Focusing on family buy-in, a Connecticut district shifts to mastery-based learning

how-competency-based-education-is-changing-mainstream-learning-infographic-550x575WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. — When Kylie Jones brings home her report card, it doesn’t have any A’s, B’s or C’s. The Windsor Locks High School freshman belongs to the first cohort of students going through middle and high school under a new system. Traditional grades no longer exist, children get extra help based on their individual learning needs and classrooms run very differently.

The small Connecticut town, just south of the Massachusetts border, is in its fifth year under a system that asks students to master specific skills in every subject. They can’t just do all their homework and ask for extra credit projects to obscure the fact that they didn’t truly learn something.

Superintendent Susan Bell likes to say 24 credits and a D-minus average — what used to be the cutoff for graduation — is not enough.

Kylie’s class is known as the guinea pigs. They will be the first to graduate with a mastery-based diploma. And, more important to many parents in town, the first to find out how this new system will affect their college applications.

The model is easy to understand for subjects like math, in which coursework easily breaks down into specific skills. Kylie finds it a little stranger in chorus and physical education, but there, too, she is held accountable for mastering certain competencies, like singing on pitch, clapping an accurate rhythm and dribbling a basketball.

Each semester, progress is the goal. Students who take longer to learn something aren’t penalized for it, and they don’t get the chance to give up and move on. Actual mastery is the new bar for passing classes. Teachers have had to get more creative in helping students understand new concepts, and students have had to take a lot more responsibility for their own learning. Sitting quietly at the back of the room is no longer an option in classrooms that prize student engagement.

While some students don’t love these extra demands, Kylie says the new model gives her a deeper understanding of her own strengths and weaknesses.

In 2015, Bell partnered with the local newspaper to distribute a four-part “explainer” about competency-based grading. It described what goes into traditional grades, why averaging a student’s grades over the entire school year doesn’t necessarily make sense and why the district began to separate student behavior from academic performance in its grading system. Students are now assessed based on their “habits of scholarship” in addition to their mastery of course standards. Habits of scholarship cover four behavioral expectations: “conducts self in an appropriate manner,” “completes homework,” “maximizes time on task” and “participates in class discussions.” To participate in extracurricular activities, students must be in good standing behaviorally as well as academically.

The district also created a family and community engagement coordinator position. One of the many jobs assigned to this person is setting up school visits, so that parents can see, in practice, what the competency focus means for their kids.

Read the entire article by Tara García Mathewson in The Hechinger Report at  Recommended!

Competency Based Education Infographic at

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