- The small Northern Cass School District located near Fargo, N.D., is in the second year of a three-year transition plan to fully embrace competency-based education by eliminating grade levels for students in traditional grades 8 and above and instead working with students through progressions of competencies until they reach their goal, according to the Hechinger Report.
- Academic advisors help students chart their course and stay on task through the development of progressions of competencies, habits of work and “standard operating procedures.” The advisors and other teachers provide “seminars” on topics to supplement personalized on-line instruction and offer support to struggling students. Students are with same-age peers only for activities such as gym class, field trips and state-mandated testing.
- Though North Dakota schools usually perform well in term of national measures on graduation rates and required testing, the school district felt the need for change because they discovered they spent too much time teaching to the test and that students were not performing as well as they hoped after high school ended because they had not found their own passion and direction in life.
The notion of abolishing grade levels may seem strange in an educational framework that has been centered on the concept for many years. However, the idea of studying at different levels based on goals rather than age works well with adults and in college settings where students expect to follow their own path to achieve specific goals in life. Other school districts have also tried this approach. And while early results have not indicated much improvement in testing in early phases, improvement in discipline does seem to be a common theme. More states are approving policies that include competency-based education approaches that include dramatic reform, so the idea seems poised for expansion. And this week at the National Conference of Legislatures summit, superintendents in Colorado and Utah discussed their successes and challenges with the model.
There are advantages to the idea because students all learn at different rates and are stronger in some subjects than in others. It makes sense to allow a student to progress in one area while slowing the pace in areas that need support. Once students and teachers understand this concept, the stigma of being mixed with students of different ages while studying a subject is lessened. The fear of pairing students of vastly different ages can be lessened as well if the learning framework falls into broad categories, such as lower elementary, upper elementary, middle school and high school as well.
However, there are other challenges to the approach of abolishing grades. Abandoning grade levels makes comparisons more difficult. And since the idea is fairly new, there are not as many educational supports in place, and schools often need to do a lot of investigation to develop their own framework. Without a lot of research yet, testing itself may change as the idea of competency–based learning gains momentum. However, technology now offers a lot of personalized learning options that make the idea more feasible today than ever.
The home-schooling community has largely been using this idea for years with good success. Home-schooling parents often teach students of several ages together and the idea of “grade levels” is rarely discussed in the home-school community. Yet the personalized approach to learning used in most home-school families has yielded impressive test scores. A home-educated student typically scores 15-30% above public-school students on standardized academic achievement tests and black home-educated students typically score 23-42% above their public school counterparts. Recent research is showing that these students are more than holding their own in the college setting, as well.