26 December 2008

A Brave New World

In a standards-based educational system, do grade levels really matter? A school district in Colorado has decided the answer is "No." and beginning next year, there will be no more traditional k-12 system.

A school district in Westminster struggling with declining enrollment and falling test scores will try something revolutionary next year that many say never has been accomplished in the Lower 48.

Adams 50 will eliminate grade levels and instead group students based on what they know, allowing them to advance to the next level after they have proved proficiency.

"If they can pull this off, it will be a lighthouse for America's challenged school districts," said Richard DeLorenzo, the consultant who implemented a standards-based model in Alaska and is working with Adams 50. "It will change the face of American education."

A district of 10,000 students and 21 schools, Adams 50 serves a working-class suburb north of Denver. Seventy-two percent of its students are poor enough for federal meal benefits, two-thirds are Latino, and 38 percent still are learning English.

Two years ago the district was put on academic watch because of achievement troubles; fewer than 60 percent of students graduate on time.

"What we are doing right now is not working," said Superintendent Roberta Selleck, who was hired in 2006 to reform the district. "We think this will be huge."

The new system will have 10 levels instead of the traditional kindergarten through 12th grade model.

Students will be tested this spring to determine their proficiency in reading, writing and math, and will be grouped next year with peers who are learning at the same level.

Next school year, the system starts with students now classified as kindergartners through eighth-graders and will expand into high school one year at a time.

"In a standards-based system, time becomes the variable and learning is the constant," Selleck said. "When a kid can demonstrate proficiency of a standard, they move on. There is nothing magical about a quarter, semester or the end of school. That becomes blurred. Learning becomes much more 24-7."

There's much more to read in the whole article from the Denver Post. I have to admit, I'm rather fascinated with the whole idea. It looks like standards-based grading practices will be used and mastery will be the goal. It's a bit buried in the piece, but Robert Marzano is consulting on this project---and a district could do worse than having him guide things along.

Still, if I may say so, this is one ballsy school district.

I would very much be interested to learn what the district will do with "outlier" students. I'm assuming that just because a 15-year old student is working at a 3rd grade level doesn't mean you put them with 9-year olds---you find the other 15-year olds who are far below their peers and group them that way. What happens to electives? Transcripts for college? Do kids only get the one test a year to determine placement---or is there some way teachers can have kids collect evidence of learning for a broader method of determining level? Would an ELL kid get to "skip" some levels once their language skills allow them to demonstrate the subject matter proficiency they may have had all along? What supports are in place for teachers? Parents?

While I doubt that this sort of model will become the norm in coming years, if it is successful, I wouldn't be surprised to see it adopted by others. I hope we learn a lot along the way.


Mr. McNamar said...

Ah, I'm back in the Pacific Northwest and what do I find? More snow than in Connecticut!
I've privately wondered when the lack of grade levels would happen. It seems logical if we are moving towards a standards based grade. I've alway wondered why we make students sit through a 9th grade English class when they read and write at the 11th grade standard.

The Science Goddess said...

Welcome back! Very glad to have you "home" in the currently snowy Pacific NW.

I do wonder what the longterm outcomes of this change to grade levels will be. Is it okay for a 10-year old to finish the entire sequence? Will dropout rates increase when frustrated teens don't get credit for "seat time" anymore?

hschinske said...

There are alternative high schools that practice standards-based grading and get pretty good rates of admissions to good colleges. The Nova Project in Seattle is one. However, those schools attract students who are generally well equipped to succeed, as long as they can be a bit different-drummer-ish (Nova is known to be excellent at *preventing* dropouts). I don't know how well it will work with a population that isn't self-selected, especially as one commenter on the article noted that this is a district with a lot of kids moving in and out. It's the basic "I can't teach a kid who ISN'T THERE ANY MORE" problem.

I do think it's an excellent idea in general, though. Grades are overrated (both the age-grade lockstep and the ABCD kind).

The Science Goddess said...

That's really the thing, though, isn't it---the pure scale of the project? I can think of pockets of individual schools here and there (especially alt schools) that have had this kind of model...but a district with 10,000 kids is quite the beast to tame. If there is a lot of movement into and out of the district, I wonder how they will be able to communicate placements with "traditional" districts? My hunch is that they are already establishing protocols for all these situations---far more than can fit in an article. I just can't wait to see it all play out.

Dr Pezz said...

As an English teacher my concern relates to Mr. McNamar's question. How do we use standards-based grading (which always seems to be skill-based) in the English classroom when content (cultural literacy) is part of the mix?

A student may be able to compare and contrast two pieces of literature at the 9th grade reading level but not at the 11th, even though the same skill is being measured. How would a student identify common allusions if they skip the readings? I don't think the literature should always drive the learning, but it plays a major role in a literature classroom. We may reteach the same skills but increase the complexity of the skill use and the texts used.

Lightly Seasoned said...

This is a really interesting idea -- the devil is always in the details, though. While I have had very good 9th graders who excel at that level, it is very, very rare for a 14-year-old to be able to tackle the literature I teach to the 17- and 18-year old juniors/seniors. Different maturity level altogether. To Kill a Mockingbird may have been a piece of cake, but once I plop Mrs. Dalloway in front of them, it's a whole new ball 'o fish.

Unknown said...

@Dr Pezz - One of my growing frustrations with the standards-based approach to education is, as you point out, going to be a significant hurdle for this district: standards don't (and shouldn't) stand alone, even within a subject area. I like providing feedback on individual standards, but given that they inter-relate within and across subject areas, I wonder if we might need to develop "meta-standards" to categorize and judge the ability of students to integrate increasingly complex groups of content / skill standards. I'm hoping that this school district's gutsy move to change the way that they group students will bring some focus on the issue of integrating standards - this will be a great story to follow over the next few years.

hschinske said...

Not that it really affects your argument, but I wouldn't think Mrs. Dalloway was something most juniors or seniors could truly handle either. In fact I'm an old English major and still can't read Woolf's novels with any great success (though I love her nonfiction). I could probably muster at least a B on a paper about Mrs. Dalloway, but it would be essentially faking on my part (faking being *entirely* distinct from cheating, you understand).