As recently as five years ago, Scott Carpenter Middle School in Denver, CO, where I am principal, was struggling to find its footing after years of declining academic performance. Our district, Westminster Public Schools, also was grappling to overcome academic challenges, diminished enrollment, and changing demographics. It was clear that teaching and learning in our school and district needed a major overhaul to better support our students’ learning needs. After exploring a variety of alternatives, district leaders and educators selected a competency-based education (CBE) system as the most promising solution. 

Becoming World Class 

When I came to Scott Carpenter four years ago, the school was already fully engaged in implementing the new system, but we still had a long way to go to achieve the goal of becoming a world-class school. With the support of the leadership team, we have made consistent progress toward that goal. Our focus on ensuring that we provide a learner-centered educational experience that is informed by robust assessment practices and data, coupled with the professional development supports that our teachers need, has enabled us to transform our school into one that is up and coming.

Student assessment data plays a fundamental role in our educational approach. In a system such as ours, educators need a clear picture of each individual student’s dynamic skill set and level of proficiency on a myriad of learning targets in order to guide instructional decision making. This requires a combination of formative and summative assessments that generate reliable and precise data about students’ skills and learning growth. Each student is scheduled into classes that meet his or her skill set and ability level based on a diverse body of data and evidence, including grade-level equivalency scores on local measures, PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test results, attainment of proficiency on learning targets within fluid performance levels, and teacher judgment. Once proficiency on the targets with a given level is demonstrated, students advance to the next level. Ours is not a time-bound system; rather, it’s based on individual attribution, echoing Westminster Public Schools’ motto, “Where education is personal.”

Thanks to sustained, systematic efforts to implement CBE, our school has made great strides. In the past two years alone, Scott Carpenter’s PARCC scores have improved significantly. In fact, Scott Carpenter is now recognized as the highest-performing middle school in our district—something unprecedented in the school’s history.

Collaborative Process

The greatest value of our assessments and the data comes from the collaborative practices our teachers use to analyze and utilize the results. Our leadership team has prioritized efforts to ensure that all of our teachers are assessment-literate. Their ability to select the right assessments, interpret the resulting data, and subsequently implement appropriate instructional strategies is crucial to successful student learning. After all, if we cannot identify a student’s strengths, growth areas, or most salient learning needs, how can we effectively help them develop the skills they need to move forward in their education?

As it turns out, assessment portfolios have become increasingly powerful tools for our teachers and students alike. The portfolios allow students, in partnership with their teachers, to track their own progress and growth. For teachers, the portfolios provide evidence of skills development and mastery, and can be used to inform individualized and small group instruction. We work carefully to ensure that the data we collect in the portfolios is an expression of our educational approach, curriculum, and instruction, and is representative of a student’s learning. For example, in language arts classrooms at Scott Carpenter, students and teachers maintain online data portfolios that include Lexile scores, work samples, data trackers, anecdotal notes, attained learning targets, and targets still needed to demonstrate proficiency on the given performance level.

Ever-changing Scoreboard

A competency-based system provides an ever-changing scoreboard in terms of what a student has mastered and what that student still needs to master. At Scott Carpenter, and at schools throughout our district, the challenge comes when tracking student progress on learning targets in lieu of traditional grades. To this end, we use a web-based learning management tool that enables students, teachers, administrators, and parents to see a cumulative picture of where kids are in terms of progress through levels and learning targets on their journey to high school graduation. 

Strengthening the professional development opportunities that we offer on assessment practices and assessment literacy has been crucial to our success. In particular, we have focused on developing strong professional learning communities (PLCs). Through creative scheduling, we’ve made it possible for teams of educators to regularly engage with and learn from each other, with sessions focused on using student data to identify trends, challenges, and opportunities to implement specific instructional interventions.

As we have progressed in our use of PLCs, we have recognized that these conversations need to be more formalized to provide consistency and accountability, and to be more responsive to individual student needs. Far more effective than a mere strategy share-out, our PLCs analyze formative assessments and interim measures to pinpoint skill deficiencies that exist within our leveled classes. Our teacher teams identify targeted groups of students and collaboratively determine instructional interventions to address their specific areas of need.

Another major priority in our turn-around efforts involved building a culture of performance, where students are intrinsically motivated to succeed and in which it is cool to be smart. To build such a culture, we have made it a fundamental goal to ensure that our system is, first and foremost, learner-​centered. We put a great deal of emphasis on ensuring that teachers and students are engaged in an active dialogue—about learning progress, strengths, and areas for growth—that informs differentiated learning according to each student’s individual needs. Our goal is to encourage students to take ownership of their learning with support and guidance from their teachers, and to become problem solvers who can identify and follow their own educational paths.

Learner-centered education at Scott Carpenter extends to decisions beyond the classroom. To this end, students, parents, teachers, district leaders, and other stakeholders are asked to participate in conversations about the direction of the school, our goals, and the changes we need to make in order to support better teaching and learning in our classrooms. Our leadership team has made these conversations a priority, and we consider all the feedback we receive-whether it is praise, criticism, or a suggestion for alternative ways of doing things.

Fundamentally, we seek to ensure that the educational experience we offer, and our decision making at the leadership level, supports everyone in our learning community while still revolving, first and foremost, around the needs of students. 

Chadwick Anderson is principal of Scott Carpenter Middle School in Denver, CO.

Making It Work

How secondary school principals can strengthen school reform efforts through improved assessment practices:

  • Prioritize effective assessment use and assessment literacy. Promote assessment as a bedrock of quality instruction and provide ongoing professional development support.
  • Cultivate a culture of high expectations for all students that emphasizes learner-centered educational practices.
  • Incorporate collaborative, systematic approaches to improving teaching and learning that involve all stakeholders.