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New Hampshire Schools Roll Out Competency-Based Learning Model

New Hampshire schools have retired a century old education standard, replacing it with a new performance-based learning model.

During a webinar moderated by President of the Alliance for Excellent Education and Former Governor of West Virginia Bob Wise, panelists including Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather from the New Hampshire Department of Education (NHDOE), Principal Brian Stack from Sanborn Regional High School, and Erica Stofanak from Spaulding High School discussed the findings of a new report issued by the Alliance titled "Strengthening High School Teaching and Learning in New Hampshire's Competency-Based System."

The report details the case studies of two New Hampshire high schools that adopted the competency-based system, a unique learning model that promotes personalized learning environments for students to demonstrate mastery and higher order skills.

The Results
Key findings of the study conducted at Sanborn Regional High School and Spaulding High School included:

  • Students reported that the work was more challenging, but also said opportunities to interact with teachers and peers in new ways enhanced their understanding and challenged their ideas;
  • Since implementation began in the 2009-10 school year, both schools reported significant drops in course failures and dropout rates;
  • At Sanborn, the number of course failures for freshmen declined, dropping from 53 students in the 2007-08 school year, prior to the start of the pilot program, to 19 in 2008-09, fewer than five in 2009-10, and two in 2010-11;
  • Once the program was fully implemented, the total number of overall course failures for freshmen decreased from 72 in 2010-11, prior to the start of the full program, to 30 in 2011-12; and
  • Student engagement and learning showed improvement. Over a five-year period, the number of reported discipline issues for ninth-grade students at Sanborn decreased from 433 in 2007-08 to 295 in 2008-09, 190 in 2009-10, 129 in 2010-11, and 84 in 2011-12.

Deconstructing the Carnegie Unit
New Hampshire was the first state in the nation to eliminate the Carnegie unit. Developed by the Carnegie Foundation in 1906 as a measure of the amount of time a student must spend to master a course of study, the Carnegie unit, or "seat time," has been the cornerstone for standardizing educational outputs and faculty workloads.

The NHDOE revised the state's Minimum Standards for School Approval in 2005. The new standards called for school districts to eliminate seat time and transition to a competency-based system that:

  • Provides students with a rigorous, personalized education;
  • Requires students to fulfill credit requirements through demonstrated mastery of course-level competencies; and
  • Encourages local educators and community stakeholders to lead the way in developing new high school delivery models

Wise used a car analogy to describe the difference between the Carnegie unit method and the competency-based model.

"Do you want to measure how long someone sits in a class or do you want to base it on their competency?" he said. "I get to buy a car about every 10 years but when I go to the showroom do I ask the salesperson to see the car that took exactly 180 days to build or do I want to see a car based on its performance? I want to know how well it performs and so it is with our students."

In support of the revised standards, the New Hampshire state government designed policies to help school improvement, developed technical advisories for alternate pathways to high school graduation, and offered support via professional learning centers and New Hampshire e-Learning for Educators, called OPEN NH. This online professional educator network offers courses using Web 2.0 tools such as digital portfolios.

Implementing the New Model
In addition to developing new course competencies and assessments, both Sanborn and Spaulding instituted new grading policies, which according to the report supports a growing body of research that shows that course performance is a better predictor of high school and college success than standardized test scores. For instance, a final course grade is determined by a "rolling grade" system. It is not based on a percentage formula of quarter, midterm, and final exam averages or a compilation of class work, homework, tests, quizzes, and participation. Rather, they focus on the student's ability to achieve proficiency in course competencies.

Taking a zero for a class is also no longer an option, as students must show teachers what they know and all teachers use the same formula to compute final course grades. For example, 90 percent might be based on summative assessments and 10 percent based on formative assessments. Students that do not perform at a proficient level are given an opportunity to reassess.

Spaulding High School
Recognizing the importance of collaboration in a competency-based environment, Spaulding created a decision-making structure that provides opportunities for all staff to participate in the school's goals. To achieve this, the school enlisted coaches with expertise in competency-based assessment and instruction to help and support teachers during the transition process.

Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Coach Erica Stofanek described how the coaches were able to help teachers transition from a traditional system to a competency-based, formative assessment teaching model.

"We found in our rollout that a lot of teachers were having rich conversations in small groups with one another, but when they got to the application level, they wanted somebody to show them what it looks like," she said. "In response we had our CBL (competency-based learning) coaches/leaders develop models of practice where they went in and took a unit of instruction and walked them through it."

Sanborn Regional High School
At Sanborn, a three-pillar strategy was employed:

  • Creation of learning communities that work interdependently to advance student learning and academic performance;
  • Student engagement through learning tasks and performance tasks that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency; and
  • Climate and culture: Fostering a positive school climate for each stakeholder that promotes respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride.

According to Sanborn Principal Brian Stack, introducing a completely new model is an incredibly large undertaking. "You have to think differently," he said. "And you have to be willing to work as a team; you can't go at it alone. Our teams are critical to making this system work."

A Model for Other States
In September of 2012, the state submitted the model as the centerpiece of its Elementary and Secondary Education Act waiver application to the United States Department of Education. According to Leather, the New Hampshire Department of Education (NHDOE) is "working with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to create a robust system of assessments by 2015." The NHDOE is also working toward integration of the Common Core State Standards as part of the state's competency-based system.

For more information, the full report is available at the Alliance for Excellent Education's Web site. Additional resources can be accessed at competencyworks.org and the NHDOE's site.