A unique approach

Is Westminster Public Schools’ investment in competency-based learning paying off?

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Teacher Amy Adams will tell you that her class at Flynn Elementary School is loud and chaotic.

Her class of almost 30 students is used to doing a lot of independent or small group work. In Westminster Public Schools — the only Colorado district to use what is known as competency-based learning in all its schools — it’s common.

The model does away with traditional grade levels — meaning there is no such thing as third grade, sixth grade and so on. Students are grouped together based on proficiency in each subject, and they are expected to know what they need to master to move up a level. That means during the day, students are moving around, talking to each other and sometimes working on different assignments — raising the volume in the process.

“We don’t like quiet classrooms,” said Justin Davis, principal of Flynn Elementary. “These teachers know what they’re doing. But most importantly, the kids know what they’re working on.”

Seven years since beginning to adopt the competency-based model, Westminster Public Schools is still working out problems and testing changes to try to make the system work, all while the district remains on the state’s watchlist for poor academic performance.

Among the lingering problems: Teachers have been inconsistent in tracking data, the district hasn’t pinned down just how long is too long for a student to linger on a single level, and many students and parents remain confused about how the model works.

Still, the district credits the competency-based model with improving district schools on the state’s performance ratings between 2010 and 2014 so that no district schools are on the state watchlist for a fifth year in a row. That distinction would trigger state sanctions.

But those improvements have not been enough to move the district itself off the watchlist for low performance, according to preliminary ratings. Westminster district officials are contesting this year’s rating, in part insisting the state’s evaluation is not adequately considering their model.

The idea for the new model was simple: Kids should move grade levels when they prove they’ve mastered a learning goal, not based on how long they’ve spent in a class. Students would be grouped in classrooms based on their performance levels and would be able to move levels — or sometimes physical classrooms — in the middle of the year. For state tests, students still must be tested based on their age, not considering what material they’ve been taught based on their proficiency levels.

If the latest rating doesn’t change, the state will decide in the next several months what action to take against districts such as Westminster that have failed to move out of the bottom two performance ratings for five years.

Nationwide, the popularity of competency-based education models is growing. In Colorado, Westminster is the only district using it in all schools and across all grade levels.

Aurora Public Schools included competency-based learning in its innovation plan for Aurora Central High School earlier this year. But officials there said they are still reviewing how it would work and have yet to put a system in place.

As more schools try the model, the research around it is trying to catch up. In a report published last year by CompetencyWorks, an initiative of the advocacy group International Association for K-12 Online Learning, researchers found that school districts switching to competency-based models varied in their time to make the switch. Leaders suggested the first phases took at least five years.

“All the districts highlighted here emphasize they are still involved in continually improving the design and implementation of the system,” the report stated.

In October, Westminster officials presented at a conference in Texas about challenges in tracking how students progress through the levels. This week, district officials will also be in Washington D.C. after they were invited to participate in a White House discussion about improving testing.

Superintendent Pam Swanson has said that it would make sense to test kids “in real time” when they move levels instead of once a year. The tests also need to stay consistent so data can start to be compared and used for more analysis, officials say.

“This progression data doesn’t exist anywhere,” said Jeni Gotto, Westminster’s executive director of teaching and learning. Gotto said having progression data would help teachers plan for students to get on track, and would help the district aggregate data to identify students who are struggling.

Every month, teachers meet with their principal to pore over data about individual students to determine if they’re making progress toward moving levels. Interventionists and psychologists recently began joining those meetings to discuss each student’s needs.

But at a district level, officials couldn’t provide data showing how long students take to move each level compared to how much they should take. Without that, it’s hard to track district-wide trends, including whether any one segment of students is more or less likely to struggle with the model.

Data that is available, such as graduation rates, shows drops. In 2015, 59.4 percent of Westminster students graduated on time, down from 62.3 percent for the class of 2010.

The last two years of PARCC state test scores didn’t show students in Westminster growing much, either. Westminster’s growth scores this year showed students were growing at a slower rate than more than half of the state, and achievement scores also showed several groups performing worse than last year’s classes. For example, among third graders, 15.8 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on English language arts tests in 2016, down from 16.8 percent of last year’s class.

To get more information on progress, Westminster officials last year hired AdvancEd, a national nonprofit, to audit the program.

The group gave the district an accreditation — and a mostly favorable review — but still found many problems and suggested several changes that the district is working on now.

“Many students could describe in varying degrees the concepts of grading and reporting, but often even they could not articulate a simple, clear explanation of the process,” the report stated. “When parents and students do not understand how learning progress is reported, engaging them in meaningful ways becomes much more difficult.”

Teachers say that getting students to take responsibility for their pace of learning is a challenge.

“That’s been perhaps the most difficult — to get the kids to buy into that,” said Westminster teacher Seth Abbott.

Abbott said students in his class have remained engaged by showing their creativity in proving they understand a concept. When he gives them suggestions, they have come up with other ideas including designing a test, he said.

“Everyone learns differently and everyone can show evidence in different ways,” Abbott said. “It’s neat to think of the ways someone can show what they’ve learned in ways I maybe hadn’t even thought about.”

District officials say that’s evidence of positive change that needs time and flexibility to expand.

“Not only have we seen progress,” said Swanson, the superintendent. “We’re still very humble and learn every day.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”