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Aurora Institute

Our School’s Pathway to Competency-Based Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jonathan Vander Els

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

Jonathan Vander Els
Jonathan Vander Els

In our continued quest to gain more information about students’ learning, growth and progress, a standards/competency-based grading system has provided our school and our district with timely, detailed information regarding the specific competencies that students have (or have not) demonstrated proficiency in.

Our district transitioned to a competency-based grading system four years ago, and now that we are fully implemented, I can’t imagine assessing in any other way. However, this has been and will continue to be a learning process. There have been a number of bumps in the road during this journey, but the end result is that, as one teacher stated, we, “know more about our students now than we have ever known”.

There was a significant amount of discussion at the leadership level prior to moving to this system, and many questions had to be answered, like ‘should we do this by level (elementary, middle and then high school) or do we make the decision as a district to move to this system in grades K-12?’ A number of our staff (myself included) had the opportunity to see Rick Wormeli in Boston and the information gleaned and the resulting discussions began to pave the way for the work we were going to undertake.

At its most basic level, we understood that we were grading students through a flawed system. When we looked at a “B” or a “2”, what did it tell us? Did the student understand the subject matter? Did he or she not do homework associated with the subject, and therefore, was his/her final grade adversely affected? How much was homework worth? What about participation? We knew that across grade levels, and even within the same grade, teachers “weight” for these various areas was different. In other words, what a student received on a report card from one teacher may have been different than what they would have received from another. And regardless of the grade given, there was far too much subjectivity involved in determining it.

The questions came fast and furious, and to be honest, there was really no “roadmap” with any answers… What would we, as a district, do?  Would we change our district grading practices and system all at once? Or would we take the path that many might take and change a level at a time? One thing we were keenly aware of was that there was a better way to go about determining student proficiency.  Once you realize that what you are doing is flawed, and that there is a more effective way to do something to help students grow, I feel that it is imperative to make the necessary change(s); to do anything otherwise is irresponsible. Our district—with our administrative team fully behind this decision—decided to go all in and “take the plunge” into the world of standards-based grading.

This would involve a number of crucial elements to ensure its successful integration into our system. Teachers would have to change the way they were assessing and their gradebook would change drastically, especially at the elementary level (we had not been utilizing an electronic gradebook previously). Parents would need to be educated on the “why”. For any of us, what we don’t know creates anxiety and this method of assessing student growth is drastically different than what we were all used to.

We worked very hard to share relevant information with parents. We held curriculum nights at the beginning of the school year in which we reviewed the “What” and the “Why” of competency/standards-based grading. I clearly remember a parent asking me how this was going to have an effect on his daughter’s ability to get into college (his daughter was in first grade). Because it was new and different than what he had ever known or experienced, he needed to be reassured that his daughter’s ability to get into college was not going to be jeopardized based upon this system. I also held Principal’s Coffee Hours to explain this method of grading. I have found that the questions from parents have lessened over time. I believe that this is mostly due to our teachers’ increased understanding of this system, how it has allowed them to better understand their students’ strengths and areas for growth, and the teachers’ ability to effectively communicate this information to parents.

As a district and as a school, we have devoted a significant amount of professional development toward improving our practices related to our instruction, our assessment of learning, and how we are providing support for students who are not demonstrating proficiency as well as providing extension for those who have already mastered standards. Our work as a staff has focused on backwards-planning, essential questions, and most recently, building performance assessments that will allow students to demonstrate their ability to transfer learning. Our teams, under the guidance of our Director of Curriculum, have met to tackle this work together over the past few years, building cohesive scope and sequences for instruction, familiarizing themselves with the Core and aligning all of their work to standards and competencies, and developing benchmarks as teams for interim assessments. This work is all interrelated and the assessments that are created provide timely feedback for students, parents and teachers on each child’s progress.

Interestingly, the group of stakeholders that experienced the least amount of disruption at the elementary level was the students, the very people for whom this work is intended to serve. Students are now receiving a more timely and focused level of support because competency-based grading fit flawlessly into our tiered-response model. Our school provides remediation or challenge, depending upon each child’s needs, and it is done on a daily basis during a specified time at each grade level. This intervention/enrichment time utilizes all available supports and resources across the school. A competency-based model allows teachers to run reports to identify precisely which standards students are struggling with. Teachers may then focus on targeted areas for re-teaching. Unit and lesson planning is focused on specific standards, so students understand exactly what they need to learn; there is no “mystery”. Teacher-created rubrics continue to provide students with the detailed information students (and parents) need, clarifying what is required for students to demonstrate proficiency.

As I alluded to previously, there has been, and continues to be, a learning curve related to our work with competencies, and we certainly experienced a significant “implementation dip” at the beginning of this process. I believe that the foundation we had built within our professional learning communities was absolutely crucial for this work to succeed. Our school is recognized by “allthingsplc” as a school demonstrating high levels of effectiveness within our professional learning communities. The work our school and our district has done related to competency-based grading is a good example of educators examining their practice, realizing there is a system that may provide them with increased information to allow them to better assist students in their learning, and then collaboratively working through the issues that arise to provide appropriate support for all learners.

Jonathan is the Director of Innovative Projects for the New Hampshire Learning Initiative, overseeing the personalized and competency-based work related to NG2: Next Generation Collaborative Learning Design and the State of New Hampshire’s efforts integrating Work Study Practices into curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

Formerly, Jonathan was principal of Memorial Elementary School in Sanborn Regional School District in New Hampshire. Under his leadership, Memorial became a nationally recognized model professional learning community (PLC) on All Things PLC ( and competency-based learning elementary school.

Jonathan lives with his wife and three children on the New Hampshire Seacoast. You can follow Jonathan via Twitter @jvanderels