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Aurora Institute

Policies for Personalization: Levels, Pace, and Progress

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, How to Get Started, Rethink Instruction

scaffoldThis is the fifteenth article in the series Implementing Competency Education in K-12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders. In this article, we continue to explore questions that districts consider when creating the policies that will support greater personalization.

Districts will need to develop a set of policies or guidelines regarding pace. The function of keeping students learning at a meaningful pace (as compared to delivering curriculum) is one of the most important and challenging aspects of the conversion to competency education. As a field, we have yet to create new language, concepts, or metrics that help us understand pace and progress. As you consider the following questions, understand that you are on the edges of the frontier.

What academic level are students? As students enter a competency-based school, teachers will need to know their academic levels. Some schools do formal assessments using an array of formats. Some turn to one assessment system, such as NWEA Map or Scantron. Others have found that this can be off-putting for students, and look to teachers to use their professional judgment in leveling students. Teachers continue seeking understanding of the skills and knowledge students bring into the classroom by using pre-assessments to assess what students know or don’t know so they can respond more quickly to students who need extra help.

What is a meaningful pace? Flexibility in pace and pacing is one of the most important concepts in competency education and also one of the most challenging. Making Community Connections Charter School‘s Kim Carter explains, “One of the most significant distinct aspects of a personalized competency-based system is the ability to adjust pacing to meet every learner’s needs. This shouldn’t be construed to mean that each learner gets to set his or her own pace. At MC² we rely on ‘negotiated pacing with gradual release.’ This is an integral aspect of developing student agency and the central role of managing motivation in an educational system designed to create proficiency not just in facts and skills, but in habits and dispositions to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners. Determining progress is very clear in a competency-based system because of the transparency of the learning objectives. Pace is the progress (amount of learning) divided by an amount of time. Depending how a district has developed their academic levels, competency-based schools can determine the expected annual rate of learning.”

The term pacing is sometimes used to talk about the planning and supports needed to help students make progress. When learning is a constant and time is a variable, more instructional supports and more time on the part of the student and teachers will be needed when students are not “keeping pace.” If pacing is not adequate, schools need to engage students and their families, seek out additional resources, or plan for more time for the students to make adequate progress. If there is an issue at play that is preventing the student from advancing at an adequate pace, then individual plans can be created.

The issue of pace, progress, and pacing is made more complex by the fact that students in the same grade may enroll in school with a difference of two, three, or even more academic levels in their skills. Thus, one student may not yet be proficient but learning at a more rapid pace than the student who entered on academic/grade level. Schools develop individual plans to support students who are substantially behind academically, setting a path to keep them on a pace that makes sense for them.

Something to Think About: Guard against language of students being “fast learners.” It is a red flag for two different reasons. First, it is possible that students are not being offered enough opportunities for deeper learning, which generally takes more time. They may be fast only because the level of knowledge is closer to recall and comprehension than it is to knowledge utilization. Second, the term “fast learner” implies a fixed mindset—you are or you aren’t. To keep your culture of learning robust, focus on effort rather than comparison.


How will you ensure consistency in determining students have acquired the level of proficiency to advance to the next level (i.e., quality control)? Districts will need to decide how students are determined to be ready to “advance upon mastery.” Is it based on units, courses, academic levels, or major benchmarks such as the transition into high school? In many cases, the authority to credential students rests with teachers. The performance-based system at Chugach School District has developed over time, with the district taking responsibility for ensuring students are proficient before advancing to the next level by relying on cumulative assessments. Teachers have autonomy and use their professional judgment to determine proficiency within levels. At Making Community Connections Charter School, teachers and students determine when students are ready for the four gateway performance assessments of which the last one is graduation. Students prepare a portfolio and present to a review panel that includes community members.

Some schools that convert to competency education find that after leveling, they have many secondary school students who are two or more academic levels behind their grade levels. This same situation exists in the traditional system, but competency education makes it explicit and demands a response. Schools are using a variety of techniques, including ninth grade academies, creating a schedule where students spend time building their foundational skills, after-school tutoring, and adaptive learning that provides rapid feedback. Adaptive software can be very helpful when students have foundational skills but lack fluency. Teachers can then focus their attention on working with students on higher level thinking skills while students continue to strengthen their skills with digital support. Schools may also set the expectation that middle school students will need to strengthen reading, writing, and mathematics before entering high school, assuming it makes sense developmentally. In partnership with students and parents, plans may be developed for how students will advance on an individualized plan that may depend on a steep learning trajectory to graduate with their cohort or plan for an extended graduation date.

Something to Think About: Once districts establish the level of proficiency for learning objectives based on a knowledge taxonomy, the question arises of what “beyond proficiency” means. It doesn’t mean advancing to the next standard, as a separate rubric would be used. It doesn’t mean extra credit or extra points. So what does it mean? This can lead to a rich conversation about what happens when students reach proficiency: creating opportunities for working on further application, creating capacity to advance to the next level, or going deeper.


How will you monitor and communicate student progress? Transitioning from traditional A–F grading and the 100-point system to monitoring and communicating student progress is one of most important implementation steps—and one that is loaded with pitfalls. Many districts start off with a hybrid model, attempting to join a standards-referenced system with the elements of the grading system that are most well-known by teachers and students. Over time, however, this can cause ongoing headaches. One teacher at Sanborn High School described this dilemma, “If you are going to be rubric-based, then you have to have a rubric grade. Trying to marry the 100-point scale to rubrics doesn’t work. The 100-point scale just has to go away. It’s a hindrance.”

At the high school level, it may be harder to break away from traditional grading because the point system is the basis of the GPA. Using a hybrid grading system may make it even more difficult to create a shared focus on learning, as some students will be more focused on how points are distributed than learning. Be prepared to engage educators, students, and families about the limitations of the traditional grading system for “college-bound” students, in that they may have a high GPA within their own school but still not be college-ready or competitive on a national or international level. Make sure you offer ways for students to advance beyond twelfth grade skills and build an academic résumé through deeper learning projects that will help them in the college admissions process.

Even with these precautions in place, parents and students will naturally worry about competency-based grading and college admissions. Thus far, this has not been a problem, as colleges are used to receiving a wide variety of transcripts. In general, schools should prepare an attachment that explains the school and its grading process. Great Schools Partnership has engaged college admission officers in the New England region to ensure that there are no obstacles. To date, fifty-five colleges, including the public university and community college systems, have agreed to accept proficiency-based transcripts.28 Worst case scenario, schools can translate back into the point system if needed.

Something to Think About: Conversations about grading among educators are an opportunity to look at the underlying assumptions of the traditional system and how it compares to research on teaching and learning. Is competition really motivational? What are the implications of adding or deducting points for behavior? What are the implications and reasoning for advancing students to the next course or grade level without adequate skills?


Not Yet Proficient

The phrase “not yet proficient” illustrates how competency education shifts the focus to students and their needs. Students are not going to be passed along without adequate skills. Instead, schools will continue the instructional cycle with students who are not yet proficient until they are successful. Brian Stack reflected on the experience in Sanborn by stating, “In a competency-based school, the bar is getting raised. For the first time, we expect students to understand and be able to apply the curriculum. At first, teachers were worried about a higher failure rate. But that doesn’t happen because of our design to provide intensive support to students during the ninth grade, the combination of students taking more responsibility for their learning, and structuring adequate level of supports into the school day and year.”

Something to Think About District and school leaders should pay close attention to the language and procedures used to describe what happens when a student doesn’t reach proficiency. Educators use a variety of terms, including re-teaching, re-assessment, re-take, and competency recovery, while others see it as a continued cycle of instruction that doesn’t end until the student reaches proficiency. Some of the differences in terminology are based on whether teachers are giving scheduled assessments, such as a test to the entire class all at the same time (thus some students need to have a re-assessment), or if the classroom is more personalized with just-in-time assessment when students have shown evidence that they have reached proficiency.


When and where will students be able to access additional supports? All students, whether in AP physics or at an academic level lower than their grade level, will struggle with material at some time or another. The most important thing schools can do is offer daily flex time for students to get the help they need, when they need it. It is not sufficient to rely solely on after-school or lunch periods—dedicating time for getting help reinforces a school culture that sometimes it takes extra effort and asking for help to be successful.

At Memorial Elementary School, teachers found that they had to build greater flexibility into their lessons and units to respond to students who needed more time. The school created LEAP (Learning for Each And every Person), a time scheduled each day for students to get help through re-teaching, reinforcement, or enrichment. As they realized the amount of extra support students needed, they began to use student data as a starting point to search out root causes. For example, teachers realized that they had a curriculum problem in fourth grade that was creating a wider skills gap. In the short run they strengthened word study, and in the long run began the ongoing conversation that revolved around, “What do you do when students aren’t reading well?” This conversation opened the door for collaborative efforts to better serve students needing help with phonics.

The common language of the I&A model can improve the effectiveness of systems of support as well. Teachers at Gonic Elementary School in New Hampshire’s Rochester School District found that their tutoring program was greatly enhanced by being able to use the standards to focus in on specifically where students needed help. When tutors felt that students had become proficient, students were able to bring back evidence of their learning to their teachers.

Online curriculum that can be designed to be highly modularized can be very helpful in helping students target specific areas of weakness. New Hampshire’s open-enrollment online school, Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, offers competency recovery that can be made available to students the minute they are having difficulty. Jane Bryson of Education Elements suggests selecting a portfolio of two to three types of providers that students can turn to when they need support based on what works best for them. Students should know that when they are struggling with a concept, they can turn to a provider like Khan Academy for a quick tutorial video or a more interactive step-by-step provider like I-Ready. Another useful strategy is the flipped classroom approach of teachers recording themselves giving a mini-lesson using videos that students can watch as needed. Bryson goes on to recommend that students be offered choices to come at concepts from different angles. It may be that they find one tool more effective than another, which builds awareness about their learning process and increases their ability to make better choices for themselves as learners. However, it’s important to note that, to date, there are more digital content options in math and literacy than in other subjects that support this type of student usage. When selecting digital content, it’s imperative to understand how students can navigate material in competency-based environments before making final selections.

How can districts support the transition to high school for students who may be behind? Some schools are beginning to invest in time upfront rather than waiting for students to have troubles. At EPIC Schools, an initiative of the New York City Department of Education, ninth grade students participate in a three-week session before school starts to address habits of learning, build a sense of community, and brush up on basic academic skills. Harvey Chism explains, “We wanted to help students prepare for taking ownership of their education. Unfortunately, many have been used to a culture of compliance and were subject to punitive disciplinary policies that undermine their motivation, engagement, and learning. We wanted to work with our students closely to build their self-awareness, ownership, and efficacy as learners. Relationships are invaluable to the risk-taking and persistence involved in competency-based learning environments. Therefore trust, confidence, curiosity, and belonging must be called out and valued as factors that inspire and support learning.”

Sanborn High School created a transition year for ninth graders, assigning them to an interdisciplinary Freshman Learning Community (FLC) of five teachers, a literacy coach, and a special education teacher. Teams of teachers operate as a PLC, with a great deal of autonomy to respond to the needs of their students in their learning community. They focus on data about student progress to make sure students are getting what they need to be prepared for the transition into high school. When students aren’t making progress, teachers immediately intervene to find out what is happening. Essentially, Sanborn has created a structure in which a team of teachers is responsible for ensuring that each and every student gets off to a good start when they enroll.

Advancing Upon Mastery

Eventually competency-based schools will want to create the capacity for students to able to immediately advance upon mastery. Although most schools aren’t ready to address this in their first year, this will be an eventual point along the path. It may start by enabling students to move onto units within a course, the next level of study, or to the next grade level. Online and blended learning can be invaluable for creating just-in-time learning so that students can advance beyond the “teacher pace.”

Issues may develop if students are learning at levels beyond their grade level and the expertise of the teacher. Schools find that frequent grouping/regrouping can be beneficial for students to advance beyond their grade level. The A La Carte model of blended learning can be particularly helpful for students who are advancing well beyond their grade level but want to stay with their peers. Finally, dual enrollment college courses allow students to remain with their peers in high school while advancing academically.

Something to Think About: Schools will find that the areas in which students struggle also provide feedback about where educators can build up their instructional skills. In some schools, teachers are turning to the research based on learning progressions “rooted in coherent and well specified conceptions of how students’ knowledge and skill in particular subjects should develop over the school years” to help them better understand how students move from one conceptual idea to another.


For more information, explore this whole blog series:

Blog #1 Introducing Implementing Competency Education in K–12 Systems: Insights from Local Leaders

Blog #2 What Is Competency Education?

Blog #3 Investing in Shared Leadership

Blog #4 Constructing a Shared Journey of Inquiry, Shared Vision, and Shared Ownership

Blog #5 Engaging the Community

Blog #6 Creating the Shared Purpose

Blog #7 Investing in Student Agency

Blog #8 Clarifying the Overall Pedagogical Approach

Blog #9 Configuring the Instruction and Assessment Model

Blog #10 Constructing a Common Language of Learning

Blog #11 Creating a Common Language of Learning: A Continuum of Learning

Blog #12 Creating a Common Language of Learning: Rubrics and Calibration

Blog #13 Creating a Common Language of Learning: Habits of Learning

Blog #14 Policies for Personalization: Student Agency