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Moving to a competency-based assessment system

Windsor Locks Public Schools in Connecticut receives help as an Alliance District
Academic performance levels at Windsor Locks Middle School.
Academic performance levels at Windsor Locks Middle School.

Five years ago, Windsor Locks Public Schools in northern Connecticut was designated an Alliance District, meaning it was one of the 30 lowest-performing academic districts in the state and needed help.

The good news was that the designation came with funding to improve instruction, inspiring district leadership to go in a new direction—doing away with traditional letter grades and report cards for a mastery-based approach. The approach stresses the mastery of content and such skills as problem-solving and communicating —in all subjects and grades.  

“If learning is truly the measure, then time becomes the variable,” says Susan Bell, superintendent at Windsor Locks, which serves 1,530 students at four schools. Assessment should be predicated on whether a student fulfills a standard, not when a school year arbitrarily ends, she says.

Most parents were enthusiastic, but some who were unfamiliar with the concept of competency-based education were apprehensive. The district held meetings and public forums with families and teachers to explain the new approach, eventually getting all stakeholders on board.

Five identities every graduate masters

  • Creative and practical problem-solver
  • Responsible citizen
  • Informed thinker
  • Self-directed learner and collaborator
  • Clear and effective communicator

The genesis

The first step for the district was to assess its grading practices, including weighing the pros and cons of traditional average-based grades.

Teachers and administrators worked together in formulating a new approach. “We quickly realized those grade-based systems don’t serve students, it serves our need to have something we consider very concrete versus what mastery can lead to,” says Bell.

Key behaviors (or “brownie points,” as Bell calls them) that tend to be included in a typical grade—such as arriving prepared to participate or completing work on time—were removed and designated as “habits of scholarship.” Those behaviors are now evaluated separately from subject mastery.

Educators also worked to ensure that lessons across schools maintain consistency in terms of subjects covered and approach.

The new initiative was first implemented in the 2013-14 school year with incoming sixth-graders. These students hadn’t received letter grades in elementary school so they were not affected by the change, and they will be the first class to graduate from an entirely mastery-based program in 2020. The initiative is being rolled out annually grade by grade as the initial group progresses through their education.

And a mastery-based teaching approach has already been introduced, if not fully adopted, in all grades.  

Building through PD

Instruction across the district has evolved to meet the new approach, requiring significant PD. Teachers needed to give up traditional grading and instructional practices in favor of exploring expeditionary learning, where students lead their own education experiences through tools such as project-based learning. For PD, the district contracted with EL Education, a nonprofit K12 education organization.

Training focuses on its assessment in daily instruction modules, which provides models of teacher and student work that can be used to develop specific student-engaged assessment practices. The module also encourages teachers to plan lessons from the student’s view.

For example, math students act as mathematicians by exploring questions and developing solutions rather than simply solving problems. Such a shift engages critical-thinking skills. The district divided the ongoing PD into groups of up to 30 teachers (out of 180 total), paying about $22,000 per PD group. The total PD price is estimated to be least $132,000 over seven years, Bell says.

Funding was provided by Alliance District grants from the state of Connecticut.

New teaching assignments

When using this approach, students need an intervention structure to get support. To free up teaching positions needed for extended support, the district expanded class sizes.

The shift allowed for three extended day/year teachers per school. Extended day/year teachers provide in- and after-school academic help, working with 10 students at a time in six-to-eight-week cycles.

These educators start their day later so they are available after classes end. They also begin the school year 20 days later and stay 20 days longer, team-teach in classrooms as needed, and pull students from class for help.

The extended support program was initially created through Alliance District funding. It has since become a cost-neutral opportunity thanks to negotiations with the teachers union.

Moving forward

Five years after switching to mastery-based assessments, Windsor Locks is no longer on the list of low-performing districts.

Smarter Balanced assessment scores have improved in math and English, and this past year SAT scores for grade 11 increased. Students also lead parent-teacher conferences, identifying their own strengths and weaknesses. “Our students can articulate where they were, where they are, and where they’re going in their learning,” says Bell.


Ray Bendici is special projects editor.