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Aurora Institute

Communicating With Parents on the Transition to Competency Education

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Brian Stack

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Brian Stack
Brian Stack

I am the Principal at Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH. Our district has used a competency education model for the past five years and is one of the districts that is part of the exciting PACE (Performance Assessment of Competency Education) pilot program for school accountability. I am often asked by administrators who are looking to transition their schools to this kind of a model what it is like to communicate it to parents and families. This is something our school tries to do on an ongoing basis. Just this week, my two assistant principals and I held an evening coffee hour sponsored by our Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) to discuss the topic in more detail. It was a very well-attended evening. Below is a summary of how that evening was structure. It was first written and shared on my Principal’s Blog for parents who were unable to attend, but I am also sharing it with all of you on CompetencyWorks in the event that it could help you structure a similar event in your own schools.

Last night’s PTO meeting agenda said that school administrators would be available to lead a discussion on competency-based grading, but really it was all about chocolate chip cookies. What makes for an exemplary cookie, the one that is over-fresh with a sweet, rich, buttery flavor? The one with a real chocolate taste in each bite that complements that rich and flavored dough? You can’t teach someone how to make such a cookie until you take the time to define the criteria that you would use to assess it. It was through the lens of this scenario that Sanborn Regional High School Principal, Brian Stack, and Assistant Principals, Ann Hadwen and Michael Turmelle, helped everyone in the room understand the big picture of competency education, grading, and assessment and how it is working to provide a more rigorous education for all students.

Competency Education – The Big Picture

Principal, Brian Stack, opened the meeting by talking about the big picture of competency education. In the Sanborn Schools, the vision for the model came from a strategic planning process that started six years ago. It was a process in which a team of teachers, administrators, parents, and community members developed a plan to ensure that all students develop a foundation of knowledge and skills through rigorous and relevant curriculum that exceeds National, State, and Local expectations by addressing the individual needs of all students and helping them realize their full potential.

From there, Mr. Stack talked about the overall structure of Sanborn’s competency education system. At Sanborn, competency measures a student’s ability to transfer content and skills in and across content areas. He explained that each high school course has identified competencies – the big ideas and transferable skills for that particular course. He went on to explain that for each course competency there are performance indicators – the specific learning expectations for the competency. Teachers assess students on these performance indicators using a rubric scale of E (Exemplary), P (Proficient), BP (Basic Proficient), LP (Limited Proficient), and NM (Not Met). These letters carry the numerical values of 4, 3, 2, 1, and 0 respectively. As teachers give more assessments and more grades are added to the system, a picture of competence begins to form for each student. Sanborn report cards show how a student is performing on each course competency and give an overall final grade between 0.0 and 4.0 for each course. Students cannot receive credit for a course unless they have scored at a Basic Proficient (BP) level or higher for each competency and for the overall final grade. From there, final grades and the credits earned are reported on a very traditional-looking transcript along with a very traditional calculation for grade point average (GPA) and class rank.

Mr. Stack talked about the competency education model as the next big disruptor in the educational world. He explained that last summer he had the opportunity to serve on a panel discussion at the Disruptors in Education Summit in San Diego that was designed to engage some of the industry’s most visionary entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, policy experts, and practitioners in meaningful dialog around key disruptive trends impacting K-12 and higher education today and in the future. The summit focused on the future of post-secondary education and the rise of competency-based learning. Mr. Stack acknowledged that competency education is not only gaining popularity in K-12 systems around the country, it has become a hot topic in the world of higher education today.

Common Grading Practices in the Competency Education Model

Mrs. Hadwen asked parents to take a minute to examine one of the delicious cookies that had been freshly baked for the discussion by some of our school’s amazing parent volunteers. With a partner, participants talked about the characteristics of a great chocolate chip cookie. They shared their traits with the group. Mrs. Hadwen then shared a chocolate chip cookie rubric that was a reliable tool that the group could use to evaluate any chocolate chip cookie. The rubric identified several important traits of a cookie:  Texture, appearance, overall taste, contents, and smell. For each of these traits, descriptors were written to help parents distinguish between a cookie that is exemplary, proficient, basic proficient, or limited proficient for each trait. This rubric, like any rubric, is a powerful tool because it allows a group of people to easily reach consensus on how to evaluate an authentic assessment like baking a chocolate chip cookie. At Sanborn, Mrs. Hadwen explained that teachers collaborate to develop their rubrics. They use them to grade student work together. The power of rubrics is that they give students clear descriptions of what they can do to improve. In a traditional system, getting a grade of an 87% doesn’t tell a student how they can improve their product for the future. With a rubric, however, it would be very clear to a student how they could improve their grade from a proficient (P) to an exemplary (E) grade.

From the rubric discussion, Mrs. Hadwen explained the reasons why our school district has moved away from using a traditional 100 point percentage scale to a 4 point rubric scale. She then talked about the power of reassessment – the idea that students in our school always have the option to reassess their work and show that they can improve upon their performance and learning. She explained that Sanborn teachers create very specific reassessment plans for students who choose this option to help them reflect on their learning and identify what it is they need to go back and do before they can be eligible for a reassessment.

Mrs. Hadwen also talked about how our school handles students who don’t submit their work on time. In the old days, a student who did not submit an assignment would be assigned a grade of a zero and told to move on to the next topic or assessment. It was thought that punishing a student with a low grade would teach them not to submit late work again. Mrs. Hadwen explained why this system doesn’t work. It doesn’t curb students from not doing work. It allows them off the hook from the learning when they have an option to take a zero. At Sanborn, students who do not submit an assignment by a deadline instantly get a grade of IWS which stands for Insufficient Work Shown. From there, an aggressive process is started by the teacher to get the student to submit the work as quickly as possible. Teachers will give students extensions, call home, notify a counselor, and even involve an administrator through a discipline referral in an effort to get the student to do the work. After a period of time, students are no longer able to recover IWS grades because after a certain point, too much time has passed to make the assessment a valuable measure of whether or not the student was competent in the skill being assessed at the time. Using this IWS is one example of how our school separates academics from academic behaviors. Both are important, but they are separate grades. At Sanborn, a final course grade is a true academic measure of the learning that has taken place for the student.

From Grading to Assessment: How Competency Education Promotes Rigor in the Classroom

Mr. Turmelle started his part of the discussion by talking about rigor. He offered a very scientific and concrete way for teachers to measure rigor in their classroom with Hess’ Cognitive Rigor Matrix. Hess’ work brings together two widely accepted ways to measure rigorous assessment:  Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and Bloom’s Taxonomy. With Hess’ tool, Sanborn teachers can determine to what degree their assessments are rigorous and what they can do to make them more rigorous.

Mr. Turmelle then talked about how standardized testing has evolved over the last decade. Standardized testing was born out of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandate imposed by the federal government years ago as a way to hold schools accountable for student learning. New Hampshire has seen three iterations of standardized tests since NCLB was put into place. The first test, known as NHIEAP, was considered an end-of-learning test. It measured whether or not student learning had occurred after the fact, but it did so by asking low-level multiple choice questions that simply encouraged students to memorize facts and figures. NECAP improved on NHIEAP by adding some open response questions that encouraged students to demonstrate a slightly deeper level of understanding, but it was still a test that was given at the end of high school.

This year, New Hampshire has rolled out a new assessment known as SBAC, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. SBAC improves on NECAP in that it asks students to demonstrate their learning at much deeper levels. It is also adaptive – it adjusts based on how students respond to early questions so that more questions are asked that are appropriate to the student’s academic level. While still not perfect, it is clear that this latest iteration of accountability testing is much more closely aligned with authentic assessment and the notion that true learning is measured by asking students to demonstrate their learning through carefully designed performance tasks. Baking a chocolate chip cookie is an example of this.

The Sanborn Schools believe they have a better solution than SBAC, and the federal government has given our District and four others from New Hampshire the opportunity to pilot that new solution. It is known as PACE, Performance Assessments for Competency Education. In the PACE Model, Sanborn teachers work with teachers from the other cohort schools to develop rich, quality performance tasks that measure student learning at a much deeper and rigorous level than SBAC is able to do. These tasks are vetted through a system where outside experts provide teachers with suggestions and feedback on their assessments to make them even better. Then, these assessments are ready to be used both in the classroom and as a measure of student learning that the state can use to hold schools accountable, much like they do with SBAC. In this first year of the PACE pilot, Sanborn has been given permission to replace SBAC in certain grade levels with these quality performance assessments. If PACE is successful, the federal government hopes to expand the pilot to include other schools and other states. PACE may provide our nation with a better system to help schools uphold high standards for learning for all students.


Before opening up the discussion to the parents, students, teachers, and community members who were in attendance, Mr. Stack reiterated that Sanborn’s journey from a traditional to a competency-based model has not been one without setbacks along the way. Change is hard. Changing the mindset and the beliefs of a community is hard. When Sanborn started its journey it didn’t have a lot of great examples to mimic and learn from. We researched what we believed was best practice, and we began building our model. There were times along the way were we had to listen to the feedback that our community was giving us and use it to make adjustments to our model. Each year, we have gotten better and better. Mr. Stack closed his comments by saying that all of the adults in his school, from support staff to teachers to administrators, have been and will continue to be laser-focused on helping this school use a competency education model to ensure that all students develop a foundation of knowledge and skills through rigorous and relevant curriculum that exceeds National, State, and Local expectations by addressing the individual needs of all students and helping them realize their full potential.

If you are interested, here is the chocolate chip cookie rubric:

Cookie Rubric
Click Image to Enlarge

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.