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Aurora Institute

Lindsay Unified — Design Elements

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Learn Lessons from the Field

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from LUSD website

We often think of innovation as an urban phenomena, a natural outgrowth of concentration of an industry, strong peer networks, and competition driving toward excellence.  However, Lindsay, California shows us that innovation can take place anywhere, even in a town of 12,000, beribboned by orange groves at the edge of California’s Central Valley.

The Lindsay Unified School District is well on their way to transforming their entire system to a personalized, performance-based system.  The conversations among district management teams vibrate with how they can fully implement a system in which all students are able to achieve.  Students are part of the process – taking advantage of the new possibilities and helping to solve problems as they pop up. The high school began implementation in 2009 and they are now beginning to roll it out to middle and elementary schools.

This case study will be in two parts. This initial post will be on the design elements and the second part will be on the big take-aways from my site visit.


Design Elements

Lindsay is partnering with the Reinventing Schools Coalition (RISC), so many of the design elements will be familiar to those who have visited Maine or Adams 50.

Overarching Design: LUSD describes their system as performance-based: “In a performance-based system, students work at their performance level and advance through the curriculum when they have demonstrated proficiency of the required knowledge or skills.” LUSD identifies the following benefits of a performance-based system. Note they use the phrase “learner” instead of student and “facilitator” instead of teacher.

  • Learning is guaranteed for all learners
  • Learners are met at their level of instruction
  • Learners can go back or move forward in any measurement topic at any time to demonstrate their knowledge.
  • Learners can excel in their area of strength.
  • Learners take ownership.
  • Creates a realistic picture of what a learner knows and can do.

The ability for students to excel in their area of strength, advance beyond grade levels, or expand their understanding through further investigation, is one of beautiful design elements of a competency-based system that is good for students and our economic strength alike. For example, I met a young man that grew up in a Spanish-speaking household who described himself as someone that enjoys vocational classes. At LUHS, he had already taken AP Spanish Language and Culture in his junior year.  What is seen as a deficit in other schools is seen as an asset at Lindsay.

Curriculum Organized into Measurement Topics: We all know that ensuring that standards, curriculum, and assessments are aligned is absolutely essential.  In competency education, with its emphasis on transparency, this becomes even more important.  Students and parents are going to know when an assessment is assessing something beyond the standards and the curriculum.  LUSC has organized the curriculum into units of study referred to as “measurement topics” (MT) with the guidance of Dr. Robert Marzano.  Chunking the standards and curriculum into measurement topics focuses instruction and assessment, and creates a “vehicle for learning” that facilitators use to keep track of the progress of individual learners on each MT. They are able to do this by using learning facilitator-designed formal and informal assessments as well as district summative assessments.

Measurement Topics clearly identify the learning target – the level of knowledge that students need to be considered proficient.  Students are expected to reach Level 3 or above. Level 3 is what Marzano’s Taxonomy would refer to as Analysis, including Matching, Classifying, Error Analysis, Generalizing, and Specifying. Level 4 is considered to be Knowledge Utilization, in which students apply the skills in ways beyond what was taught in the classroom. All Level 3 knowledge and skills are formally assessed, scored, and reported, whereas Levels 1 and 2 may be tracked but not formally assessed as they are steps on the way to Level 3.

School-wide Instructional Model: The instructional model in the Lindsay Unified School District has been highly influenced by 1) Marzano’s Classroom Instruction that Works, The Three Critical Commitments, and The Dimensions of Learning, 2) training from Bea McGarvey and 3) RISC. Measurement topics to guide instruction and strong emphasis on formative assessments  are key pieces of the instructional model. As in all high quality competency-based schools, there is an explicit understanding that mistakes are inherent in the learning process, offering opportunities to help students learn and provide feedback to teachers on instructional practice. It’s pretty simple —  it’s a continuous improvement approach in which both students and teachers are learning.

System of Assessment to Support Learning: At Lindsay, assessment practices are designed to support learning. Formative assessment plays a strong role providing “data to check and adjust instruction, monitor, give explicit feedback, track progress, and celebrate success. Not all-formative assessment is scored.” At Lindsay, students are involved in the assessment process, including grading. They are given “voice and choice” in determining what evidence will be used to demonstrate their learning in various ways. Students know what proficiency will look like by providing rubrics and exemplars. Scoring is done based on criterion-referenced standards, not against the performance of others. Sure, there are written tests, and there are lots of other ways that learners can demonstrate they are proficient on a measurement topic including:

  • Personal Communication (e.g., conferences, learning logs, response journals, oral tests)
  • Performance Assessment (e.g., play, poem, essay, research paper, podcast)
  • Demonstrations (e.g., debate, reading, recital, retelling, role play)
  • Presentations (e.g., live or taped dance, oral presentation, visual presentation, PowerPoint or multimedia presentation)
  • Seminars
  • Projects
  • Portfolios
  • Criterion-referenced observations
  • End of Measurement Topic Exams

Monitoring Learning and Feedback: An essential element of the Lindsay Unified School District performance-based system is to closely monitor learning and provide on-going feedback. Meaningful feedback is an essential part of the learning process – it shows students where to focus and can increase motivation, it helps teachers fine tune their instructional practice, and it provides teachers with a better understanding of how to support students. You can find the tools used by Lindsay to help students stay focused on their learning, such as the capacity matrix on their website. Lindsay uses the information system educate to track student progress and help students see their progress and how different courses can help them build the skills they need to graduate.

Scoring Rather Than Grading: Lindsay uses a school-wide approach to scoring (below).  Academic progress is scored separately from the Life Long Learning standards. The performance levels are based on levels of knowledge.

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Students are also assessed on Life Long Learning Standards:

  • A Well-Balanced Person
  • A Self-Directed, Lifelong Learner
  • A Caring, Compassionate Person
  • A Civic-Minded Person
  • A Responsible Global Citizen
  • A Quality Producer and Resource Manager
  • A Culturally Aware Person

Students receive Life Long Standard scores for each course and they may be be averaged to report an overall Life Skills grade based on scoring table below.

  Level 4   Always demonstrates these characteristics
  Level 3   Usually demonstrates these characteristics
  Level 2   Sometimes demonstrates these characteristics
  Level 1   Never demonstrates these characteristics


In the next post I’ll share my observations and insights including highlights from the panel of students that introduced us to Lindsay’s performance-based system.