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.”

integration conversation

Gentrification is changing Denver schools. These recommendations aim to address that.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Kindergarten students line up on the first day of school in 2012 at Whittier K-8 School in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

To address declining enrollment and combat segregation, Denver Public Schools should consider a number of steps including creating a clear and community-driven process for consolidating under-enrolled schools, according to a committee of community leaders.

The high-powered group has been meeting for months and on Monday voted to forward that recommendation and more than dozen others to the school board for consideration.

Rising housing costs and redevelopment are remaking Denver, causing decreases in the number of school-aged children in some neighborhoods and deepening sharp economic divides between others.

The committee wrestled with a challenge: that integration can be elusive when honoring both the tradition of neighborhood schools and the district’s commitment to giving families a choice of schools.

The recommendations from the Strengthening Neighborhoods Committee are meant to be a starting point, so many of them are short on details.

Here is what the committee is urging the district do:

  • Provide help with marketing, planning and school design for a limited period of time to schools that are beginning to see enrollment declines with the aim of reversing that trend.
  • In areas of the city where such declines have impacted schools’ ability to provide a robust program, create a “transparent school consolidation process that allows impacted communities to reimagine their schools with the goal of strong and stable enrollment, higher quality and greater integration in all schools within the community.” DPS has not made clear how many students is too few students for a school to be sustainable, but the recommendations mention that schools with enrollment below 300 students “face particular challenges.”
  • Develop a rubric to evaluate all new school applicants on their “ability to appeal to a diverse student body and offer inclusive excellence in the classroom.” The rubric would measure things like the diversity of the staff and the cultural responsiveness of the curriculum.
  • Require school leaders to set annual goals “related to diversity and inclusive excellence,” and offer resources and financial rewards if they meet them.
  • Expand a pilot program that gives low-income students from other neighborhoods priority to “choice into” schools with more affluent student populations.
  • Create more enrollment zones, which are big school boundaries with several schools inside them, especially in areas “where housing changes are occurring.”
  • Explore holding a special election to ask Denver voters to raise more money for transportation. Prioritize spending any additional dollars on helping underserved students and those living in enrollment zones access “a greater diversity of school options.”
  • Set aside seats in all schools at all grades for students who may enroll mid-year to ensure students experiencing housing instability have equitable access to schools.
  • Create an “equity audit” for schools with restrictive enrollment policies — such as Denver School of the Arts, a magnet school that requires auditions — to figure out how those policies are impacting socioeconomic integration.
  • Develop ways to measure school culture and climate to assess whether schools are, for example, setting high expectations for all students. In addition, develop ways to measure “student learning and development over time” that take into account academic results such as test scores and non-academic results such as discipline statistics.
  • Invest money in initiatives aimed at increasing equity, such as recruiting and retaining diverse educators, and share employee demographic data for each school.
  • Develop better strategies for engaging with families and community members about issues affecting them. For example, instead of sending out a survey to collect feedback, consider compensating families and community members for providing information.
  • Set a district-wide goal for increasing the socioeconomically diversity of schools. The goal should encompass both the percentage of students attending integrated schools and “tangible measures of equity and inclusiveness for students once in attendance.”
  • Establish a set of resources “for schools to use in creating a more integrated and inclusive environment,” and encourage schools to learn from each other.
  • Work closely with city agencies, including the Office of Children’s Affairs, to address the impacts of gentrification: “There is an opportunity for DPS to increase its advocacy for students, families and teachers on important issues such as affordable housing.”
  • Launch a “meaningful public engagement and communications effort” about the benefits of socioeconomic integration and about the committee’s recommendations.

The district often cites research that shows all students benefit from integration. Due largely to housing patterns, many Denver schools are socioeconomically and racially segregated.

There are some schools, such as Fairview Elementary in west Denver, where 98 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a proxy for poverty. On the other end of the spectrum are schools like Bromwell Elementary in east Denver, where only 5 percent of kids qualify. Both Fairview and Bromwell are “boundary schools,” which means they primarily serve the students who live in the neighborhood immediately surrounding them.

The district has tried in recent years to increase integration by employing a variety of strategies, some of which the committee is recommending be expanded. One of them is enrollment zones, which are the big school boundaries that contain several schools. The idea is that drawing bigger boundaries and asking students to choose from several schools within them increases the opportunity for kids from different neighborhoods to attend school together.

There are currently 11 zones — and even before the recommendations, the district was proposing to create three more. But they’ve had mixed results when it comes to integration.

Before voting on the recommendations Monday evening, several committee members expressed concerns that some of them were not specific enough. For instance, they said, what is the district’s definition of a high-quality, integrated school?

Committee co-chairman Antwan Jefferson emphasized that the recommendations were only the first phase of the committee’s work. A second-phase committee would tackle that question, he said, as well as the nitty-gritty of how to put the recommendations into place.

The committee is set to present its recommendations to the school board Dec. 18.

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.