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District Using Competency-Based Learning Fights to Avoid State Censure

The Westminster school district in suburban Denver adopted a competency-based education model in 2009, a move that was greeted with a mix of fanfare and concern. The 10,000-student district was one of the first whole districts in the country to attempt a move away from traditional grade levels and grading. 

Now, the district has been dubbed low-performing by the state for five consecutive years and policymakers are trying to figure out how to intervene. 

The effectiveness of competency-based learning in K-12 schools over time is increasingly relevant as more school districts and states are beginning to pilot similar programs: In Illinois, ten districts are piloting a competency-based learning model. Florida, Idaho, and Utah have also piloted programs

In Westminster, competency-based learning means that students are grouped by skill level instead of by age. They advance as they demonstrate their mastery of skills or a subject. 

Last year, Chalkbeat Colorado reported on the district's belief that its approach simply doesn't mesh with the state's accountability system. For instance, students need to be assigned a grade level when they take state standardized tests, but Westminster no longer assigns students to traditional grades. Now Chalkbeat has details about the district's plans to address its challenges. The district has plans to use a new teacher training program and partner with outside organizations for support. Some state board members are skeptical of those plans and the role of external partners. 

A study earlier this year found that most competency-based programs are in less affluent districts like Westminster.

But the idea is also gaining traction in some of the nation's most affluent schools. Inside Higher Education reports that a number of the nation's top private schools have suggested replacing traditional high school transcripts with reports that highlight students' competencies. 

The approach has ardent supporters who claim competency-based learning, if implemented well, has the potential to allow students to take more ownership of their own learning.

It also has critics. For instance, the conservative online magazine the Federalist recently published a piece arguing that that the skills-based approach to education will deepen inequities and lead to an overreliance on computer programs that move students through skills instead of teaching them things like critical thinking and the ability to form arguments. 

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