New Hampshire’s testing pilot, PACE, gaining ground

  • Tamara Hatcher from Concord (right) and Allison Gilbert from Rochester join in a discussion at the Performance Assessment of Competency Education, or PACE conference at Abbot Downing elementary school on Thursday August 17, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Discussion group listen to Joanne McCann from Epping (left) at the Performance Assessment of Competency Education, or PACE conference at Abbot Downing elementary school on Thursday August 17, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/19/2017 11:21:37 PM

The real test of any reform effort is whether it can scale up. And slowly but steadily, New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education, or PACE, is doing just that.

Tired of teaching to the test, New Hampshire launched an experiment three years ago, hoping instead to test what was taught.

Together with a handful of superintendents, state education officials pitched a plan to create a system of locally-designed assessments to replace the standardized tests furnished by testing companies. The assessments would be aligned with the state’s standards, created in-state by teachers, ask students to problem-solve instead of regurgitate information – and be rigorous enough to be used for federal accountability purposes.

It was a tall order, but in March 2015, the federal government granted the state a waiver, allowing certain pilot districts to proceed.

PACE was launched with just four districts – Rochester, Souhegan, Epping and Sanborn – but this fall, 23 SAUs will participate. Of those 23, only 14 are “Tier I” districts, or districts ready to use the locally-designed assessments for federal accountability purposes. The rest are in the initial stages of implementation.

Still, as much as 30 percent of the state’s students are in PACE schools, according to Paul Leather, the state’s deputy commissioner of education. And more might have joined, but the U.S. Department of Education asked the state to hold off on expansion while the federal administration switched over.

“We’ve seen very high level of interest over the last several years,” he said.

Early research into the program’s results is encouraging. A doctoral student at the University of New Hampshire has been collecting data about how students in PACE districts fare on the SBACs compared to those in non-PACE districts. (Schools participating in the program must still administer the standardized test once in elementary, middle and high school.)

By the second year of implementation, PACE students across the board outperformed their peers in non-PACE districts in eighth-grade math. What’s more – PACE students with disabilities showed dramatic achievement gains. Results in English haven’t been released yet.

PACE hopes to build off of the state’s work in competency education, an approach to teaching that, at its core, is about proving students understand a subject before moving on. In a competency-based system, students aren’t supposed to be able to use things like homework completion or participation grades to get them over the passing mark if they don’t understand a topic.

“In a competency-based system, it is laser-focused on what kids know and can do. They can either demonstrate it or they can’t,” said Michael Turmelle, the curriculum director at the Sanborn Regional School District. “What you’ve done is raised the bar significantly.”

At its best, competency-based education gives students problems to solve, and gives them a certain degree of flexibility in demonstrating their knowledge.

How does that work in practice? Here’s what a “common task” or assessment, for graphing and analyzing algebraic inequalities in PACE looks like:

The manager of the Hampton Beach Casino has a band coming in. It’s up to the student to figure out what combination of ticket sales – seats or standing – will generate the most profit, given certain constraints.

“I think students always ask the question: when am I ever going to use this? And what PACE does is say – okay, you had to learn this skill, because here’s an example of a real-world problem,” said Joanne McCann, a math teacher in Epping.

McCann, alongside teachers from Concord, Rochester, Amherst and Sanborn – who all participate in PACE – gathered at Abbot-Downing Elementary in Concord last week to fine-tune the task after having piloted it in their classrooms.

Hundreds of teachers and administrators attended last week’s five-day PACE Institute in Concord, hosted at two city schools. The event brought teachers together to develop and tweak assessments, get one-on-one sessions with consultants and audit student work. (To make sure assessments are being consistently graded, a sample of anonymized student work is triple-scored – once by their teacher, once by someone else at their school, and a third time, outside the district.)

The entire process – of designing, fine-tuning, administering and grading the common assessments – takes a staggering amount of cross-district coordination. But there are upsides.

“I think my favorite part of the PACE has been breaking down those borders. Like Sanborn just works with Sanborn, and Epping is just with Epping. Now we can all come together,” said Kevin Conant, a math teacher in Sanborn.

Conant concedes it’s a lot of work.

“It’s not easy to grade,” he said. “(But) the kids are definitely more engaged.”

Rochester assistant superintendent Kyle Repucci has seen PACE in action from the beginning. And if asking students to take a more hands-on, problem-solving approach improves learning, he thinks asking the same of teachers – who are building the system themselves from the groundup – has dramatically improved instruction, too.

“It’s probably some of the best professional development that I have seen for teachers in my years of experience as an educator. Because it’s teachers working with teachers on problems of practice that they’re interested in,” he said. “Teachers are driving the bus. And I think that’s probably the difference in this initiative.”

PACE’s members are growing, and early results are positive. Meanwhile, states across the country are watching New Hampshire’s project to see if the model works, and can be replicated elsewhere.

But besides New Hampshire’s jealously-guarded local control, the project requires buy-in from people on the ground – and especially from teachers, who do the bulk of the work – in order to be successful and sustainable. What’s still unknown is whether the project can continue to gain the momentum and enthusiasm it will need to go statewide.

“Will all districts join voluntarily or not? That’s the open question. We will see over time,” Leather said.

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