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Aurora Institute

Assessing Work Study Practices in a Competency Education School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments

Brian Stack
Brian Stack


Five years ago, when my high school first implemented its competency education model, we as a faculty reached consensus on our purpose of grading. We believe that the purpose of grading is to communicate student achievement toward mastery of learning targets and standards. Grades represent what students learn, not what they earn. This helped us establish a common set of grading practices that every teacher agreed to use in their classrooms. They include things like the separation of formative and summative assessments (with formatives carrying no more than 10 percent weight for an overall course grade), the linking of summative assessments to performance indicators which link back to competencies in our grade book; the use of reassessment; the use of a 4.0 letter rubric scale for all assignments and assessments; and the separation of academics from academic behaviors. This article will focus on this last grading practice – from how we developed our academic behaviors to how we assess them and how we are using these grades to better prepare our students for their college and career futures.

At my school, we believe in the importance of separating what it is we want our students to know and be able to do (academics) from academic behaviors like working in groups, participating in class discussions, and meeting deadlines. While we firmly believe these behaviors are critical to academic achievement, comingling them with academic grades does not give us an accurate picture of the level of achievement our students have reached with their academic course competencies. When we first proposed this idea five years ago, separating behaviors was a big mind shift for many of our teachers who were accustomed to giving participation points as part of a course grade or taking points off of an assignment when they were turned in after a deadline. Early in our design phase we were charged with the task of finding a meaningful way to hold students accountable for these important work study practices without compromising the purity of our academic grades that we set out to establish.

The Six Work Study Practices of Sanborn Regional High School

At my school, we have identified six work study practices that we assess in every course. We consider these practices to be the behavioral qualities or habits of mind that students need to be successful in college, career, and life in general.

Effectively Communicate: Use various media to interpret, question, and express knowledge, information, ideas, feelings, and reasoning to create mutual understanding.

Creatively Solve Problems: Use original and flexible thinking to communicate ideas or construct a unique product or solution.

Contribute to Their Community: Work in diverse groups to achieve a common goal.

Self-Manage Their Learning: Initiate and manage learning through self-awareness, self-motivation, self-control, self-advocacy, and adaptability as a reflective learner.

Produce Quality Work: Recognize and produce work of high quality.

Responsibly Use Information: Demonstrate a proficiency to effectively and ethically find and use information.

The first four of our six work study practices correlate directly to the recommended work study practices that were released by the New Hampshire Department of Education in June 2014. Some of our teachers assisted in the development of these statewide practices, a process which was undertaken in order to identify a common set of habits of mind that all students need to demonstrate proficiency in as part of the evidence that they are college and career ready. The last two practices (producing quality work and responsibly using information) were added by our school after lengthy discussions with our faculty on other important habits of mind that we can and should hold our students accountable for that were not addressed in the New Hampshire practices.

Developing a Rubric and an Assessment Model for the Work Study Practices

Once our school had adopted these six work study practices in our first year of competency education implementation, our next task was to create a rubric to measure student achievement for each practice. Following the same format as our academic rubrics, we defined the exemplary, proficient, basic proficiency, and limited proficiency levels for each work study practice. The rubric development process took several meetings in our first year of implementation by a committee that included a representative sample of teachers, students, parents, administrators, and community members.

In the second year of our competency education implementation, our work study practices were ready to be used. At first, all teachers were expected to use the rubric to assign work study practice grades each quarter for each course. The grades were displayed on report cards. At the end of the year, we used a mode calculation to establish a single summary grade for each work study practice that would display on the student transcript for each year that the student was enrolled in our school. This single summary grade incorporated all of the course-level work study practice grades for that school year. Reflecting on our process at the end of that second year, we made a decision that simply assigning work study practice grades at the end of every quarter was not good enough. Our teachers said the process was too subjective. To be more objective, our teachers agreed that work study practices needed to be assessed with every major summative assessment throughout the year. It was a brilliant strategy on their part, and we have used this approach ever since.

Our Assessment Practices Today

Fast forward to today. If you were to look at any of our teachers’ grade book, you would see that they regularly create two assignments in their grade book for a summative assessment. The first assignment is where they record the academic grade(s) for that summative, often broken down into the various course competencies that the summative is assessing. The second assignment is used to record the work study practice grades for that summative assessment. It is set to a different scale in the grade book (the behavioral scale, not the academic scale). This allows the grades to exist without comingling with the academic grades. Teachers often link any of the six work study practices grades that are relevant to the particular summative assessment given.

As teachers assign work study practice grades throughout the school year, the overall work study practice grades that appear on report cards begin to compute in the same way as our academic competency grades do: When fewer than four grades exist, the grade book simply averages the grades. Once four or more grades exist, the grade book uses a learning trend calculation that gives more weight to more recent grades to display the report card competency grades. Our teachers believe that this process makes for more accurate, meaningful, and relevant work study practice grades by the end of each course.

Next Steps

Now that we have had some time to implement these work study practice assessment strategies in classrooms, our teachers are at a point where they would like to see these grades used for more than just evidence that is displayed on report cards and transcripts. We are currently having discussions in our school about other ways that we could be using these grades. Could they help us determine certain privileges for students such as having a free period or having more choice in how they spend their focused learning time (a period in our day where all students sign up for or are assigned to intervention, extension, and enrichment programming)? Should these grades be used as part of a qualifier for honors societies or honors distinctions? Should these grades be developed into separate graduation requirements? We believe that by embedding these work study practice grades into different aspects of our school program, they will make them take on more relevance for our students, which ultimately will help our students on their road to college and career readiness.

Brian M. Stack is the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, an author for Solution Tree, and also serves as an expert for, a division of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.