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Colorado Experiment To Move Beyond Grade Levels Taps Into Larger Ed Movement

Samuel Mann
Flickr-Creative Commons

A few years ago, a school district in Colorado did away with grade levels – instead of being a kindergartner, a third grader, or a sixth grader, students began to be defined by how much they knew.  

Starting in the 2009-2010 school year, Adams County School District 50, a 21-school district serving 10,000 students in the Westminster area that had struggled academically, began implementing a system they called competency-based education. Students, regardless of their age or grade level, are now tested into levels in areas like math and literacy, and then learn at their own pace.

"We are more interested in the learning outcome, rather than the time put in outcome," said Oliver Grenham, the district’s chief education officer.

As with many educational experiments, there were struggles and skeptics. There still are. Now that the system has been around for a while, though, those involved say that students in the district are making progress. While getting rid of grade levels is far from a widespread trend, the effort fits in with a national movement to personalize education to fit the child's needs. As with many changes in education, however, translating a great new idea about instruction into a system that works for students is always a challenge.

"This level of change calls for system-wide renaissance in terms of learning," said Grenham.

In District 50's system, students don't move up year to year, but rather, when they have shown they mastered a subject, an approach often referred to as standards-based or competency-based education. This can result in a classroom of Level 4 math students – some 8 years old, others 10 years of age – but all studying the same topics. Yet that same 8-year-old may be in a Level 3 literacy class, and it common for students to be in different levels for different subjects.

Grenham believes that the new approach is helping their students – he points toimproved statewide test scores as one measure of this. In the latest release of the statewide results from tests taken in 2013, District 50 students maintained or improved in 19 out of 24 categories, better than any other district in the metro Denver area. Yet while it marked improvement in many areas tested by the state, the district still has many students struggling failing to reach proficiency, proving the new system is in no way a panacea.

Grenham calls the school's progress "stair step," and acknowledges they still have plenty of room for students to grow. He points out that some low performing schools in the district have seen large increases in their scores, a fact that caught the attention of the state board of education.

Adams 50 Effort Part Of National Focus On Individual Student Needs

Sam Chaltain, a former teacher who now speaks, writes, and consults on education, said that competency based education is in many ways similar to a Montesorri-style classroom, where teachers check in with individual children to see their needs and interests, and guide them in their learning process.

"Eventually if we are really going to create the optimal public school system, to the extent that we can do a better job of personalizing the learning process for every kid, that just makes sense," he said.

While Chaltain sees education moving towards a focus on individual student needs, he also said schools involved in this type of education are pushing against many other education trends, like standardized tests that expect all students in a grade level to be proficient at that level. In part, this is what makes it hard to implement.

"If you start to do [competency-based education], you are inevitably going to push against every other lever of education as we know it," Chaltain said.

Some states exempt schools trying new methods from standardized exams, as is the case in New York, where some schools  are piloting a new style of education based around student work portfolios, said Chaltain. This kind of waiver can help relieve some of the pressure teachers and school districts face when trying to implement a new system, a process that may hurt their standardized test results.

Lesley Dahlkemper, the Vice President of Strategic Engagement and Communications at the Colorado Education Initiative, believes what Adams 50 is doing will be a part of the conversation about Colorado's new high school graduation guidelines, which also focus on competency.

While other large districts in the state have yet to try an experiment like Adams 50, they can still learn from its effort, said Dahlkemper.

"It is important to have district leaders that design and pilot new approaches to learning and education that really can pave the way for other districts," she said.

Grenham, the Adams 50 education officer, said that their shift from was a significant endeavor. Over the years, they district has to keep tweaking how it tracks student mastery and retrain its teachers to support students moving at different speeds and different levels.

Credit timlewisnm / Flickr-Creatve Commons
Flickr-Creatve Commons
Students at Adams County School District 50 take Scantron tests as one of the ways to track their progress.

When the new system was first implemented, test scores dropped (this is common when schools try new pedagogical methods) and some teachers left, Grenham said.  There were also issues with the quantity of data teachers had to keep up with, with constant assessments leading to teachers feeling overwhelmed with tasks like data entry.

A recently published study [PDF] of Adams 50 and other competency-based education programs, performed by the RAND Corporation, a policy think tank, found that the district's switch to a new system did not necessarily lead to better test scores when compared with another set of schools with a similar student profile to Adams 50. The study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which had also given grants to the schools in the study.

In looking at test scores from 2006 to 2013, the study found that even while Adams 50 test scores have improved since the switch, the test scores of a similar set of students in Colorado districts that did not switch their teaching methods improved even more, said Jennifer Steele, co-author of the study and a professor of education at American University.

This doesn't mean that the competency-based effort isn't working, or can't improve student outcomes, Steele cautioned. It is also possible that state standardized tests are not good at capturing student growth in the Adams 50 system. Or that the district, still ironing out the kinks in its system, may not be implementing it in the most effective way.

Longer term, Steele said one way of evaluating Adams 50's success might be to look at student success in getting into college and persisting past the first year there.

"That's an authentic benchmark that actually has real meaning and real economic implications. So that's kind of the longer term test for a place like Adams 50."

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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