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ECS Presentation on Competencies and ELOs

New Hampshire's High School Competencies & Extended Learning Opportunities Initiative Presented by Mariane Gfroerer at the Education Commission of the States (ECS) Regional Meeting for New England, sponsored by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation - Boston, Massachusetts January 9 & 10, 2009

Morning Panel: Getting Out of High School and Into the World: Different Pathways for Successful Graduation and Successful Transition to College and the Workplace


by Mariane Gfroerer, NH Department of Education

In New Hampshire, research and experience has shown us that when students are allowed to demonstrate what they've learned, both their skills and their knowledge are increased. Smart assessment is a learning experience in itself. Such assessment focuses on developing higher order thinking skills such as reasoning, performance skills, and critical thinking skills.

The example of the state driving test has been used to illustrate the importance of performance assessment. How comfortable would we be if we required our 16-year olds to pass only a multiple choice and short-answer exam before receiving their license? Performance - demonstration of competency - is considered a critical and essential skill in this instance. It tells important and vital things about current skill and potential mastery.

We believe that performance assessments must involve student demonstration against an overt set of performance standards or competencies that are known ahead of time, before learning commences, by both the teacher and the student. We also have seen that teacher observation of the student demonstrating these competencies is the most authentic type of performance assessment. The breadth and depth of the student's ability to analyze foundation and content knowledge, to evaluate it, synthesize it and apply it, are right before the observers in a powerful way.

The overt set of criteria - what we refer to in New Hampshire as the course-level competencies - adds to the effectiveness of the student demonstration, showing whether the student has developed real world abilities to take in knowledge and use it in ways that not only enhance their personal skill set, but expand it. Allowing and encouraging application of learning in novel and new situations is an excellent way to see how deep the learning is.

According to Linda Darling-Hammond and her colleagues, performance assessment

  • Allows instruction to be altered in a timely fashion to meet student learning needs
  • Elevates the focus of instruction to higher order thinking skills
  • Leads to more student engagement in both the learning & the assessment process
  • Provides clearer information to parents about student development, accomplishments and needs
  • Provides more accurate and comprehensible assessment of what students know & can do
  • Results in greater teacher improvement in buy-in, collaboration, and teaching practices (and, we've found in New Hampshire, also leads to greater teacher retention)

In New Hampshire, the first step to putting performance assessment into the hands of teachers was to require, in policy, course-level competencies. An example of these course level competencies can be seen in the Civics Competencies that we are requiring, for comparability purposes, of the various schools in our Extended Learning Opportunities pilot initiative, funded by Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Based on our experiences in the development our state Competency-Based Assessment System from 1996 through 2006, we are committed to keeping assessment as close to authentic as possible for our extended learning opportunities - real demonstration of learning in real contexts. To do this requires portability and transferability of the learning criteria - and we have this in course-level competencies.

The early Competency-Based Assessment emphasized habits of mind and being, what we called cross-cutting skills (Problem-Solving and Decision making, Communication Skills, Self-Management, Ability to Work With Others, and Information Use: analysis, research, and technology) as well as content knowledge demonstrated in English language Arts, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, and the Arts, clustered in demonstrable units of learning. These competencies were developed by teams of educators and administrators with student input. Students were a great help in reducing the educational jargon so that the competencies could be used by students, teachers, parents, and community partners.

From 2003 through 2005, revisions and additions to our Minimum Standards for School Approval were developed with enormous stakeholder input. Policy construction hand-in-hand with those who must implement it and abide by it is the New Hampshire way. The changes to these standards for schools emphasize

  • learning expectations that are portable and transferable (i.e., all HS courses must have developed course level competencies through which credit is granted toward graduation based on student demonstration of mastery of those competencies)
  • rigorous, focused, and deep learning inside and outside of the traditional classroom setting

Our course-level competencies are based on state frameworks and grade-span expectations. They represent skills, knowledge, and applications that are clustered naturally in the way that the human brain assimilates knowledge and wisdom. For instance, when you demonstrate presentation skills by talking to or with others in the course of your job, you don't first demonstrate your knowledge of grammar, and then in another instance, your knowledge of vocabulary, then of tone, then of relational ability. You may practice these individually, but each is always in context with the others and mastery is only demonstrated by all being applied at once, interdependently, as required by the context. In this same way, our course-level competencies "cluster" learning, knowledge, and habits of mind & being in natural ways, allowing for 7-15 competencies per learning unit that can be understandably demonstrated and observed in a real way, rather than 300 discrete "skills" that would then have to be checked off individually in a kind of interminable 'death-by-tickboxes'.

My example of this concept requires you to picture the last time you were at your Dentist's office for a professional treatment. Imagine your dentist having graduated at the top of her/his class, with only the knowledge - perfectly recalled - without context, synthesis, analysis of and application in novel situations, or relational skills. What would your experience, as the receiver of such services, be like in that instance? We like to think that the professionals who render service to our cars, our homes, our bodies, and our children have clustered all of those skills in higher order ways.

By using these course level competencies, which ensures that learning in a real world setting is as rigorous as that in classroom setting (we are finding through our ELO initiative that in most cases it is even more rigorous), students can be granted credit for prior-approved learning that occurs in a variety of environments. This is the basis of our Extended Learning Opportunities policy.

Finally, I'd like to talk a bit about our "moderation" process, which is our process of checks and balances on reliability and comparability within and across schools. Our methods are based on New Zealand's higher education competency assessment moderation practices, and were tested over a number of years in our earlier system of competency-based assessment. In that initiative, we were able to achieve 80% and higher inter-rater reliability in our competency-based assessments. The parameters of our current performance assessments in the Extended Learning Opportunities initiative are different in some ways, and we are very interested to proceed with moderation and examine our results in the current practice.

The ELO initiative moderation process includes bringing student samples from different schools together to be re-assessed by teams comprised of school personnel and ELO initiative leaders. We have been providing training on tuning and listening protocols which allow groups of people to share and receive feedback in useful ways. Differences in scoring and assessment of student work are discussed, and assessors are re-oriented to the performance standard. This is done on both the state and the local level. Results from the state-level moderation practice are sent back to the schools to be shared in a similar process through within-school teams of assessors. We anticipate that the clear criteria of the model course-level competencies and high quality, effective professional development on performance assessment will have positive results in our state.

Recently an administrator from one of our schools asked, "How do I 'Liberate' my teachers so that they can personalized learning through Extended Learning Opportunities?"

"Liberate" is a great word, and "liberating teachers" so that they can provide learning opportunities that encourage higher order thinking and application skills is a great concept. Perhaps we could think about what we're doing here in New Hampshire as "liberating learning." Liberating learning means breaking free from the traditional school structure of education that keeps the teacher chained to a traditional classroom by a contract based on Carnegie units, liberating teachers to focus on student learning rather than test-centered teaching, and liberating students to become engaged, self-directed, active learners through a rigorous, valid, portable, authentic learning experience.

New Hampshire Department of Education
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