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What’s school without grade levels?

Northern Cass student Katelyn Stavenes taking part in the Jaguar Academy pilot, a piece of the district’s plan to eliminate grade levels by the fall of 2020.

Northern Cass student Katelyn Stavenes taking part in the Jaguar Academy pilot, a piece of the district’s plan to eliminate grade levels by the fall of 2020.

The district plans to expand the pilot until it’s an option for all students in what are now called the eighth through twelfth grades.  And, beyond Jaguar Academy, Northern Cass educators are rewriting lessons and assessments, both for academic subjects and for “habits of work,” such as perseverance and collaboration, into progressions of competencies free of grade-level expectations. They have spent evenings and school breaks shuffling teacher schedules and prepping for competency-based classrooms; they’ve visited other schools around the nation that have a head start down this road; they’ve added another guidance counselor to beef up internship opportunities for older students; and they’ve held several workshops to explain it all to parents.

“I’d love to tell you we have every answer,” Steiner said, but “we’ve got a long way to go.”

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While seat-time schooling is fiercely opposed by reformers, it is backed by state and federal law. Northern Cass’s reforms rely on North Dakota’s 2017 decision to let districts apply for waivers from requirements such as hours of instruction.

Most states have something on the books to encourage competency-based options, but only about a half-dozen have loosened seat-time dictates enough to dispense with grade levels, according to Matt Williams, chief operating officer and vice president of policy and advocacy for the personalized-learning nonprofit KnowledgeWorks.

In North Dakota, Williams and his colleagues worked with Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent of public instruction, to write the waiver bill, and Northern Cass leaders lobbied legislators to pass it.

They pushed for radical change even though North Dakota districts were doing well by traditional measures, such as graduation rates, ACT scores and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, on which the state regularly ranks among the top fifteen in most subjects and grade levels tested.

We’ll do whatever we have to do for testing. But we won’t put any extra effort or incentive into them. They’ll be something we have to do and move on.
Cory Steiner, superintendent, Northern Cass (N.D.) school district

According to Baesler, however, “We were too often teaching to a test. Educators wanted students to engage more and apply their learning in meaningful ways.”

At Northern Cass, momentum for change began during the district’s 2016 accreditation renewal when staff checked up on students after graduation. They found that graduates’ college grades tended to dip compared to their high-school GPAs, and the students bounced around a lot — switching majors, transferring to other universities or dropping out.  District leaders decided they hadn’t done enough to prepare students for life after high school.

According to Melissa Uetz (pronounced yoots), a special education teacher who became Jaguar Academy’s lead facilitator, the message was, “We needed to help kids find their passions before they left school.”

That meant more flexibility and potential for exploration in student schedules. The primary goal for Jaguar Academy was to give high school students more opportunities for job shadows and internships. More proposed changes spiraled out from there, including the decision to do away with grade levels.

“Teachers said, ‘If this is good for kids, why not bring it to all of them?’ ” said Steiner. “Our conversation went from Jaguar Academy to ‘What if we tore the whole system down?’ ”

Of course, no matter what individual states and districts allow, federal law still mandates grade-level-pegged testing. Education departments use those scores to evaluate schools. Quite often, so do parents.

California’s Lindsay Unified School District, which switched to competency-based education years ago and has been mentoring Northern Cass, kept grade levels because of standardized tests. Lindsay Unified’s director of advancement, Barry Sommer, said he would love to scrap grade levels, because they get in the way of “truly moving to a 21st-century school that’s learner centered.” But California’s district-accountability tracking system is based on grade-level achievement tests.

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