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Aurora Institute

Meeting Students Where They Are: Accountability Paradox (Part 1)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

ArrowsPart 2 on this topic focuses on instructional strategies to meet students where they are. This post looks at accountability policies.

Across the country, educators are courageously recognizing that the only way they can help all students meet college and career readiness is to move beyond the traditional time-based system to create personalized, competency-based systems. Personalizing education starts with recognizing that every student has a unique educational pathway, entering school at different academic performance levels, at a different steps in their development, and with ever-changing interests and understandings of the world around them.

Yet many competency-based schools are continuing to teach students at their grade level with one-size fits all curricula because they feel it is only fair to “cover the standards” before students take exams for accountability purposes. Many educators have said that they would like to be able deliver instruction where students are but feel that they must “cover the standards.” Standards of course are a good thing. They bring an intentionality to instruction and clarity to assessment that our education system was lacking. Yet, covering them without also ensuring students are mastering them leaves us with the same problem of the traditional system — some students learn while others are left behind.

CompetencyWorks is delving into the issue of what it would take to meet students where they are so we can better meet the needs of students including those whose performance level is below grade level. In this two part-series, I’ll share some of the take-aways from conversations with educators and thought leaders. As always, I’m trying to understand so retain the right to learn more and change my mind.

Empowering Teachers

Every day teachers face the challenge of trying to teach students the grade level curriculum even though they know their students do not have the pre-requisite skills. The practice of always providing grade level curriculum means that some students with gaps in foundational knowledge go to school every day feeling stupid, some are bored because they aren’t allowed to move on to more challenging work, and teachers must carry the burden of knowing they aren’t meeting students’ needs.

Curriculum coordinator Patrice Glancey describes her district’s first steps of the transition to competency-based education. She empowered teachers to develop the instructional strategies and curriculum resources based on their professional judgment would be the most effective for students. The first grade teachers rejected the idea of an assigned reading program to try a more personalized approach.

Jen Paquette, during the first grade team meeting, reached out in frustration and said, “I have students in my class that haven’t mastered the basic letter sounds yet, but they don’t have enough time or space to get the foundations before our reading lessons.” Kris Kidder, the third teacher on the team, explained that she has the same problem, “and now we’re starting to see the discipline problems we did in the beginning of the year.” Exhausted from analyzing the data and current practice, Jen finally said what we knew all along: “We’re doing a disservice to these kids teaching like this, what if we…” and the movement had reached the tipping point.

Working together, the three first grade teachers, paraprofessionals, and special educators began to personalize learning. They identified where students were in their process of learning to read and began to group students so they could provide more intensive instruction and formative assessments. They created learning experiences that were directed at the individual needs of students to help them build their skills. Students advanced based upon demonstration that they were ready for the next set of skills.

… Four weeks later, the team of teachers, specialists, special educators, and paraprofessionals were showing positive gains and averaging an increase of twenty-four sight words every two weeks across the grade level. Some students had made more progress in the past month than they had during the entire first semester. Addressing students’ personal academic needs through competency education was working in a big way.

Lisa Davis, a special educator on the team, spoke out at a recent faculty meeting. “We’re making a difference! One of my students told me the other day that she ‘wasn’t stupid anymore’ and has not only moved up reading levels, but also gained back the confidence she had at the beginning of the year. Students are finally engaged in their learning,” she explained. “They are more confident and willing to complete work. They are excited to move around and work with other students.”

Meeting students where they are means that teachers use flexible, effective strategies and supports that ensure students are able to learn in their proximal zone of development. This may mean providing grade level tasks with intensive supports or it may mean teaching students on their performance levels. The goal is to ensure students are making progress and advancing towards their grade level…and above. Meeting students where they are does not mean organizing students into different tracks with different curriculum. It means holding students to the same, high expectations and world-class standards. The instructional strategies should be based on the professional judgment of teachers about how to make sure students build their foundational skills on the way to performing at grade level or above. We have to give teachers the autonomy to use their professional judgment about what will be best for kids taking into account the importance of social learning, their maturity, and what will motivate and engage them.

When the topic of professional judgement of teachers is raised, so are concerns about whether it can be trusted.  As a country we are all very aware of the different values, assumptions and biases we bring to our lives and our work lives and certainly teaching is no different. Reducing the isolation of teachers will help to challenge biases as will effective analysis of the granular data on student achievement produced in competency-based systems.  Furthermore, professional judgement is something that can be strengthened. We want to create the conditions in which teachers are able to collaborate and learn from each other in order to deepen their professional judgement. Districts can play a role in being able to bring in more specialized knowledge along the way.

How can we empower schools and teachers to do what is best for kids?

The Accountability Paradox

We are operating within a paradox. The very accountability system that led to much greater transparency about the performance of the education system and its inequity is also holding the traditional system that produces the inequity in place. Teachers feel that they have to “cover the standards,” as it is otherwise unfair because the students will have to take a test that only counts toward accountability but doesn’t support learning. They do not feel empowered to stop the march through the standards or the purchased curriculum to actually teach the children what they need to learn in order to meet the standards. There are competency-based districts that are trying to climb out of this paradoxical conundrum we have found ourselves in. By engaging their school boards and communities in creating guiding principles that begin with concepts emphasizing “Doing What is Best for Kids” they become more willing to meet students where they are even if it means tolerating lower results within the state accountability systems.

Furthermore, the assessments used in accountability systems give us some important information about achievement on grade levels but it doesn’t produce the information superintendents, principals and teachers need to make better decisions.. It is not surprising given the current accountability regime that many schools on the journey to competency-education still organize data systems around grade level standards. This is of course is complicated by the fact that the vendors of student information systems and grading systems, even the new ones that you would expect to be more innovative, have failed to respond to the shift from a course/credit based system to one organized around students and their skills. The only way most district and school leaders can get the information they need is through work-arounds of the student information systems.

We are not arguing that performance levels should replace grade levels. There are many benefits to organizing students in cohorts or communities of learners. And there are benefits to being able to talk about a student’s performance level as compared to a grade level in different domains. In fact, using the grade level standards as a marker of indicating when a student is “on track” to graduation can lead to invaluable conversations with parents, students, and teachers to create plans for students who are at a lower performance level to make adequate progress toward graduation.

However, it will help immensely if we can create language to talk about performance levels and grade levels that aren’t dripping with deficit-based thinking. Thus, when thinking about reporting, it may become just as important to communicate what students learned as well as how they are doing in grade level standards.

Creating New Models of Accountability…Now

For all the benefits the accountability system developed under NCLB has brought to our country in helping us face up to the inequity in our schools we have to take the unintended consequences seriously. The same test on the same day for the same age children accountability strategy isn’t just holding the traditional system in place – it may be harming some students. For students who are already feeling stupid because they are being asked to learn grade level standards without the right skills to do so (and no one is helping them get those tools), spending hours and hours taking tests for which everyone knows that they are not proficient can be frustrating, humiliating, and demoralizing. We’ve just asked students to spend the day feeling stupid and there is absolutely no benefit coming to them.

Leaders in competency-based education believe that accountability is important ror providing transparency, for protecting equity and for driving continuous improvement. We believe it is so important that it should be embedded directly into district and school operations. In addition to committing to transparency so that parents and students know exactly what performance level they are at as well as how they are doing in making progress, here are two ideas to consider:

1. Calibrated proficiency. One of the most important parts of a competency-based accountability system is the process of calibration. Teachers, schools, districts, and states have a role in ensuring that what we think of proficiency in math for eighth grade is the same in Albany as it is New York City, the same in New Orleans as it is in Baton Rouge. Calibration is a process by which teachers come to understand proficiency and can then align the instruction and assessments, including performance-based assessments. If there isn’t a shared understanding of proficiency, then we immediately open the door to inconsistency and variability that will eventually be detrimental to poor children and children of color.

Statewide calibration is proving to be a viable strategy based on the PACE initiative in New Hampshire. There are some who simply do not believe that we can get teachers to build their assessment literacy to a level to use performance assessments consistently enough to use as part of an accountability policy. This is clearly a fixed mindset at work. Instead, we need to design statewide systems to help us build the conditions for consistent and reliable performance-based assessments. This will build the long-term capacity of our workforce and create a system of accountability that is tied to student learning.

2. Accountability based on performance levels. In a well-developed competency-based system, students take summative assessments only after they have demonstrated proficiency. A system of accountability can be developed that has schools indicate the performance levels students are operating at and which students they know are below grade level. Thus, we generate information related to achievement gaps. Students would then take summative assessments at their performance level as a quality control mechanism–if a school said Johnny was proficient at level 4 math, the summative assessment should corroborate. This can be rolled up into an accountability report to make an annual determination that says how many students are below, met and exceeded grade level and exactly what levels they are at. Schools that consistently have students not meeting proficiency on the exams based on the school-determined performance levels would immediately be targeted for more support including ensuring that their understanding of proficiency is well calibrated and improving instruction and assessment.

As we move into more personalized learning environments, we are going to want to develop a new set of metrics that include a rate of learning that is based on performance levels—not just grade levels. We will also want to monitor depth of learning to ensure all students have access to opportunities to apply their learning.

3. Accountability Based Upon Continuous Improvement. A competency-based system, when all five elements are in place, should create the conditions to use data-driven continuous improvement strategies. These are strategies that build upon those developed through the Total Quality Management approaches that examine the overall achievement goals as well as the different processes along the way. We need to begin to build our expertise in looking at new metrics of growth, pace, depth of learning and cost-effectiveness. With continuous improvement methodology we should begin to be able to benchmark the best processes to help students reach grade level and beyond. 

These are only three ideas. The ESSA opens up new opportunities for states. States have the opportunity to engage communities in re-defining what success look like at graduation by setting a broad set of world-class skills and dispositions. This vision will set the stage for all the subsequent policies in shaping a personalized, competency-based system. States can also take advantage of Section 1204 Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority in ESSA to create more meaningful assessments of knowledge. Imagine if states were building policies that aligned their education accountability policies around what we know about learning and the growth mindset. Imagine, if our policies were designed to create conditions for our teachers to be continually learning and building capacity (Think Finland).

What we can’t do is let our lack of imagination continue to harm children. It’s possible that fixed mindsets are shaping the set of possible solutions to create a viable accountability system that reinforces the values and assumptions of a personalized, competency-based system. Do we believe that we can learn enough to design systems the will fully support schools and the educator workforce to manage a system with embedded accountability including transparency about student progress, calibration, and performance-based assessments?

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The challenge for all of us is to compose a way to think about and strive for equity knowing that the economic gaps are widening in our country. How can we design around the needs of children and families who may not have access to early childhood development, who do not have adequate education themselves to support their children with their homework, and who cannot afford learning opportunities in sports, arts, and cultural explorations? First and foremost, we need to make sure that students have the pre-requisite skills they need to succeed with the grade level curriculum, even if that means slowing their grade level progress down while they make progress in earlier performance levels.

Continue reading with Part 2 on academic domains.