westminster
A student at Westminster’s Hodgkins Elementary shows off a folder tracking her progress in math.

In 2009, a Colorado school district in turnaround took a leap: it abandoned traditional K-12 grade levels and instead implemented a system that advances students based on how well they do rather than how long they sit in class.

Administrators and teachers staked the struggling district on the “standards-based education” gamble, and four years later — after lots of tinkering — it looks like they won.

In what Adams 50 now calls its “competency-based system,” the district’s 10,000 students — of whom 81 percent eat free or reduced lunch and 45 percent are English Language Learners — advance through academic levels once they demonstrate competency in the subject, not once the school year is over. When school starts again, students pick up where they left off.

The move toward standards-based education is a national one, as test-based assessments and performance become more ubiquitous. But it’s rare for a district to implement reform as comprehensive as Adams County’s, which took its cue from a similar, though more radical, program in Chugach, Alaska.

Critics feared the system would create classrooms with broad age gaps and hinder social development. Proponents insisted it would encourage students to take charge of their education.

But over the past four years, the biggest changes in the district have been more subtle: students have begun to see themselves at the center of their education, teachers say; achievement gaps have become more apparent and easier to address; and district-wide, those gaps have been closing.

Though the district’s lowest-performing schools have improved steadily since the new program’s implementation, the new system has not come without significant challenges, many of them caused by logistical problems.

The competency-based system is heavily based on data gathering, requiring teachers to enter reams of minutiae to track student progress. Constantly fluctuating state and national educational standards have thrown wrenches in the carefully planned curriculum, making constant reevaluation of the district-set levels a necessity. Administrators seem battle-worn after years of wrestling with the logistics and legwork required to align those levels with grade-level based state requirements. Next year the number of levels a student must pass through will shift to 12, to align with traditional grade numbers.

Despite the turmoil, the district’s TCAP scores have shown steady improvement, and the district shook the turnaround label last year. The 2013-2014 school year will be the first that all students, from pre-K to 12th grade, will be inte­grated into the system.

So is the district’s competency-based system working as it should? In Adams 50, though the system may be straying from the model the district initially conceived, it seems to be working for the students.

Competency takes hold behind the scenes at Hodgkins Elementary

A visitor checking out classrooms at Josephine Hodgkins Elementary School might be surprised at how traditional everything looks. But it’s the little things that catch a visitor’s eye:  the charts and graphs on the walls depicting student performance on tests; the small groups of students working on different projects at once; and the students buried in folders, highlighting skills they’ve learned on a chart as they progress toward reaching the next level.

Sarah Gould, the school’s principal, allows teachers to choose whether they would prefer a classroom full of students at the same age, or students at the same level, a luxury afforded because of the school’s large size.

That means many students attend classes surrounded by kids their own age, though they may be studying at different levels.  That system also makes it easy to integrate students with specialized learning plans or those in special education with peers their own age, without abandoning the levels system.

Courtney Nelson, a literacy teacher, chose to keep a traditional “fourth grade” classroom, though her students perform at levels ranging from 3-7.

“This is the first year that I’ve had a straight age group,” she said, comparing her current classroom setup to the one she experienced as a student teacher when the district was first implementing the system. “In my student teaching I had second through fifth grade in one room, and that was very difficult.”

And having such a wide range of levels benefits students, who end up helping each other, Nelson said: “I often see my level 7s will choose to partner with a level 3, and vice versa.”

Hodgkins Elementary has also departmentalized its teachers, so math teachers and literacy teachers have a support group to draw from and teachers can focus on the subject they prefer to teach.

Those are just some of the logistics each school has to work out under the system. In middle school, it gets more difficult, Gould said. Students move to a new school no matter their level, so teachers have a wide range of abilities to address. Elementary students who advance early sometimes sit in class with a specialized multilevel instructor on that campus, or are walked over to a nearby middle school to study.

Oliver Grenham, the district’s chief education officer, has considered K-8 buildings to help alleviate those problems. But for now, those plans — which would be costly and require a lot of legwork — are just talk.

 A system in flux

The system, with levels spanning ten content areas, has also undergone changes on a broader scale. In spring 2010, then-superintendent Roberta Selleck increased the number of achievement levels students were required to complete from 10 to 14, because younger students were moving through the levels too slowly. Next year, the district will collapse those levels into 12, aligning them with standard grade levels, which will make it easier for the district to use standard textbooks as well as comply with state standards.

Grenham said the district was shifting the levels at the behest of teachers and parents, not ill-fitting state requirements. Still, he acknowledged that teachers were likely asking for change in response to increasingly demanding state and national standards, which make finding curricular resources challenging and increase the number of tasks a student in the district must complete to go on to the next level. Increased requirements mean more data and learning targets a teacher must keep track of.

But everyone interviewed insisted the coming change was not a backslide toward a more traditional model.

“Just because there’s an alignment doesn’t mean we’re abandoning what we’re doing,” said Stephen Saunders, the spokesman for the district.

“You could have an eighth grader next year who’s at a level 6 in math and a level 7 in literacy,” Grenham added.

Heffernan, the teacher at Hodgkins, said she was excited for the shift back to grade-aligned levels.

“It makes sense to parents. It makes sense to me,” she said. “It’s still leveled, but within the level are national standards under second grade.”

Too far, too fast

Over time, teaching methods in the district have shifted, too.

When Adams 50 initially decided to implement a standards-based system, they overshot, said Hodgkins Elementary teacher Joyce Heffernan, who is nearing the end of her 40th year as a teacher and has a classroom of second graders working between the levels of 0 and 3.

“When it first went to [standards-based education], it really went too far,“ Heffernan said. “I think we are finally getting to a place where we are saving the good stuff and not throwing everything out and starting all over again.”

Teachers used learning-level packets and did less whole group learning, and the curriculum was extremely individualized — to the detriment of students, Gould and Heffernan said.

“We had to pull back after a couple of years and determine that good teaching is just good teaching,” Gould said. “The best practices, those we still have in place. It’s just the systems that run behind the scenes are different.”

Heffernan said she’s using many of the same teaching tactics that have worked for decades: setting clear goals and using assessments to find out whether students have reached them. Competency-based education helps teachers do that, she said: it sets clear learning targets and tracks student progress step by step.

Now, Nelson said she could tell that this year’s students have grown up in the system.

“The kids that I have this year have only been (taught) in a competency-based system, and they’re much more authentic with their learning. They want to take responsibility for it,” Nelson said.  “I see even my very low, struggling learners feel successful in the classroom, because everything I’m giving them is at their level.”

Closing the gaps

Despite the experiments with different numbers of levels, the district continues to be focused on its data-driven, student-centric system, in which a student advances in each subject, one at a time, as they meet standard requirements. Perhaps most importantly, administrators and teachers say the system addresses the achievement gaps more easily ignored in traditional education systems, because students can’t progress until they’ve demonstrated proficiency — and the system allows schools to narrow those gaps sooner rather than later.

That’s clear in the district’s gradually rising TCAP scores. In 2010, just 31 percent of Hodgkins students scored in the proficient or advanced category in reading. This year, in keeping with steady gains, 53 percent of third graders scored advanced or proficient on the test.

More importantly, Hodgkins’ economically disadvantaged students and students with limited English proficiency have been steadily improving on the reading test over the past few years. District-wide, those groups of students, along with migrant students, have shown slow but steady improvement in every TCAP subject, according to data through 2012.

“What we’ve seen is the gaps, especially in our building, have gotten smaller, and that’s a direct correlation to their TCAP scores going up,” Gould, the school’s principal, said. “Because we’re finally closing the gap. We’re stopping the bleeding. And I think that’s the biggest thing: this system actually helps support stopping the bleeding.”

A national trend toward standards

Broadly, states are realizing set standards and competency requirements are a good way to evaluate student learning, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

New Hampshire in particular has instituted successful reforms allowing students to take tests in lieu of classes, she said. Though different in structure, the systems share a common idea: a student’s ability to demonstrate competency in a subject is more important than how much time they may have spent in a classroom.

“If I’m learning it on my own, I might get more excited about the material,” Zinth said. “States that had more narrow policies [testing competency over seat time] are expanding those policies, and states that maybe didn’t are developing them.”

It’s part of a wider shift toward testing school performance instead of school processes — things like how many students sit in a classroom and whether schools pass various types of inspections. Testing and performance-based assessments are the trend in schooling both nationally and internationally, according to Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University whose work focuses on evaluating reforms and policies.

“In theory, [the push toward competency testing] represents a shift toward accountability,” he said. “If outcomes are satisfactory, seat time becomes less important. … It’s good if the standards are good.”

Miron said testing based on curriculum and learning targets — such as the tests Adams County uses to monitor student progress throughout the school year — is the most accurate kind of testing.

“If it’s a good set of standards and a good assessment aligned to the standards, then teaching to the test is exactly what you want to be doing,” he said.

Grenham, who’s navigated many of the logistical challenges the district has faced while putting the competency-based system in place, said Adams County 50 still has a long way to go. How long, exactly?

“That Beatles song,” Grenham said with a laugh. “‘Eight Days a Week.’”