When people ask Brian Stack about competency-based education, he likes to use the analogy of a driving test.
To get a driver’s license, one has to demonstrate competency in a number of skills. Take parking, for instance — the driving instructor won’t give you a license based on the percentage of times you’ve been able to park the car, or for a good attendance record in your driver’s education classes. The only way to pass is to demonstrate that you can, indeed, park, says Stack, who is principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston.
And if you don’t pass? Well, that’s simple, Stack says — you take the test again.
“What counts is that when I give you this car, you’re going to park it in that spot, and you’re going to do it successfully, right?” Stack said. “So, that’s the whole kind of basis of a competency-based approach.”
A growing movement in education argues this type of approach should be used in the classroom, with an emphasis on students demonstrating what they can do with what they know in order to gain credit. And New Hampshire is one of a number of states that have enacted policies paving the way for schools to implement these kinds of competency- or proficiency-based models.
In 2005, the state changed its minimum standards for school approval to require that high school credit be earned by demonstrating mastery of required “competencies,” or learning goals. Since then, districts across the state and the Monadnock Region have implemented some practices associated with competency-based education.
As the slow shift unfolds, schools are also tasked with getting their communities up to speed about how this type of education model works — and as evidenced in a few local school districts, that process can come with some growing pains.
A standard definition for competency- or proficiency-based education — terms often used interchangeably — is elusive. That’s because the way “competency” is measured and reported can vary so much from school to school.
“I always tell parents that we’re being more deliberate with how we measure learning,” said Stack, who has been working with competency-based education for about a decade at Sanborn. “And that’s the basis of going to this kind of a model.”
The underlying philosophy is that students should gain credit for mastering skills and concepts rather than for the amount of time they spend in class. Under such a model, schools define competencies in a given subject, and depending on the school, students may need to show proficiency in a competency before advancing to the next one. Theoretically, this kind of “move when ready” system allows students to work at their own pace, potentially proceeding more slowly or more quickly than their peers.
The model often includes changes to the way schools assess students and report their progress. Many competency-based schools separate academic grades from “work habits,” such as teamwork, responsibility and creativity. Schools might also do away with a traditional grading scale based on percentages, with the idea being that a student is either proficient in a skill or not.
And if a student doesn’t reach proficiency in a certain competency, they’ll typically be given an opportunity to work with their teacher — often during “intervention” periods scheduled into the school day — to meet that learning goal.
But which of these elements are implemented — and how — depends on the school. Most of these concepts are in use at Sanborn Regional High School, for example. Students are assessed within a four-point rubric ranging from “limited progress” to “exemplary” rather than a traditional A to F scale, and separately scored on work habits such as effective communication.
The school is in the process of exploring ways to implement the “move when ready” philosophy, Stack said, with the idea being a blended model of small-group classroom instruction supported by technology and online learning to allow students to move at their own pace.
Brattleboro Union High School began exploring proficiency-based education in 2013, and last year rolled out a side-by-side grading system that combines letter grades and proficiency scores for “critical indicators,” according to Principal Steve Perrin.
But the most important change under competency-based education happens in the classroom, he said. In Brattleboro, teachers might work with small groups of students separated by their level of progress rather than lecturing to the whole class, Perrin said. And students are given more freedom to demonstrate competency, perhaps opting to create a graphic novel about the periodic table rather than writing an essay.
Part of the benefit is helping teachers think more intentionally about what they are assessing, according to Perrin.
“When I was a teacher, I could write an 87 on a paper, and nobody knew what that meant. But now when I write that score, I have a rubric that I can actually look at, and I can say, you did this, you did this, you did this,” Perrin said. “So for a student, it’s much more clear — if it’s done well — it’s much more clear what the teacher’s asking.”
About six years ago, Stevens High School in Claremont introduced a grading system in which students gain credit for marks of proficient, proficient plus or proficient with distinction, according to Principal Patricia Barry. This year, the school is ready to begin scoring work habits separately, she said.
The idea of separating those measures is that teachers can more easily see where students need improvement, whether they need help developing their work ethic or understanding content.
“In the old system, you could do all your homework, you could do great on certain things and get enough points to pass. But we were passing kids along who weren’t reading at the grade level, they weren’t writing at grade level,” Barry said. “And so the idea being that when done with fidelity, competency-based education will eliminate that from happening.”
According to Stack, the model is about creating competent students rather than “compliant” students who know how to gain points through memorization, class participation and good work habits, but may not have mastered the skills they’ll need after graduating.
“All the information that you need is on your cellphone. We don’t need to teach kids what all the information is; we need to teach them how to interpret the information so that they can be successful in life,” Stack said. “It takes a different kind of school to do that.”
What about college?
Ideally, a fully competency-based high school would also eliminate GPA and class rank, Stack said. But many schools — including Brattleboro, Sanborn and Stevens — maintain some of those traditional practices alongside elements of the proficiency-based model.
At least in Sanborn’s case, that’s partially because schools still have to operate in a broader education system that values those measures, Stack said.
“When nobody wants that anymore, it’ll be the best day in the world for me, because it’s the worst thing that we can do in terms of grading,” he said. “It tells us nothing about what kids have learned, but it’s still the system that people are using.”
But not all educators agree on that point. From Barry’s perspective, the two schools of thought can coexist.
“I don’t believe that numbers and letters and proficiency grading are mutually exclusive. I think they all can live in the same world,” she said. “We just don’t want to go back to saying that you just have to get 65 points to pass.”
Sweeping philosophical changes like doing away with letter grades and GPA are typically hard for some parents and students to swallow, educators say, primarily because they worry about what it will mean when it comes time to apply for college.
To address those concerns, the New England Secondary Schools Consortium reached out to colleges and universities across the region to find out how they evaluate students with competency- or proficiency-based transcripts.
A total of 79 higher education institutions, including selective schools such as Harvard, Bowdoin and Dartmouth, responded with statements saying that students with proficiency-based transcripts will not be at a disadvantage in the admissions process at those schools.
And the concept of competency-based education is not foreign outside the Northeast. According to iNACOL, a nonprofit organization focused on education policy and systems, 48 states had enacted policies as of June 2018 allowing schools to pursue competency-based education in some way. New Hampshire is one of 17 — along with Vermont, Maine and Rhode Island — considered “advanced” in competency-based education policy.
According to Peg Richmond, director of admissions at Keene State College, counselors there are no strangers to competency-based education models. When students apply, their transcripts include a “school profile,” she said, with information about demographics, course offerings, grading criteria and other relevant background to provide context for admissions staff.
That helps the institution understand the nuances of each school’s grading system, she explained, whether a school is competency-based or follows another educational tradition.
“It’s not the responsibility of the students or their parents to be concerned about how this is going to affect college admissions,” Richmond said. “It’s the college and university’s responsibility to learn how this education is being delivered, how it’s being evaluated, what those competencies mean and be sure that still, the most important thing in mind [is], is that student prepared for the rigor of the work at your college or university?”
Keene State already receives applications from nontraditional and charter schools whose transcripts are entirely narrative-based, Richmond said, and admissions staff are equipped to evaluate those applicants. But narrative-based transcripts are also more labor-intensive, she noted, and she anticipates the workload would become a challenge if more schools opted for that format.
Still, she said, having more information about applicants can help colleges evaluate them more holistically.
“When we’re thinking about ... the students who are coming to our institution, how great is it for us to know more about their competencies and their skills in addition to their grades?” Richmond said. “It’s a treat.”
‘A work in progress’
From Sanborn to Jaffrey to Hinsdale, educators often start conversations about competency-based education with one reminder: It’s a work in progress.
Though the state changed its minimum standards for school approval back in 2005, many Granite State schools are still in the early stages of implementation. According to Julie Couch, bureau administrator for the N.H. Department of Education’s Bureau of Instructional Support, that’s partially because the state left the specifics — such as grading and assessment systems — under local control.
New Hampshire requires that schools develop competencies aligned with state standards and award credit for mastery of those competencies, but doesn’t mandate how report cards or evaluations should look, she said. That means districts must spend time researching the model, training teachers, fine-tuning assessment practices and doing outreach in the community before taking the leap.
There’s no “drop-dead” deadline to complete the shift, Couch said, because the state recognizes that such a shift takes time.
“What we really want is for everybody to feel comfortable with it and be able to do it well. The end game is that everybody is like, ‘OK, we’re fully in, because we’re ready to be fully in,’ ” Couch said. “… And we don’t want to be the deciders of when that happens.”
It’s a process that takes years. Even in early-adopting schools like Sanborn and Stevens, where this work has likewise been going on for close to a decade, the change is incremental, and bigger shifts are still in the future.
Local schools similarly land at different stages on the spectrum. Some, such as Keene High School and the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District, have begun to make changes to grading and assessment. In Jaffrey-Rindge, new grading protocols were rolled out in fall 2018, with work habits — including completion of homework — rated separately from the academic grade on a 1 to 4 scale.
Keene High will begin separately reporting work habits this fall, in addition to eliminating midterms and final exams. Grades will instead be based on “formative” assessments like homework, quizzes and reading checks and “summative” assessments, such as projects, presentations and essays, the latter of which students will be able to redo if they don’t show proficiency the first time.
The Hinsdale School District already separates work habits from academic scores at all levels, according to Karen Craig, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. The district also uses competency-based report cards that forego letter grades in kindergarten through 6th grade. That’s been in place at the elementary school for roughly five years, she said, and the district plans to continue phasing in this type of reporting in the upper grades, starting with 7th grade this year.
Hinsdale’s robust extended learning opportunity program, which offers academic credit for internships, apprenticeships and independent study courses, has also been praised as an example in work-based learning — the program’s leader, Karen Thompson, was named the state’s ELO Coordinator of the Year in 2018.
Other districts, such as the Monadnock Regional School District, are at an earlier phase in the process. The district has been exploring competency-based education for about five years and has introduced a standards-based report card for grades K-6, according to Jeremy Rathbun, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. But he said rolling out assessment and reporting changes to the middle and high school is still down the road.
The district plans to begin outreach in the community this year to gather feedback on how grades should be reported under the competency-based model, Rathbun said.
“We’re working through it so that when we’re ready to talk to parents about it, we know exactly what we want, and what it looks like,” he said.
In some communities, changes have not gone without criticism. In both Keene and Jaffrey-Rindge, some parents have pushed back against the model, raising concerns about college acceptance and student accountability.
For those who grew up in a traditional education system — and who rightly care a great deal about their children’s futures — the change in philosophy can be difficult, educators say.
“It’s a completely understandable sort of reaction to anything that might change in that area,” said David Dustin, assistant principal of curriculum, instruction and assessment at Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School and Conant High School in Jaffrey.
Educators in districts further along in the process stressed that parents, teachers and students need to be an integral part of the conversation — but most said that some level of anxiety and concern surrounding the shift is inevitable.
“There’s not one way to do competency-based, and each school and community has to figure out what works for them. It’s absolutely critical, based on what I’ve witnessed here in Claremont, that the parents be a part of the conversation from the very beginning,” Barry said. “And if the system that you implement doesn’t provide the information that the parents want and need, then it’s not a good system.”
That’s why Stevens is taking a second look at its grading scale using feedback from parents, students and faculty, Barry said, with the ultimate goal of making sure the scale provides an accurate picture of students’ progress.
Stack similarly noted that shifting to competency-based education is a constant process of re-evaluating and trying to improve the systems by which students are taught. And while the community has grown more accustomed to many of the changes at Sanborn since they were first implemented, he said there is still work to be done.
“We’re just trying to find our identity here, just like every other school that’s trying to be competency-based is, because that’s going to be when it becomes part of their culture,” Stack said. “And then people are going to come to expect that that’s what they do.”