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Changing the Game - Shifting to Competency-Based Learning

Teacher: Rebecca Vilardo
School: Greater Egleston High School

The Challenge:
We were trying to solve the issue that students

  1. had a varied level of English skills when they came to us,
  2. students were used to completing work for points, rather than mastery of skills. We found student engagement in learning to be very low across the board, which we attributed to the fact that students have habitually viewed education as transactional–the teacher hands me a worksheet, I do it and turn it back in, and I receive a grade.

What did your team do about it?:
We purchased an IXL subscription so that we could meet students’ needs at their own pace through the IXL platform. We also worked to move to a competency based grading system. We utilized English competencies from Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) alongside standards from DESE English frameworks to develop competencies for Greater Egleston.

Challenges that we encountered were that

  1. Students were initially reluctant to embrace the competency based model.
  2. As Greater Egleston does not have an online platform to track competencies like BDEA, creating a grading protocol in Aspen was difficult.
  3. We selected a number of competencies that were unstainable to manage (we had 65 competencies.)

Impact on Students:
Our students have chronically poor attendance. Our hope was that competency based learning and teaching would allow students to demonstrate mastery at an individualized pace despite erratic absences. Some students were able to complete assignments, meet benchmarks and stay on course despite attendance. Students were able to acquire skills and implement them in their work. Despite students achieving skill mastery, which is supported by IXL data, students did not always earn an academic grade due to school and district wide policies regarding attendance. In IXL, participating students answered 2,770 questions, mastered 24 new ELA skills, and obtained proficiency in 40 new ELA skills.

Teacher Leadership and School Community:
We learned that teacher leadership is ….

An experimental group of teachers attempted to use competency based learning/grading at Intrepid Academy at Hale Reservation for the second semester. More interdisciplinary conversations about competency based learning emerged at Greater Egleston which we believe will continue and change the way that we assess students, especially with a population with inconsistent attendance. Our hope is that professional development for next year increases our capacity for Competency based instruction/grading.

Through this process, we encountered difficulties related to District and school policies out of our control that value attendance above skill development and mastery. We also realized that we needed a larger support system beyond our school’s resources that unfortunately never manifested for a variety of reasons. For example, we had hopes of visiting Mary Lyon School and BDEA to observe competency implementation specific to students with disabilities and English Language Learners.

What’s Next?
A next phase is to visit other schools to learn more about how competency based instruction is being implemented.

Some of the questions that we have about competency-based learning moving forward focus on how to adapt a competency-based model to be equitable, keeping in mind students with IEPs and various language proficiencies.

During competency implementation, we tried three different systems for grading. Ultimately, it was difficult to merge competency grading with letter grade systems required by Aspen, GEHS, and BPS. Moving forward, we will continue to process and try various systems of grading that adequately support grades reflecting skill mastery.

Helping Others:
Teams struggling with similar challenges should be proactive about reaching out to other schools with similar models or programs. It is difficult to implement system changes without larger systems at the school coinciding with school grading policies. After we reduced the number of competencies, Ms. Vilardo created a visually appealing chart breaking down the competency expectations. The chart was turned into a poster so that students had constant visual reminders of expectations. Ms. Vilardo also produced simplified versions of this chart so students could track their own progress towards skill mastery.

Next school year, we hope to hold school wide professional development to continue the implementation and discussions related to adapting competency guidelines that could benefit our students moving forward. This work is ongoing and will not end with this school year but rather continue to be developed by the ELA department each year.