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Despite Setbacks, Adams County, Colo., Forges on with Competency-Based System

Will a standards-based system raise student achievement in this district?
A student from Adams County (Colo.) District 50 works on mastering a new skill to meet his learning target. The district adopted a competency-based assessment system in 2007. Photo Credit: Adams County (Colo.) School District 50

In the 2008-2009 school year, Adams County (Colo.) School District 50, just north of Denver, did something only previously attempted by the small rural Chugach school system in Alaska. The struggling district with roughly 10,000 students abandoned the conventional concept of grade levels and implemented a standards-based system, which only advances students to the next level when they have mastered certain skills. Three years later, student achievement is lower than ever before, and the superintendent that guided the district through this reform is stepping down. Still, Adams County says it will not turn back.

"It's the infamous 'implementation dip,'" said Superintendent Roberta Selleck to the Denver Post on April 12. Selleck, who joined the district in 2006, and Adams County spokesperson Jason Kosena concur that successful implementation of this magnitude will take three to five years before improvements are seen. "Every time you do any kind of major reform, it shocks the system," said Kosena.

And shock it did. Kosena said complaints from parents in the community had run the gamut, including concerns over college admissions with untraditional transcripts, sports eligibility for regional teams and concerns over having students of various ages together in one classroom.

Students are grouped based on their skill level, given learning targets, and must prove to have mastered those targets. For instance, for elementary students, counting to 50 may be a target; writing those numbers is proof they met it.

The majority of the district and staff were on board from the beginning, says Kosena. "This was never just Selleck's vision—it was the district's vision," says Kosena. Selleck announced her departure to the board of education on April 3, and took emergency family leave for the remainder of the school year, leaving Deputy Superintendent Pam Swanson in charge for the interim.

The reform movement began in 2007 after the district was placed on academic watch by the Colorado Department of Education. The program began in 2008 with the elementary students and has expanded each year since. Kosena remains optimistic that the district will start to see achievement levels rise and parents will appreciate the new assessments. He also believes the standards-based system is blazing new trails in education reform. "I think a lot of people are watching us. A lot of kids have been able to hide the fact that they were behind in the old system."