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In Real Life: How do CBE systems support all students to reach mastery?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jenny Poon

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal, Noble High School, ME

This article is the seventh in a nine-part “In Real Life” series based on the complex, fundamental questions that practitioners in competency-based systems grapple with “in real life.” Links to the other posts can be found at the end of this article.

Since learners are met where they are in CBE systems and are supported to reach mastery at their own pace, what supports are needed to ensure everyone succeeds?

To better understand this question, I sat down with Alison Kearney, Assistant Principal at Noble High School in North Berwick, Maine.

A rural school, Noble High School serves roughly 1,100 students across three towns up to an hour bus ride away. Its students often come from rural poor backgrounds, influencing how the school has structured its student support system. Noble High’s proficiency-based system was profiled in a CompetencyWorks blog post in 2015.

As one of two Assistant Principals at Noble High School, Kearney wears many hats. She provides oversight of student progress and Response to Intervention in grades 11 and 12, and she serves as the Director of Studies, overseeing implementation of the school’s proficiency-based system. In the latter role, she oversees the chairs of the academic departments, ensures that the school’s new Graduation Standards are being appropriately addressed in curriculum, makes sure that sufficient bodies of evidence are being collected to determine student mastery, and helps ensure consistent scoring of  evidence across teachers.

In our interview, adapted below, Kearney describes how Noble High School couples a proficiency-based grading system with a robust set of student supports to ensure that all students – each with a diversity of needs, strengths, and prior knowledge – reach proficiency.

Jennifer Poon: How did Noble High come to discover – and desire – a proficiency-based model of teaching and learning?

Alison Kearney: Prior to 2014-2015, we had elements of personalizing learning in heterogeneously grouped classrooms and fragments of a proficiency-based system, but our system wasn’t consistent and therefore wasn’t equitable. Some teachers would allow revisions and retakes, and some would grade Work Habits and dispositions separately, but not others.

When Maine passed state legislation LD 1422, this was the push for us to rethink what we were doing as we strived to become compliant with the new law. Teachers, students, and community members came together over nine months to revise our set of Core Values and Beliefs.  We also designed our Graduation Standards, which are large and umbrella-like, encompassing clearly defined smaller “grains” of indicators or standards pulled from standards documents like the Common Core or Next Generation Science Standards.

We defined four levels of proficiency for each Graduation Standard: Distinguished, Advanced, Basic, and Does Not Meet. These are aligned to the traditional “ABCF” grades, and we sometimes still refer to them that way so we can continue communicating in ways that people already understand. We also defined a set of Work Habits that we report separately from academic achievement.

We require that all students demonstrate proficiency in all of our Graduation Standards in order to get a diploma. Our goal is to make college or a certificate program a reality for all of our students, regardless of where the student or anyone else thinks they will end up. We’re not doing our job if we aren’t making sure all choices are available.

JP: Students enter Noble High with differing skills, needs, and prior experiences, but they all have to reach proficiency in the Graduation Standards. How do you “meet students where they are” and adjust instructional strategies so that learning is most effective for each student?

AK: Students are heterogeneously grouped into teams that intentionally balance demographics like free and reduced lunch status, gender, and performance on literacy assessments and prior coursework. There are about 10 teams within the school, each with around 100 students per team. Students are assigned to a team and stay together throughout their time at Noble High.

We gather a lot of information on students’ prior performance, but we want teachers to use that information in ways that are helpful, without typecasting that kid for the whole school year. Therefore we ask teachers to continuously collect data through pre-assessment and formative assessment that informs instruction.

Interdisciplinary teacher teams then gather for weekly or bi-weekly for data-driven conversations where we look at performance data for each student and also other socio-emotional components. We use Building Assets and Reducing Risks (BARR) and Response to Intervention (RTI) programs to help us ensure we are routinely having informed and structured conversations about students. While conversations tend to focus on struggling students, we are also able to discuss students who are excelling and who may need encouragement to pursue Honors Options or Diploma Endorsements.  It is our goal to discuss all students over the course of the year.

Lastly, we reserve 45 minutes of each day for KnightTime, which is a combination intervention-advisory block that serves as an opportunity for students to work on whatever is most pressing for them. Sometimes teachers will book time with kids to work on honors, or they might sit down with students who are struggling with a standard for re-teaching.

JP: What steps are taken to ensure students have understanding and ownership of where they stand relative to what they need in order to reach mastery?

AK: We emphasize clear communication of which skills and knowledge students are learning. All teachers use student-friendly “I can” statements as learning targets for each lesson, and they must be able to show how these tie back to Graduation Standards – they’re not just “any old” objective.

We routinely report to students on their progress toward meeting the Graduation Standards and also their Work Habits. We also instituted end-of-the-year student-led conferences, where students must report out on how they did in terms of demonstrating proficiency within the school’s Graduation Standards and 21st Century Learning Expectations.

JP: Are students able to speed up or skip ahead when they demonstrate mastery in a given area? Are there limits to this flexibility?

AK: It was difficult to determine how to do this given our existing structures (both physical space and teacher teams) and our relatively high student enrollment numbers. We did some research on it, and in many of the models, we saw that there was a correlation between allowing pace acceleration and a “checklist mentality” that seems to de-emphasize the learning process.

Instead, we placed value on creating a familial setting within our classrooms and providing options within those spaces. The heterogeneous grouping of our classes allows students to work on different things at different paces but still be relatively clustered together working from Point A to Point B. No one “popcorns” out of the class just because they work quickly. Instead, for kids who want to push beyond, we offer Honors options within the courses. Students can design their own learning experiences with the teacher, too. That said, sometimes we get requests from students who want to graduate early and push past full courses, which we try to accommodate by providing accelerated online or summer options.

JP: In what ways does the system support students when they are struggling in a given area?

AK: Our teachers create multiple opportunities for students to practice skills, to check for understanding, or to receive feedback. This happens both within classes and during KnightTime. Students can also request deadline extensions on assignments, which they must advocate for through a request form. Parents must be brought into this dialogue, too.

We require all teachers to have a revision/retake policy. We don’t require these policies to be identical, but we are working toward more consistent parameters. For example, some policies may state that if a student does not demonstrate “basic” proficiency on an assignment or assessment, they can revise their work within a window of time after the assignment is returned. Many teachers require students to show evidence of re-learning and/or to have a passing Work Habits grade in order to be eligible for revision.

Editor’s note: How grading practices handle deadlines, retakes, and reassessment are common philosophical questions that many systems shifting to competency-based education wrestle with. For an extended discussion of these issues and a set of strategies to consider, check out “Deadlines Matter: Debunking the Myth That Standards-Based Grading Means No Deadlines” by Brian Stack, Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in New Hampshire.   


JP: Suppose a student is struggling enough that they are not on track to reach proficiency in one or more areas by the end of the semester. What happens?

AK: There are two things that could cause the need for remediation at the end of a semester. One is if a student has a passing average in the course but did not pass one or more Graduation Standards within that course. In this case, they receive a letter grade for the course but have an “Incomplete” tagged onto the grade in their report card. They won’t receive credit for the course until the Incomplete is removed. The other situation is if a student is performing poorly across all of the Graduation Standards for a given course, in which case they would probably receive “Not Meets” (NM) overall for that course.

In either case, we do not remediate whole courses; we only remediate the Graduation Standards that students missed. The student’s teacher would create a Standards Recovery Referral that includes a specific learning plan for the student expressing what they must do to meet certain Graduation Standards. The referring teacher articulates the most streamlined way for the student to demonstrate proficiency.

The student then works with a different teacher after school to complete the referring teacher’s plan. Typically, these teachers are skilled at understanding how to determine proficiency based on a body of evidence. These teachers have a right to modify the learning plan if they feel that the referring teacher missed a piece of evidence that was important, or that the student was penalized based on Work Habits when they shouldn’t have been.

JP: As Noble High School has undergone the transformation to proficiency-based education, were there sticking points, and how did you nurture consensus?

AK: We created a survey that served as a litmus test for where our staff stood on philosophies and practices embodied by proficiency-based education. We found one area where we didn’t agree: grading, and whether to report Work Habits separately from academic achievement. Half our staff really cared about rewarding effort and wanted use grades to penalize poor Work Habits, some believing that if students fear low grades it will motivate work completion. However, we felt it was important that academic grades serve as accurate indicators of what kids know and are able to do in terms of the Graduation Standards. We had to design intentional professional development explaining our rationale and showing research on why disaggregating Work Habits was important to do.

We made other changes to grading too, like eliminating the “D” from the grading scale and allowing students to continually revise their work. Our logic was that students earning a D don’t have the skills that they need. Still, these changes were tricky for us because people are used to defining performance in a certain way. At the same time, what really is the difference between a 99.1 and a 99.2? We needed better ways to communicate what students know and are able to do.

Read the rest of the “In Real Life” series at the following links:

Jennifer Poon’s mission is to effect social justice by modernizing the public education system to be more responsive to the needs of all learners, especially those most historically underserved. Currently, she is consulting on projects of interest while serving as a Fellow with the Center for Innovation in Education. Previously, Jennifer directed the Innovation Lab Network at the Council of Chief State School Officers. Prior to that, she taught at King/Drew High School in Compton, CA. Tweet to her @JDPoon.