Almost immediately, the district’s changes brought a whirlwind of attention and praise from educators around the country. Former Colorado state schools chief Dwight Jones wrote in a supportive newspaper commentary in 2009 that “simply trying something new is no guarantee of success, but working harder at what we’ve always done won’t get us different results. For education reform to occur, we must actually re-form education.”

For Principal Sarah Gould, who leads Hodgkins Elementary, the changes were a moral imperative. Now she can tell a parent that “we’re going to meet your child where they are at, and we’re going to provide them support and they’ll become independent learners,” she said. Such work is “giving kids what they deserve,” she said.

The system uses brief multiple-choice tests, teacher observation, and other measures to place students in a level that corresponds with their academic skills, Ms. Gould said. When students say they have demonstrated mastery, they are given another test before being allowed to move on.

Report cards no longer have letter grades. Instead, parents are given an assessment of how many skills their child has mastered. And multiage classrooms are the norm at Hodgkins, where students who would be considered 2nd, 3rd, or 4th graders in a standard system may all work on the same reading or math material.

Hodgkins is one of the district’s success stories, having moved from turnaround status to improvement status in one academic year.

Ms. Gould acknowledges that for all the positives in the system, the school still has trouble with issues such as piecing together curriculum materials. There’s no textbook that corresponds perfectly to the district’s self-created levels, so teachers have to mix and match materials to cover the full content area. And, for the purposes of state testing, the school has to create “grades” even when it doesn’t use that system any more.

“We’re still held to the standards of a traditional system, but we’re not a traditional system,” Ms. Gould said.

Obstacles Remain

Some teachers who were early adopters of the competency-based system remain fans. Jennifer Kush, a kindergarten teacher at Hodgkins, has some preschoolers with advanced reading skills come to her classroom. As young as her pupils are, they are able to understand the idea of mastering certain skills before moving to new ones. But the system requires much work and planning compared to the way she once taught, Ms. Kush said.

The old form of instruction did work for most, she said. “They’re learning to read, they’re learning to write, they’re learning their letter names and sounds,” she said.

But with the new instructional methods, said Ms. Kush, “they’re learning to set lifelong goals, they’re learning to be leaders, they’re learning life skills that are going to serve them in the world.”

The changes in the district are not universally embraced, however. Melissa Duran, the president of the Westminster Education Association, the district’s National Education Association affiliate, said that teachers have had to learn a new way of determining student proficiency, recording student performance, and keeping track of academic levels—all that the same time.

The new system “has just been overwhelming” for some teachers, she said.

The district’s school board has been generally supportive of the efforts. The five-member board added three members in November 2011, and all the winners said they liked the system but would be open to refining it.

Adams 50 plans to forge ahead for now, Superintendent Swanson said.

“I do think that going back to a system that didn’t work—that’s not an option,” she said.

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as Colo. District Finds Changes a Challenge


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