competency-based learning

A tale of two competency-based districts


Two administrators share their experiences in transitioning from a traditional classroom model to a mastery-based environment

After nearly three years of working toward this model, we have created report cards for K–4 students with zero letter or number grades. Instead, we use progress bars to show individual students’ growth toward grade-level appropriate goals, indicating where the student started and how much they have achieved throughout the year. With our new report card, we can look at where students are and better understand the pace at which they learn. This, to us, has more of an impact than taking off points on a test.

Felice Hybert, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Kankakee School District

Having a job may seem a lifetime away for a child, but by exposing them to different career paths, we can get them thinking about their life after high school and better prepare them for their lives after graduation.

Three years ago, we transformed Kankakee’s general education track into the College and Career Academy, which is 100-percent focused on using PBL to prepare students for future jobs. We’ve introduced 16 different career paths to about 70 percent of our K–5 students using Defined STEM’s career wheel. Each grade has a designated career cluster they focus on, and as students move through the grades they explore a wide variety of career opportunities.

In addition, we are one of 10 high school districts in Illinois that has started to move to competency-based learning. We’re working to report on students’ mastery of skills with progress levels, rather than a traditional report card at the end of each semester. We started by marrying the traditional, content-driven course work with performance-based assessment. Rather than having teachers manage a whole group of 30+ students at once, PBL frees them to break classes into small groups and connect deeply with each group.

As we make our way toward a completely mastery-based model, we are slowly ridding ourselves of traditional grade levels. Instead, we aim to categorize students by year one, year two, and so on. If a child can demonstrate mastery of a certain content area, they can move on in their work—even if they are technically a freshman. We have also increased dual-enrollment options, providing our junior and senior students opportunities to take local community college classes, which has played a significant role in giving our students a taste of real-world jobs once they have displayed mastery.

For example, we have a partnership with a local health clinic in the district where students interested in medical studies can learn necessary skills for a career in that field. We’ve also had local conferences where students interested in areas like public relations and public speaking interview with workforce-readiness programs and learn from employees about what it takes to succeed in a full-time job.

Since we implemented our PBL and competency-based model, data shows that in one year (2016 to 2017), reading comprehension scores increased 8 percent and math application increased 9 percent. We have also seen an increase in student engagement in all of our K–6 classes, and have continued to build partnerships with local businesses and industries that support students’ exploration and curiosity about future career options.

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