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Education department looking at shift to competency-based student evaulations

Last modified: 5/17/2013 8:07:42 AM
The state Board of Education is moving toward competency-based education rather than credit-based, with the goal of more clearly defining what students must know to graduate.

“It’s the right work,” said Concord Superintendent Chris Rath. “I think the clearer we can be with kids about what it is we want them to learn and be able to know and do, the better the results. Kids have to know what the target is to hit it.”

The change is part of a routine revision to the Department of Education’s minimum standards requirement for public school approval. A committee made up of representatives from state education associations has been meeting since November to update the policy, and the state board voted to adopt the initial proposal yesterday. But the policy is far from set in stone: The board will continue working with the committee, and two hearings will be held in August and September. Once the board approves a final policy, two legislative oversight committees will also need to approve it.

While the shift to competency-based graduation requirements is the most significant change, the committee has also recommended requiring students to take a math course all four years of high school and eliminating the requirement for high schools to offer family and consumer sciences courses.

The move to competency-based education, which focuses on specific knowledge rather than time in the classroom, began in the state several years ago. Many schools, including Concord and Merrimack Valley high schools, made receiving credit contingent on passing all competencies. That means students can’t get credit for a course if they cannot pass one specific competency, even if their average grade is a passing one.

The newest shift, if adopted by the board in the fall, will completely eliminate credits. The intended goal is to make it more clear what knowledge students have when they graduate while still giving them a choice on how to get there. For example, rather than requiring students pass three math courses, they will be required to demonstrate competency in specific math areas. They’ll still have a choice of which math courses to take to meet those skills, but no matter which courses a student takes, they’ll have the same set of knowledge as their peers.

“We’ve got a clear set of ends that kids have to get to for learning,” said David Ruff, executive director of the Great Schools Partnership and facilitator of the committee’s meetings.

Board members yesterday asked whether it would require districts to give up local control and how the math requirements would change in the new policy. The state will lay out broad competency areas; then it will be up to local districts to determine what specific skills they want students to have and how the students get there, Ruff said. Most important, he said, the proposal assures more consistency in what knowledge students graduate with.

Furthermore, there will still be room for electives as well as a chance to get credit outside of the classroom. If students have a summer internship, for example, they could use it to earn a competency. Or, if students speak Spanish at home, they could get Spanish competency on their transcript. Under a credit-based approach, a transcript would never reflect Spanish comprehension because a fluent Spanish speaker would never take a Spanish course.

“There’s a core we want for all students, but each student is actually more than that core,” Ruff said.

Chris Barry, assistant superintendent and curriculum director at Merrimack Valley, agreed with Rath that competencies are a better approach to education. But, she acknowledged, it will take significant work for districts and teachers to make the change.

“I think competencies are the right way to go, I think they’re much more realistic, much more transparent and honest,” she said. “But I do think it’s a big shift for teachers and for the system; it’s going to take a lot of professional development.”

Another revision to the policy, which does focus on classroom time, is a possible requirement for students to take math for all four years, even if they have reached all the competencies. This revision is on the table because studies continually show that missing even one year of math can significantly set students back when they enter college, Ruff said.

Family and consumer sciences changes

The committee also recommended eliminating the requirement that high schools offer family and consumer sciences courses. High schools are currently required to offer those courses, but students aren’t required to take any to graduate.

This portion of the proposal is also not set in stone, and representatives from the New Hampshire Association for Family and Consumer Sciences shared their concerns with the board yesterday. Family and consumer sciences courses are 100 percent project-based and allow students to apply other course work to the real world, said Kay Shoubash, the association’s president and a teacher at Windham High School.

“We’re not stitch and stir anymore,” she said. “There’s 16 content areas of career connections that we make for students.”

The group fears that under budget constraints, family and consumer sciences courses would be easier to eliminate if they’re no longer required.

Eliminating the requirement would be in the interest of giving districts more flexibility, Ruff said. As new requirements, such as the potential four years of math, come about, districts may want more choice on what they offer.

“The idea is we can’t offer everything all the time and still offer flexibility,” he said.

But the board members assured Shoubash that eliminating the family and consumer sciences requirement is not a done deal. A petition in support of the programs is also circulating among family and consumer sciences educators.

“We feel that what we do is critical in the schools,” she said.

More information on the policy revisions is available at the state Department of Education’s website.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)


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