3 Cans of Worms Standards-based Learning Opened Up in my Classroom

Can #1: The Carnegie credit vs. competency-based education

Warning: Never open up real cans of worms in your classroom.

Worms can make a mess, but they’re good for the soil. They break up compacted dirt and allow air to enter, helping new plants to take root and grow. So I guess I should thank standards-based learning and grading for opening up so many cans of worms in my classroom.

When I first heard about standards-based learning and grading in 2005, it was a no-brainer for me. Yes, we can’t keep doing it the old way — wow, we can’t keep doing it the old way.

And that was that. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not quite. What I didn’t realize was how many other aspects of teaching and learning would be disrupted by the standards-based approach. Frankly, it’s been a lot more than I bargained for. But it’s also put me in a much better position to embrace other educational trends that have come down the line.

So while SBL/SBG has caused me a lot more blood, sweat, and tears than I would have liked, it also allows me to understand and implement so many other new and exciting developments with less stress.

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the three cans of worms that standards-based learning opened up in my classroom. They are:

  1. The Carnegie credit vs. competency-based education
  2. Including behavior in the academic grade vs. positive behavior interventions and support
  3. One size fits all vs. choice and voice

Can #1: The Carnegie credit vs. competency-based education

Credit is the primary method of documenting that students have met the academic requirements of a course. When a student receives a passing grade for a class, credit is awarded and added to the student’s transcript. The Carnegie unit, defined as 120 hours of instructional time (one hour per day, five days a week, for 24 weeks), is the primary standard upon which credit is awarded in the United States.

The problem with the Carnegie unit — and with seat-time methods of awarding credit in general — is that they measure the wrong end of the kid.

Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born industrialist and philanthropist, didn’t invent the Carnegie credit. Efforts to standardize academic credit were well underway in the late 1800’s. But the standard credit was not widely adopted until the early 20th century, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching began funding professors’ retirement pensions (now TIAA-CREF) — on the condition that they adopt Carnegie unit.

The problem with the Carnegie unit — and with seat-time methods of awarding credit in general — is that it measures the wrong end of the kid. Students with a D- are likely ill equipped to take the next course in the sequence, not to mention to apply those skills and concepts in the world, regardless of how long they’ve parked their rear in a classroom seat.

Too often, the Carnegie credit has allowed — and arguably, pressured — teachers to “rubber stamp” students onto the next level, signing off on kids who really needed more support and opportunities to master the material. At that point, the student becomes their colleagues’ problem, or the problem of the world when bridges — or civic discourse — collapse. Implicated in all this is the ever-growing problem of grade inflation.

On the flip side, the Carnegie credit also makes it difficult for even the most gifted student to move at a faster than average pace. Since the amount of time spent in class is non-negotiable (an “A” student can have “credit withheld” for having too many absences), finishing work early means more thumb-twiddling, or worse, enrichment, which is not always seen as such by students. “Testing out” — a monumental accomplishment by which a student studies the material on their own, then takes and scores well on the final exam — is the main method by which students can make faster than average progress through the sequence of courses.

Competency can come quickly or slowly, but it should have nothing to do with surviving 180 days with a D-.

Most teachers using standards-based learning and grading still teach within the 180-day time frame. Many of us still give out D’s. Still, SBL/SBG begins to call the seat-time method of awarding credit into question. Many of us begin to see how we might base that decision on competency, defined as the ability to do something successfully. Competency can come quickly or slowly, but it should have nothing to do with surviving 180 days with a D-. In competency-based learning, students are granted credit when they can adequately demonstrate the knowledge or skills expected in a given course.

I remember the first time I experienced this approach to awarding credit. At the time, I was teaching math at our district’s alternative high school. Students were sometimes coming to us with a third-grade math level, so it made no sense to have textbooks or set courses.

Instead, we purchased Renaissance Math, an Internet-based platform that allowed us to meet students where they were. Rather than have these students perform horribly in roughly high school-level classes, we sought to start at their level, accelerate their learning, and build the skills necessary for success in high school math. Due to many of our students’ woeful credit deficiency, we didn’t have the luxury of taking a full 180-day school year to complete a course. So instead of a list of assignments to complete or material to cover, students had a list of standards to master. The threshold for mastering a standard was set at 80%, a vast improvement over eking out a D- over a traditional time frame.

I remember the day in early March when someone noticed Keisha was gone.

“Where’s Keisha?” the girl asked.

“She’s gone,” I replied. “She’s coming back for graduation, but she’s done.”

Keisha had mastered all the standards in Algebra II, the last math course required by the Michigan Merit Curriculum. And yes, she did it by “plowing through” — assessing a large numbers of standards each day and preparing for more assessments each night.

Let’s be clear: the Renaissance system is bare bones. We had boxes of dry-erase learning cards and cloud-based software that generated an inexhaustible supply of new assessments. My job was to circulate the room, modeling different approaches as students worked toward mastery.

She wouldn’t, like so many incoming college students, need to take remedial math classes when low entrance scores revealed that her high school grades had been a sham.

We weren’t launching any rockets in the parking lot or going on a virtual tour of the CERN hadron collider.

But as a single mom with a 2-year-old son to care for, Keisha no longer wanted any of that. Due to this program, she was able to graduate and move on with her life. In the weeks she gained, she would be able to earn money for classes at the community college and make a better life for herself and her child. And if Keisha did choose to take further math, I felt confident she would be able to hack it. Keisha wouldn’t, like so many incoming college students, need to take remedial math classes when low entrance scores revealed that her high school grades had been a sham.

I glanced around as the other kids in the class mulled over what I had just said. Almost immediately, I saw a spike in motivation as students sought to accelerate their own learning.

Since closing our alternative school in 2005, I’ve been teaching at the mainstream high school. We don’t have Renaissance Math. We do have Education 2020, but it’s mainly used for credit recovery.

By and large, we don’t have any method for credentialing students besides the usual attendance in and passing of a class. The 180-day school year is still a fixture. The resultant pace ends up being too fast for some, too slow for others. My colleagues and I try to make it as engaging and flexible as possible. We try to think inside this 180-day box.

But as a teacher who uses standards-based learning, I need to “go on record” with the skills and concepts I expect students to demonstrate and understand. I can’t just appeal to a bunch of content we need to “cover,” filling up the columns in an assignment-based grade book.

It’s true that I expect some standards to be demonstrated consistently or in multiple ways. But at some point, I need to be able to admit, “You know what? You can do this. You don’t need to demonstrate this anymore.”

Maybe I can’t just cut large numbers of kids loose in March. Maybe we don’t have the infrastructure for them to click into the next course halfway through the year. But how can we harness some of the power and motivation of competency-based learning in a standards-based classroom?

I think we can. Some thoughts:

Stop giving D’s

This doesn’t mean make your “C” the new “D.” Inflating grades doesn’t count! I personally use an A, B, C, I grading scale and have no qualms about changing a student’s overall grade to an “I” when they haven’t demonstrated mastery of enough standards. In brief, figure out what’s adequate and hold the line. If a student is scoring below what’s adequate, that’s a problem. Don’t let yourself or the student off the hook. Imagine all the bridges and civic discourse that will collapse as a result of your benign neglect!

Exempt kids from work

If a kid has demonstrated mastery of a given standard, exempt them from future assessments involving that standard. As secular as we are, you’d think that we still abide by the Puritan maxim, “Idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.” If a kid has demonstrated three different types of college lecture notes, let them go play outside after school instead of doing piles of homework for the sake of homework! Many types of web-based learning have begun using this approach of “credentialing” students, some going as far as issuing digital badges to recognize student mastery of concepts and skills. Girl and Boy Scouts have been doing this for years. And far from encouraging students to rest on their laurels, badgification taps into some powerful sources of motivation well known to video game aficionados: after all, who doesn’t want to collect them all?

Flip your classroom

Flipped classroom “flips” the traditional approach of providing direct instruction in class and sending students home to practice. Instead, students access instruction at home and come in to school to practice and get help from the teacher. Encourage and assist your students to tap into the many high-quality videos and resources available on the web, harnessing the power of an “open-source” education. Many textbooks also come with access to online instructional videos. What’s to stop motivated students from “plowing through” these videos at home? When students are ready, let them take the assessment. Yes, having multiple versions of those assessments helps. But what’s the absolutely worst thing that could happen: students start using your class as a study period later in the year? Who knows, maybe they could start preparing to test out of the next class! Alternatively, classes that already utilize it can turn to Genius Hour/20% Time when students want or need to take a break from an accelerated regimen.

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This post is also crossposted at my website.

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