Member Voices: Turning an Idea into a Movement

Contributing blogger Mary Jo Carabatsos explains her school’s work to “start a movement” in competency-based learning–and how other schools can start one too

It is mid-March and I am looking over my gradebook making student course recommendations for the following year. I have two students both with a 92, however, I don’t think they will both be successful in AP Biology. When the student asks me why her friend with a 92 was recommended for AP Biology and she wasn’t, I gently say to her “I don’t think your critical thinking skills are developed enough to succeed in the AP course.” I begin to ask myself, is there a way I can grade more clearly, so students know the skills they have mastered and those they are still developing? What exactly do my grades mean?

When I arrived at Brooks School in 2011 as the head of the Science Department, skills conversations were well underway. Many of these conversations were the direct result of a 2008 article Tony Wagner published in Educational Leadership called “Rigor Redefined.” The article highlighted the seven survival skills high school students needed to succeed in the workforce. As I waded into the conversations within my department, I kept coming back to not only what are the skills we want students to acquire but more importantly, how do we assess these skills and ensure they are learning?  And, more importantly, where in my grades is the mastery reflected?

Two years ago, I became the dean of teaching and learning and spent more time thinking about skills acquisition. As we moved deeper into these discussions, I started to think about the work Brian Stack was doing as principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, New Hampshire. Brian and I worked together during my early days as an educator at a large public high school in Massachusetts, and I had been following his work in the area of competency-based learning (CBL). We contacted Brian and started picking his brain for how we might step into this work. Because Brian was beginning to gain national recognition for his work, getting a small group of people to meet with him was rather easy. The hard part was trying to use the public school model as a means for creating a movement here at Brooks.

Learning from the Experts

We began our work by spending time with Brian and inviting him to visit our campus. He shared his reasons for starting this work at Sanborn which in the beginning was focused on making meaning of their grades. His insights helped us start the process of looking inward and thinking more clearly about how competency-based learning could add value to our current practices. As you might imagine, there were a number of discussions centered on the differences between Brian’s public school and our independent school. However, the goal during this time was to try and focus on the similarities rather than the differences. We wanted to provide better feedback to students, make meaning of our grades, and assess skills, where the resources come from to do this work shouldn’t matter. We decided to send a team of teachers to the Education Design Studio, a three-day conference held yearly that addresses CBL practices and implementation, led by Brian and his district colleagues. Although the district and state mandates that were discussed at some of the workshops didn’t apply to us, it didn’t matter. There were still lessons to learn.

Here is what we learned: 

  • The reason for diving into CBL doesn’t matter. Whether you start at grading, assessment, or test scores–one–will likely lead you to the other. Just start.
  • It is important to propose practices that are based on research from leaders in their respective fields (Thomas R Guskey, Ken O’Connor, Douglas Reeves, and Richard Wormeli, etc).
  • The momentum you build in small teacher groups is critical to building a foundation for this work.
  • In order to support innovation in teaching and learning, find time to do this work and make it a priority.
  • There are many resources available, read them all and apply what works for your school.  

Finding Our Way to Competency-Based Learning

We are now two years into this work, far from the early days visiting Brian at Sanborn and we have made steady progress. All of our work to date is grounded in the five tenets of competency-based learning first proposed by Chris Sturgis and officially adopted in 2011:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

When I attended the introductory meeting of the Mastery Transcript, I was struck by how well the work we started in 2016 was aligned with the current thinking of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. In fact, the first tenet of CBL provides the framework for earning credits that will be awarded when a student demonstrates mastery. Each school will create their own performance assessments that align to their defined skill set but more importantly support the schools mission and core values.

We have started to make some progress in defining what CBL may look like here at Brooks. Currently we have about ten teachers who are exploring the use of competency-based assessments in their classrooms. We have a steering committee who is actively spearheading the CBL movement. Our Arts department is leading this work using a skills rubric that addresses common competencies in performing and visual arts. We drafted school-wide competencies of essential skills and used these to assess students during our 3-week, one-topic course of study (Winter Term). This experience allowed teachers to test the rubrics and use them in a less conventional teaching model that was relatively low stakes since the Winter Term experience is pass/fail and the goal in using the rubric was to improve teacher feedback to students.

CBL, Mastery, and Assessment

Creating school-wide competencies means very little if we do not have the assessments to support this work. This is usually where the disconnect begins, since all too often we have great ideas about skills without the assessments to support the evidence needed for students to demonstrate mastery. To ensure we have assessments that support our skills work we recently engaged in examining assessments that were administered to students during this past school year. Although this type of work was new to many, we adapted the assessment validation checklist developed by The Center for Collaborative Education to examine the depth of knowledge and skills alignment of our current performance-based assessments. We learned valuable information about our assessments and believe this is a first step in developing aligned mastery-based assessments at Brooks School. We hope to learn more about creating CBL aligned performance assessments when we send an additional six teachers to the Educational Design Studio in Manchester New Hampshire this summer.

Students are at the center of this work, and ensuring we are preparing students for the future requires forward thinking and a willingness to expand the classroom experience and reflect on our classroom practices and question the validity of our assessments. Although not knowing exactly where we will end up is a bit unnerving, not taking the risk in the first place isn’t an option.


About Mary Jo Carabatsos

Mary Jo Carabatsos, PhD, joined the faculty of Brooks School in North Andover as the Science Department Chair in the fall of 2011. She has taught Biology, AP Biology, and Physics during her tenure at Brooks. She is currently the dean of teaching and alongside the dean of faculty and academic dean, supports her colleagues in trying to ensure the most meaningful classroom experience for all students. She has held this position for two years. Prior to joining the faculty of the Brooks School, she was the science program advisor (9-12) at Andover High School in Andover Massachusetts. Along with overseeing the high school science department, she was also the Andover Public Schools' program director of a Massachusetts STEM Pipeline fund grant supporting work in middle school engineering.