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K-12DIVE: Colorado district’s CBE approach may offer solutions to address learning gaps

The following excerpt is from an article int the Educational Publication K-12Dive

Originally Published May 3, 2021

By Dayna Straehley

As the pace of learning slowed for most students this past year and accelerated for some, Westminster Public Schools’ competency-based education approach proved its worth.

After the coronavirus pushed students into remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, reports in the fall showed students across the country lost chunks of learning time, which must be addressed, said David Yanoski, a researcher at Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research. Reading growth for most students was near normal, but the biggest effects were on math because it is so sequential, he said. If students miss a math concept, they are unlikely to understand later concepts.

By design, the Colorado district’s competency-based system identifies those lost chunks for each student and requires them to demonstrate proficiency before moving on to the next level.

Westminster has been developing the personalized approach for more than a dozen years, said Chief of Instruction and Assessment Jeni Gotto. Work began in 2009 after teachers voted overwhelmingly to embrace the system, which she said they called “standards-based” at the time. 

The competency-based system enables students to accelerate in some subjects while getting the extra time and help they need in others. For example, a 9-year-old may be at level 4, or a 4th-grade level, in some subjects, but level 5 in math and level 3 in literacy, the district says on its website.

“The competency-based system works because it recognizes that every student learns differently,” the district said.

Westminster Chief Education Officer Oliver Grenham and Gotto outlined steps their district is using to address the needs of students returning to campus from online learning, or those expected to return in the fall after disappearing entirely from contact with schools.

  • Check in on students’ emotional and mental health status. These needs should be addressed first, Grenham said.

  • Then, look at their academic status — where students left off and where their academic needs are now.

  • Give students an opportunity to test out or otherwise demonstrate learning on some standards they may not have met before pandemic-related disruptions.

  • Offer opportunities for extended learning time. For example, Westminster will add 12 additional optional learning days this summer, which can also address social-emotional learning to welcome students back, he said. Extra tutoring during the school day is available, Gotto said. Some schools also offer extended-day programs.

  • Reduce class sizes or increase staff-student ratios for the next couple of years. 

Westminster’s learning management system shows students, their parents and educators all the standards a student has met. Students will also be able to pick up where they left off, Grenham said.

After students demonstrate proficiency in all the skills for that grade level, they participate in “leveling up” ceremonies throughout the year, Gotto said. The district tracks students’ proficiency in each required skill or standard in its learning management system, Empower Learning, which also allows students and parents to follow individual progress. 

Students, particularly in elementary grades, may also keep color-coded paper records of their progress on each standard, she said.

Elementary students all have a homeroom teacher corresponding to their age-based grade level, Gotto said. Principals build a master schedule similar to those in secondary schools for classes in different subjects at different levels, she said.

Westminster does not promote a student who has met some, but not all, standards to the next grade level, Gotto said.

This year, more students experienced learning gaps, which may not be apparent right away but will hinder future achievement, Grenham said. “Learning gaps are cumulative,” he said.

Retaining a student across all subjects in a grade level doesn’t work either, Gotto said.

Students get bored and become unengaged by the grade-level content they already mastered. The competency-based system shows the exact standards the student still needs to learn the next year, Gotto said. It doesn’t require a student to waste time repeating those they already completed. The school then celebrates when students meet them, she said.

Westminster has an annual summit for other superintendents to see and learn about its approach to competency-based education.

Starting a school pilot

The approach is backed by the authors of a report from Regional Educational Laboratory Central at Marzano Research, “Overview of Selected State Policies and Supports Related to K-12 Competency-based Education.” 

Although Westminster launched its approach district-wide by tracking each student’s progress in its learning management system, other schools or classrooms can do something similar with personalized learning.