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New Hampshire Schools Leading the Way in Shift to "Competency"

Flikr Creative Commons / Dean Terry


At the beginning of this school year, Spaulding High School in Rochester took a big step. They put in a new grading system, got rid of final exams, and reworked how they thought about giving grades in general. The change at Spaulding is part of a bigger change happening all over the Granite State.

Think back to your high school years, and tell me if this sounds familiar. 

There are two sections of biology, and everyone always wants to be in teacher X’s class. That’s because teacher Y’s class is a lot harder: she does a lot of labs, a lot of write-ups, and she asks a lot from her students. Teacher X gives mostly multiple choice tests, and always has an extra credit section with questions like: who won the Patriot’s game this weekend? or what’s my dog’s name?

A student who earns a 95 in biology from the easy teacher is a lot different from a student who earns a 95 from the more difficult class.  But in the end, both grades look the same on a transcript.

And it's that inequality that Spaulding High Schoolis trying to get away from.

Hopkins: Competencies are pretty straightforward when you think about it: we’re telling students, this is the course and this is what you need to learn in that course during the year.

That’s Rochester Superintendent, Mike Hopkins.  He’s leading Spaulding’s move to something called “competency based-learning.”

Under this model teachers in every department agree that for each class there are skills that they want students to have when they finish the course. Then they explicitly tell the kids what these competencies are, and gear all their teaching towards learning those core skills.

Hopkins says when he was an assistant basketball coach, this was just called good coaching.

Hopkins: and the head coach told the players, we’re not going to do a drill that doesn’t get us better at some skill. And I can remember a drill started and a student said why are we doing this, what skill? The coach didn’t know and so they stopped doing that skill and that’s what we have to get to in the classroom is that we shouldn’t be doing things that aren’t heading toward those competencies.

Taking a walk down the hallway to Lauren Callanto’s Spanish class gives an idea of what this looks like in practice. Students mill around, writing past participles and getting classmates to sign off on them, saying they are correct.

Callanto says since they began the new system this year, she doesn’t even grade work like this, she just uses it, like a basketball drill, to see how the students are doing developing their skills. 

Callanto: If I keep looking and there’s mistakes, I’ll look to see who’s signing off on it, who’s saying it’s ok. If I see a student who has a lot of erase marks… and the good thing about something like this is it’s so easy to look at and give a quick feedback. So it’s literally for me to just look at it and say ok, do we know how to make the past participle. And in the perfect world, tomorrow, and I think they’re all there, we’ll be able to actually use it in Spanish.

The kids hustle around the classroom, conjugating verb infinitives; practicing their dribble.

Watching her, Callanto is clearly an ace teacher. That’s why the administration made her and other ace teachers from other departments competency coaches. They collaborate with teachers who perhaps struggle with letting go of the way things were when they were students.

That brings us here, to a work session for math teachers. They’re deciding how to grade each competency.

Decowski: we don’t use any numbers for our grading right now so it’s NYC, C, B or A.

You just heard math teacher, Jon Decowski, and you heard right: number grades are gone.

The new grades stand for Advanced, Beyond Competent, Competent, Not Yet Competent and Insufficient Work Submitted. And though A, B, and C sound familiar, they aren’t really equivalent to the A, B, C’s of the past.

Decowski explains that the idea is if you basically get a concept and can show that, you get a C, but…

Decowski: for the higher levels, the A’s and the B’s you want to really make sure they understand it, they can analyze it and write about it.

The system also gives teachers more flexibility in how they grade students.

For example, students who were failing during the first half of the semester, but then really boned up and got themselves to a B level, could get a B. They aren’t forced to use the average of the grades, and they can give students grades that represent the level of understanding they have achieved.

That means students never have an excuse to give up, and saying, “well my average is so low that, mathematically, I can’t pass.”

That’s a big change; and for some of Spaulding’s teachers, like math teacher Mike O’Brien, it’s a tough one.

O’Brien: It takes something from a math teacher perspective that was very objective, and makes in subjective. Which is taking certainly teachers in general and math teachers more specifically out of their comfort zone of being able to assess.
Seaward: In the old system, if a teacher was giving a ten point quiz, it’s either right or it’s wrong, they get a point if it’s right and they don’t get a point if it’s wrong, you’re right, it’s easy to give a number to that.

Rob Seaward is Spaulding’s principal, and has been spearheading the change.

Seaward: but my question would be is what level of understanding is that? It’s simple, recall understanding.

Seaward says the transition to competency based instruction meant taking a hard look at what grades are really measuring. 

He says, before, things that didn’t have anything to do with how good a student was at Math or English were part of the grade, like participation and behavior. Those pieces are now part of a separate “professionalism” score.

And more to the point, what really is the difference between a 79 and an 82 on a Social Studies paper?

Seaward: Right, everybody wants the B. Why did I not get the B. I could explain to them, in language, why they were not at a B level for myself. What I couldn’t do is say why was it the 84 vs. the 85.

But finally, Seaward says, what does it mean if you get 100, very basic, multiple choice questions right? That still only tells a teacher you have a basic understanding. So switching to competencies has led Spaulding to reconsider everything about the way it tests and evaluates students.

The school is focusing on trying to get all teachers to test students in ways that really stretch them, and tease out how deeply the students understand the material.

Achieving changes like that, in every classroom, sounds unlikely.

Seaward: Have we changed? Is it 100 percent competency based? Are there still people working in hybrids between the old and the new? Has everybody completed this? The answer is No. This is a long term shift, it’s a big shift. It’s like an aircraft carrier trying to make a turn.

And consider that the entire Rochester school district –  with its eight elementary schools, and two middle schools – is going to be going through this same change in 2013. Seaward says that’s like a super-carrier trying to turn.

And just as it would be hard to tell what’s happening from the deck of a boat that size, it’s not always obvious if big changes are underway, or if you’re just steaming along like before.

Senior Alex Clark, back in Señora Callanto’s class, says he’s really only noticed the new grades, and not the other changes that the administration talks about.

Clark: I guess the biggest thing about the new grading system is that it’s a lot less competitive, like if you got a 99 and I got a 98, you’re clearly doing better than me!

But when you pull the back, out beyond Spaulding, and Rochester, to the whole state of New Hampshire, you start to see the big picture.

Since 2005, New Hampshire has required schools to develop competency based learning. According to Paul Leather of the New Hampshire Department of Education, that makes us a forerunner. He says, because of the state’s tradition of local control, schools have been allowed to implement this change however they see fit, making the state like the nation’s test lab for competency based learning.

Leather: one school might not look like another school in New Hampshire we have a number of schools that have some excellent examples of how they’re doing competency education in a deep way.

Leather says some other schools have made changes in name only, and its really just business as usual there. But even so other states are taking notice. An interstate education compact voted unanimously this year to grant New Hampshire a national award for State Innovation, partly for its work with competency

Of course, at Spaulding and other New Hampshire schools, awards don’t really matter. They’re in the trenches, just trying to make sure as many kids as possible are learning as much as possible.


Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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