Leaders of the largest school district in Colorado facing possible state intervention next year are contending that the current system for rating schools is not capturing progress their students are making under an approach to learning that is one-of-a-kind in Colorado.
In 2009, Westminster Public Schools began phasing in competency-based learning, which is based on grouping kids together based on what they know instead of their age.
“Our system is at odds with the traditional accountability model,” said Oliver Grenham, chief education officer for Westminster Public Schools. He added that the district is showing growth and closing achievement gaps separating students of different backgrounds.
The state’s preliminary rating for the district is priority improvement, the second lowest rating on the scale, and the same as in previous years. The state is required to take action after a school or district earns five consecutive low ratings. Westminster Public Schools has reached that limit and if the newest preliminary rating is finalized they will face intervention. Among its options, the state can choose to shut down schools or require the district to merge with another.
Westminster Public Schools in the fall of 2009 began to phase-in what is now called a competency based system. Through it, the district did away with traditional grade-level assignments and grades. Instead, students in Westminster schools are assigned to classrooms based on their proficiency in each subject and they move up through the levels when they show they learned the content, not necessarily after a year of sitting in that class.
While other districts are experimenting with competency-based models in some schools, none have moved to do it district-wide like Westminster did by the 2013-14 school year. Westminster district leaders say it’s still evolving.
“One thing that has evolved over time is our tracking of our student data so we are as flexible as we can to move students when they’re ready to move,” said Pam Swanson, the district’s superintendent. “The other thing is we can never do too much communication.”
Part of the model is dependent on students understanding that when they learn the content, they can ask to prove it on a test so they can move to another level. Students accelerate more when they understand how the system works, officials say.
The district said it also can point to evidence that it is executing the model well. Last school year the district paid AdvancEd, a national nonprofit, to review the model. The group accredited the district as a result and shared recommendations to improve the system, which the district is working on now.
Part of the conflict with the state’s accountability system, officials say, is that students have to be assigned a traditional grade level when they take state tests. A student may be assigned to a grade level based on their age, even if they have not had exposure to that grade level content yet.
District officials call the required grouping artificial, and say that the once-a-year tests don’t reflect the growth students make.
“We would love to be able to comply with state testing but to do it in a way that’s real time,” Swanson said. “If we could do it as we’re moving kids through their levels, that would make so much more sense.”
Maria Worthen, vice president of federal and state policy for the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, said competency is not at odds with accountability rooted in the idea that kids should know a certain amount by a certain age.
“When we talk about competency-based education, it’s about meeting students where they are and giving them all of the supports they need,” Worthen said. “We’re not talking about computer-based training. It’s not about everyone at their own pace. It’s about flexible pace. It’s about letting kids try again.”
Based on data from state tests, the most recent indicator of growth showed students in Westminster were growing at a slower rate than more than half of the state. In English language arts tests, Westminster’s growth score was 47. That means Westminster students showed improvements, on average, better than 47 percent of Colorado kids who had similar scores last year. In math, Westminster’s growth score was 42.
Worthen said the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, provides more opportunities for states to create systems that better account for how kids learn in competency-based systems.
State officials say federal law requires students take tests based on a grade level because it allows officials to make sure students are keeping up with their peers and not being discriminated against. But Colorado is in the early stages of considering requesting flexibility from the federal government for a new state testing and accountability model.
That could involve a system that is more suited for competency-based teaching, or one that also allows for testing throughout the year instead of once.
“There’s not consensus across the state when it comes to what we should prioritize,” said Joyce Zurkowski, executive director of assessment at the state Department of Education. “One thing to keep in mind is that in the end, so, long term, the expectation is that the entire state will move to the same model.”
Worthen said that accountability systems don’t have to be exclusively built around competency. She said that one possibility could be basing accountability on multiple assessments over a period of time instead of one single test given in the spring.
“From an accountability point of view, we do want to know that no student is falling through the cracks,” Worthen said.
Educators across the state have raised issues with Colorado’s accountability system for a variety of reasons. While in Westminster it revolves around the competency-based approach, teachers elsewhere have said that students who are English language learners or who have special education needs are also unprepared for the tests they are forced to take.
Sharyl Kay Lawson, a special education teacher in Brighton, said that she has had students that blow through state tests in less than 20 minutes because they don’t know the material.
“My kids come to me for reading because the classroom reading is way above their level,” Lawson said. “Then they’re expected to go back to class and take a regular assessment at their grade level.
Recently, some district leaders also have questioned the validity of data for comparison when large numbers of students opt-out of taking the tests.
Westminster district officials are writing a request asking the state to reconsider their latest rating before it is made official by January. If the request to reconsider is denied, district, officials said they would appeal to the state Board of Education.
District leaders want to present the state with other evidence they say shows their district is improving, but they’re still figuring out what data the state will consider.
They have also been talking to state officials about what flexibilities they wish they had in the accountability system to let them continue their competency based model while not facing intervention from the state.
“Everyone here is open to having a conversation about what it is the assessment system should look like long term,” Zurkowski said. “But it needs to be something that allows for us to ensure that all of our students are getting access to high quality education regardless of race or zip code. That’s the balance and I expect there will be lots of discussion about that.”