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Aurora Institute

Competency-Based Instruction & Assessment: Building the Framework

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Erica Stofanak

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

As the Rochester School District embarks upon its K-12 Full-Competency Based System of Instruction and Assessment, we continue to build steam.  While the push came from the state to embed competencies into the state’s high schools, what Assistant Superintendent Mary Moriarty realized was that the philosophy and practices of this structure were vital to the success of not just our high-school aged students but all of our students.  As such, the fall of 2013, the Rochester School District will open all of its schools’ doors with a Competency-based model in place.

Our work began several years ago when our administrative team at the high school began site visits in order to build an understanding of just what it meant to be Competency-based.  Through these visits it was observed that many schools were engaging in a process to makeover their framework but not much was changing in the day-to-day work that was going on within classrooms.  These schools weren’t to blame.  They simply weren’t provided support or a model to which they could aspire.  Individual schools were tackling this Competency beast in isolation.

Therefore, when Spaulding High School began its work, the administrative team saw extreme value in reaching out to consultants.  In order to make the change, this team knew that the teachers had to own the change.  This time commitment was critical to the success that we continue to experience at SHS.  Teams of teachers were pulled out of their classrooms to engage in professional development.  This PD challenged most of what they knew and believed about instruction and assessment.  The tenants of this new, progressive philosophy rattled the cages of some of the school’s most experienced educational leaders.  Imagine packing up much of what you have known and done in your career into a compartment and letting it go, a career of 20-plus years.  Imagine letting go of the practice of averaging numbers.  Imagine not awarding extra credit because the football team finally won a game.  Imagine the loss that you feel, the remorse for an era gone by. (Check out the Spaulding High webpage for resources on their competency education model)

In the place of these traditional practices comes a common grading philosophy statement that is to drive every single decision made at Spaulding High School in so much as they relate to instruction, assessment, and grade reporting.  To walk you through just one example, let’s explore the topic of calculating a student’s grade.

The traditional grade composition of long ago has been brought to the forefront.  No longer will each, individual teacher create their own grade formula for reporting purposes.  Imagine Susie’s Algebra teacher who has created the following formula: 20% quizzes, 40% tests, 20% homework, 20% participation.  However her classmate Nate has a different teacher (for the same course).  Nate’s teacher’s formula is: 10% quizzes, 40% tests, 40% homework, and 10% participation.

What this represents is a difference in the two teachers’ philosophy.  One of the biggest, blaring concerns with this difference is fairness.  With the Competency framework in place, we have taken a firm stance that a student’s grade will in fact represent their level of mastery toward the course’s defined competencies.  The typical course has between three and five statements.  The amount of practice work they choose to complete in order to get them to that level of mastery represents no slice in the grade pie.  Neither does participation.  Neither practice completion nor participation speaks toward a student’s mastery of content.  Therefore, at SHS all slices of course grade pies are in alignment with the course competencies.  Moreover, this alignment is common at the course level.  Susie and Nate’s Algebra grades are now composed the same way and they only speak to their level of understanding as it relates to the content in their Algebra course.

That is not to say that reporting on practice work completion and participation is not important in our district!  In fact, they are so important that we have created a professionalism competency.  We believe that there are habits of learning that we desire to develop with students.  We value having a reporting system that can speak to these habits.  However, they should not mask a student’s level of mastery of course competencies.  (Click here to see professionalism rubric)

Spaulding High School devoted an entire school year to the change process.  Fast tracking through that murky water would have been immanent disaster to any hope of real, lasting change.  As the resident teacher leaders began to grapple in deep discussion over the conflicts in their hearts, the entire staff began to move closer toward a common point of understanding.  Having a safe environment in which all were free to express their fears and concerns was the breeding ground that gave rise to deep collaboration and the creation of a solid framework.

Rose Colby joined our district back in 2010.  We joke that she’s a resident employee now, as she has been unanimously accepted by the staff.  Rose is an independent consultant who specializes in leading staff through embracing change.  She is a master at her content and can engage even the most resistant, reluctant faculty members in discourse that leads them to deeper understandings.  She challenged our staff a great deal but was careful never to cross the line of intimidation.  Prepared with real-life exemplars of Competencies in successful practice, she opened our eyes to a brand new world of instruction and assessment.

Under Rose’s direction and training, the administration at SHS identified eight strong instructional leaders to take on the role of CBA Coach.  These eight Competency Based Assessment Coaches met as a group twice a month to engage in a different level of professional development.  They were asked to create models of practice within their content, demonstrating how one goes about applying the Backward Design process in leading students to mastery of content.  These presentations were attended by all faculty members at SHS.  During these presentations, the staff was brought to increasingly new levels of understanding, as they were able to view it through the eyes of varying content.  As our work forged ahead each Department was assigned a CBA Coach, adding another level of support for our teachers.

The next school year was another preparation year for us.  We continued to build our framework and move forward on developing a common understanding of the changes that were about to take place.  Teachers worked in collaboration with one another to develop Competency Statements, Performance Indicators, and common scoring rubrics.  This work then extended into assessment development, focusing on incorporating all of the depths of knowledge.  Much time was dedicated to writing and editing.  Teachers were also encouraged to implement at a scale that they could manage, knowing that the following school year was to be year one!

We also realized that it wasn’t just the teachers who needed support.  The students and community needed to be following along on this journey with us!  They were certain to have questions: Is my child still going to get into college?  Are we still going to have GPA’s?  What are the rules for reassessment?  What if I can’t stay after school to work with my teacher?  What will my son’s/daughter’s report card look like?

In response to this need we help forums for both parents and students both during the school days as well as in the evenings.  Each forum had a defined goal which enabled us to stay on track and to keep the conversations and concerns focused.  We also reported out on our local Rochester TV station.  Additionally, we ran weekly articles in the local newspaper and posted the links to them on our website.  Our CBA Coaches visited each of our sending schools and met with the 8th graders soon to enter the doors of Spaulding High School.  We also ran assemblies for our then current students during homeroom.  We were eager to share the great things going on in our district.  Never before has the community embraced the topic of education as it did last school year!

While that last planning year was filled with excitement and adventure, we hadn’t anticipated the journey that was to come.  Click here to learn about lessons learned from Spaulding’s first year on how to provide supports to students that did not complete their competencies.

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Erica Stofanak is a Curriculum, Instruction & Assessment Coach for the Rochester School Department where she works with teachers not only on building a framework to support Competency Based Instruction & Assessment, but how to implement it within the constraints of school as we currently know them to be.