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How to measure a student’s progress: Concord among districts taking new approach

Last modified: 11/29/2015 12:36:39 AM
On the day before Thanksgiving break at Souhegan High School, the pace of Jenny Deenik’s 10th grade science class still hadn’t slowed down.

Tuesday’s assignment was a unit on photosynthesis and cell respiration. Deenik gave her students the background knowledge in a few past classes; then, she took a step back and let the students teach each other.

Presentations are an important part of learning and teaching at Souhegan, which has been using a competency-based learning model since the school opened in 1992. Due to a state law passed in 2008 requiring competencies, the rest of the New Hampshire schools are beginning to trend that way, too.

Competencies, simply put, are a set of learning goals and standards for students to accomplish. For Deenik’s science class, it could mean learning how cells in the human body respirate to produce energy. In an art class, it could mean learning basic art concepts such as color, lines and depth, and making sure those concepts are reflected when students build a clay sculpture or sketch a pencil drawing.

Student proficiency is measured through a performance-based assessment, which could be a presentation, essay or test. But the biggest difference between the old learning system and the new is that students must show they really know concepts and can apply them to everyday life.

Other New Hampshire schools are slowly adopting the system, and the goal is to have all schools competency-based in the next few years. Instead of giving kids letter grades on tests and essays and averaging it all out to a final grade at the end of the year, some schools are also changing their grading systems, basing grades on whether students can successfully demonstrate what they know.

It’s meant to be a more complete picture of learning and a measurement of a student’s development over time, said Concord School District Assistant Superintendent Donna Palley.

“The idea is trying to give more people information that’s specific to the competency and to do it in a way that has meaning for the students and the family,” Palley said.

At Rochester’s Spaulding High School, grades include from ‘Not Yet Competent,’ ‘Competent,’ ‘Beyond Competent’ and ‘Advanced,’ and students are assessed on multiple aspects of a class.

Concord High School is working toward a new grading system in some subjects, but the school is still using traditional letter grades, Palley said. The new grading system is not without its learning curve, and Palley added that some parents and students were nervous about kids no longer receiving letter grades.

“The grading is a work in progress,” she said. “You have to communicate a lot with families and kids so they understand it.”

Competency education is why Deenik’s sophomore students at Souhegan are up in front of their classmates, flashcards in hand. Instead of copying notes from a textbook or listening to Deenik lecture, they’re instead teaching their fellow students how cells take in oxygen to convert glucose into energy the body can use.

Before the cell respiration group takes the floor in class, Deenik reminds them they need to make sure their fellow classmates understand the lesson.

“You have to be responsible to them,” Deenik said to one group presenting. “You can’t just wing this.”

At one point, Deenik put student Joshua Smith on the spot with a question about glucose. It takes a few seconds for Smith to think the answer over, but he gets it right. This is the kind of moment Deenik is looking for: students making connections and really having to think about subject material.

“That’s what we love to see,” she said. “It’s how we do things.”

N.H. starts PACE work

Last month, more than a hundred Concord School District teachers gathered for a staff development day at the high school to learn about Performance Assessment of Competency Education, or PACE. New Hampshire is the first state in the nation to implement the system, in which schools move away from standardized testing.

Since New Hampshire switched its standardized testing to the Smarter Balanced Assessment, students in grades three to eight and grade 11 all have to take the tests. Schools implementing PACE only test their students once in elementary school, once in eighth grade and once in 11th grade.

However, after a recent move by the state’s Department of Education, 11th-graders statewide will start taking the SAT, rather than Smarter Balanced.

Performance assessments will take the place of all the old standardized tests. Rather than teaching to the testing material, it’s a way to get students back to learning key concepts, said Kathy White, Souhegan’s dean of faculty.

“What it means is a much more authentic, rigorous meaningful assessment tool,” White said.

When students are tested, educators hope tests will mirror what the students are learning, making them more relevant.

Eight districts have signed on to the program, including Souhegan, Concord, Rochester, Monroe and Pittsfield. Leaders at the Department of Education and local administrators worked with U.S. Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan to get the program going about three years ago.

The program is aligned with broader Common Core standards at the national level, but Leather and Palley say there’s a lot of room for state and local districts to make competencies and performance assessments their own.

“The local district leaders convinced him they were capable to do this with their teachers,” said state Deputy Commissioner of Education Paul Leather. “This is the district saying, ‘We want to do this.’ It’s based on a local decision.”


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