Four years later, a district’s standards-based reform evolves and pays off

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.’”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.