Nevada CSD recently received some great news. We were selected by the Iowa Department of Education as one of ten districts to participate in the Competency-Based Education Collaborative. Nevada CSD will join Collins-Maxwell and Van Meter as the representatives from the AEA 11 region; representatives from Iowa, Iowa State and Drake will also be part of the collaborative.
To give you all a little background on this topic, in 2012 the Iowa legislature approved competency-based education (CBE) in Senate File 2284. The initial legislation set up a task force to investigate CBE. The task force’s recommendations led the legislature to direct the Iowa Department of Education to “identify up to 10 districts that would serve as models across the state and develop support for those districts to help them serve as Iowa-based models.” The fact that we were selected to participate in this work means that we will be able to help in researching and designing competency-based educational pathways for the students of Iowa. The goal of the CBE Collaborative is to “develop a framework for transition from a traditional educational system to a competency-based system.” A team of ten K-12th grade teachers and administrators will represent Nevada CSD in ten face-to-face meetings with teams from the other ten districts over the next eight months.
Competency-based grading means that students advance through content and credit is earned based on students showing mastery of course standards. Students continue to work on mastering content until they can demonstrate that they have learned it and can apply it. The focus in a competency-based system is on students learning the material. In a competency-based system, students have to show mastery for of all of the content standards for a course before they earn credit or move on to another course with more challenging material. Unfortunately, in a traditional grading system or course, if a student failed a test, indicating that they didn’t know the material, the teacher would most often continue onto the next unit. In the next unit, the content is inevitably harder and the students lacked the skills to be successful since they had not mastered previous material. Students would continue to struggle and fall further behind, often failing the class or just passing the class with a D or D-. In a competency-based system, if a student fails an assessment of a standard, they are given immediate feedback from the teacher about what they haven’t mastered yet. Students are assigned work, or work directly with the teacher to help them address the standards/competencies they haven’t mastered. Students then are given additional opportunities to pass the standard or competency until they do. The system focuses on student learning, not grades.
I am sure that many of you are aware that we have seven teachers at the high school and one teacher at the middle school engaged in competency-based grading and/or standards based grading this year. The actual process looks different in each class; however, the goal is the same. Students are graded/assessed based on their mastery of the standards for each class. When Iowa joined 47 other states in July 2010 by adopting the Common Core State Standards, the expectations for every student in the state of Iowa were raised significantly. The standards were designed with the goal of making every student “college- and career-ready.” The standards identify what every student who graduates from high school is expected to master by the time they graduate. Teachers at Nevada High School began working with the standards in the 2010-2011 school year to align our courses to the new curriculum. By law, standards are to be fully implemented by the 2014-15 school year, which is the target set by the state. The core clearly identifies what students are to master, no longer allowing students to move through courses without demonstrating mastery of these standards. Competency-based grading and standards-based grading systems allow teachers to communicate mastery of these standards to students and parents.
I understand that the concepts of standards-based grading and competency-based grading are new for everyone; however, they have been around in other states and countries for a while. The Nevada Elementary has utilized standards-based report cards for the past five years. Several other districts in the state of Iowa are moving toward competency-based grading in much the same way as we are. Other districts allowed teachers who are ready to move to this type of grading the opportunity to pilot a version of it in their classrooms.
Many of you probably read in the paper recently that the Ankeny school district has teachers in its district implementing this grading style this year. Currently there are several districts across the state where teachers, and in some cases entire buildings (Solon HS and Waukee MS), are utilizing some form of this grading system. The problem is that in each district, building and even classroom, this can look very different. The fact that Nevada has been selected to join the CBE collaborative means that we will be able to have input on the statewide system, learn from the other districts who are engaged in this work and be able to develop a system that we can support as a district. Through this districtwide system, we can bring consistency and understanding, not only to the students and parents in our district, but in every district in the state of Iowa, to ensure that all students are college- and career-ready.
(Justin Gross is principal at Nevada High School.)