Competency-based LearningCompetency-based Learning
Since the late 19th century our conception of secondary education and the structure of American high schools have been driven by the “Carnegie unit,” generally referred to as credit hours. Under a credit hour system the driving factor in education is “seat time," assuring classes are held for a specific number of hours.
Since 2005 the New Hampshire State Board of Education has been creating a state framework for learning that is moving away from the Carnegie unit. The new framework for education is based on identifying specific competencies that students should acquire by the end of a course, and enabling students to learn and then demonstrate their mastery of those competencies. This represents a significant shift in thinking, from the current system where seat time is fixed and learning is variable, to a system where student learning is based on the time required for each student to master competencies.
The requirement by the State to adopt course and school-level competencies, and then assess student learning based on those competencies can be found in the state minimum standards (ED 306.27 – “Course Level Competencies and Grading”). A number of New Hampshire high schools, locally including Merrimack High School, have already transitioned to competency-based systems.
While Nashua’s high schools developed course-level competencies soon after the adoption of new minimum standards in 2005, over the last three years high school faculty and administators have been focused on assuring every course has a clear and measurable set of competencies, and the District is now ready to take the next step, beginning to assess every student based on those competencies.
There will be ongoing opportunities for parents, students and the community (through meetings with the Board of Education) to receive updates and provide feedback as the District transitions to competency-based education and assessment systems. Ultimately, these changes must be approved by the Board of Education.
What is a competency?
A competency is defined as the ability of a student to apply content knowledge and skills in and/or across the content area(s). A typical high school course will include 3-5 competencies that each student will be expected to master. Our high schools are also developing school-wide competencies that every student will be assessed on during his or her high-school career.
What is competency-based learning?
Moving away from a time-centered, one-size fits all approach to education constitutes a shift that is taking place around the country. Instead of linking success to the amount of time spent in a course, success is now measured by students demonstrating what they know and are able to do at multiple times in assorted settings using a variety of methods. This provides a more personalized, less ‘one-size fits all’ approach to learning. It offers flexibility regarding how learning can be demonstrated and how credit can be awarded. Examples of what this can look like include traditional classroom experiences; online learning; project-based learning; blended learning; dual enrollment (college courses); student-designed extended learning opportunities (ELOs) among other types of opportunities. It also enables students to have more chances to apply their learning and demonstrate its relevance in different settings. The pace of learning can become more individualized and become customized to each student.
Is Nashua prepared for this shift?
Nashua is well-prepared for this shift. Faculty discussions about competencies have been underway since 2005, and over the last several years this has been the focus of workshops, summer institutes and early release activities. Over the last three years teachers have been developing clear and measurable competencies for all courses and designing lessons that enable students to showcase their progress on these competencies. In order to prepare for the transition in grade reporting that will occur in September 2015, teachers have been encouraged to pilot a competency-based reporting system during the 2013-2014 school year while they are reporting grades as they always have.
Students have been involved in this change as well. Student voice has been particularly strong in providing feedback in developing over-arching, school-wide competencies in such areas as communication, collaboration and persistence. Parent conversations are taking place throughout the current school year, and will continue to take place through next year’s implementation period.
Will this shift make a difference in improving the success of our students?
The Alliance for Excellent Education has studied two New Hampshire districts that were early adopters of competency-based learning. The alliance has released their study, entitled “Strengthening High School Teaching and Learning in New Hampshire's Competency-Based System
” Among the key findings of the study conducted at Sanborn Regional High School and Spaulding High School:
· Students reported that the work was more challenging, but also said opportunities to interact with teachers and peers in new ways enhanced their understanding and challenged their ideas;
· Since implementation began in the 2009-10 school year, both schools reported significant drops in course failures and dropout rates;
· Student engagement and learning showed improvement, with a significant decline in reported discipline issues for ninth-grade students at Sanborn.
to see a copy of this report. It is our hope we will see similar results over time as Nashua makes the shift to a competency-based approach to education.
Further information about competency-based education and assessment can be found in the attached bibliography.
Now that clear and measureable competencies have been established for every course, Nashua is ready to move to a competency-based assessment system.
Traditionally grades have been based on a 100-point scale. Over time, however, educators are finding that learners receive more useful feedback about their learning when it is based on a scale with a limited number of proficiency levels identifying the learner’s progress toward mastery. At the same time we recognize that parents and colleges have expectations for report cards and transcripts with traditional number or letter grades. Therefore, at the present time grading systems will have elements of traditional approaches to grading coupled with recognition of proficiency levels for individual competencies.
The experience of New Hampshire school districts that have already implemented competency-based grading systems indicate we can expect there will be changes or transitions in Nashua’s approach to both competency-based education and assessment over time as we gain experience about what works best for students and teachers.
How will grades and report cards change with a competency-based system?
Students will still receive an overall letter grade for each course, which will appear on the transcript; however, the grading system will now also let students and parents know where a student stands in relation to each course competency. Students will be able to identify their progress toward mastery of each competency, from partially proficient to proficient to proficient with distinction. The grade book and report card will also report if there is no evidence of proficiency, or the competency hasn’t been assessed yet.
Since the purpose of a grading system is to provide feedback on student learning, other non-academic factors such as attendance and behavior will no longer be a component of the course grade; however, these non-academic factors are still important to student success, and will be included in a separate section of the report card. (This is sometimes referred to as “standards-based grading.”) See a current draft of the new report card by clicking here
How will this impact GPA and class rank?
There will be no change in current policies or practices.
Will students receive a course grade if they are not proficient in a competency?
In the coming school year (2014-2015) course credit will be awarded as it is now, based on the overall letter grade for the class; however, each course competency reflects a key skill or area of content knowledge that students must become proficient in to truly master the course. A minimum level of proficiency in every course competency will be required for a student to be awarded a course grade with credit. This requirement is critical to assuring Nashua students graduate from our high schools with the necessary skills to be successful in college and careers.
What help will be available for students who require more assistance to become proficient in a competency?
There will be many opportunities for students to demonstrate they are proficient and seek extra help when they need it, beginning with time during class or seeking help after school as they do now. For those students who require additional assistance high school administrators and faculty are exploring a number of new opportunities for students, including online instruction labs available after school, summer school programs based on recovery of specific competencies, and a period of time during the day – known as the enrichment block – when all students will be able to seek additional assistance or engage in enrichment activities.
Are colleges aware of this change? Will this change impact college admission decisions?
Colleges know this change is taking place, and are not concerned about it. In 2009, the Hanover Research Institute conducted a study on the relationship of standards-based grading and college admissions. Some of the schools included in the study were Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT, Cal Tech, Columbia, Duke, Brown, University of Chicago, Northwestern and other top ranked colleges and universities. The conclusion of this study stated, “Generally, admissions offices treat all grades as welcome indicators of high school performance while implicitly acknowledging that every school has a unique perspective, student body and system. None of the college admissions offices contacted expressed a concern or negative view of a transcript based on standards-based grading.” The District’s high school director of guidance has also contacted a variety of colleges and universities, and they also expressed no concerns in including competencies within the District’s official transcript.