Five Things That Changed At My School When We Adopted A Competency-Based Model

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.”

This ancient Chinese proverb sums up my view on why just three years ago it was time for my school, Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH,  to stop “talking” about making the change to a competency-based grading and reporting model and why it was time to start “doing it.” With a leap of faith in support of the latest educational research from authors Colby, Marzano, O’Connor, Reeves, Stiggins, and Wormeli, our school community “jumped into the deep end of the pool” of high school redesign. Looking back on this now, I firmly believe it was the best thing we could have done. While we haven’t solved all of our issues yet, I think we are well on our way toward realizing our vision of “learning for all, whatever it takes.”


As you might expect, our leap of faith into the deep end of the pool didn’t happen without some advanced strategic planning and groundwork. In the years leading up to our jump, teachers in my school

spent a great deal of time developing common course-based competencies and making sure they were aligned to the New Hampshire Grade Span Expectations (GSEs) and ultimately the common core. They worked in teams to develop common assessments and common rubrics to measure student learning. As a school, we talked about the importance of focusing our professional work on student learning and mastery of competencies. Still, we were only scratching the surface of our potential. We knew that if we truly wanted to impact student learning on a large-scale in our school, we were going to have to operate differently.


Last year, we developed a blueprint to help us become a premiere high school in New Hampshire. We identified three “pillars” of success, and we recognized that if we could do these three things well, then everything else would fall into place:


Pillar One:  Our LEARNING COMMUNITIES work interdependently to advance student learning and academic performance for which we are collectively responsible and mutually accountable.


Pillar Two:  Our STUDENTS ARE ENGAGED in learning tasks and performance assessments that accurately measure learning and mastery of competency.


Pillar Three:  Our community fosters a POSITIVE SCHOOL CULTURE AND CLIMATE for each of our stakeholders that promotes respect, responsibility, ambition, and pride.


Since the adoption of our pillar model, we have made some great strides toward becoming a premiere school. Here are five ways our school has changed since we went to a competency-based model:


1. Our school is now structured into small learning communities for all students in grades 9 and 10. There are plans to look at career-path learning communities for grades 11 and 12 in the next couple of years.

Why this matters: In the past, we organized our professional learning community (PLC) teams by content-area (departments). While this model was useful for discussing curriculum and engaging in vertical planning within specific disciplines, our teams were never able to get to the heart of the conversations they needed to have if they were truly going to be a PLC – conversations about student learning. By making the shift to small learning communities and reorganizing our teams by grade level, we have created

the natural groupings that we need in order to advance as PLC teams. Currently at Sanborn, there are 7 small learning community teams that in some way share common students:  Freshman, sophomore, junior/senior, math, career and technical education, world language, and fine & performing arts.


2. We all use a common set of grading procedures that are “competency-friendly.” These procedures include language for the use of formative and summative assessments that link to competencies, a requirement that at least 90% of a final grade is based on these summative assessments, the use of reassessments for students who do not score at a proficient level on a summative assessment on their first attempt, and the elimination of the “zero” from our numerical system.

Why This Matters:  Since the teachers in our PLC teams now share common language and common expectations for grading, it makes it easier for them to have the serious and meaningful conversations about student learning. It makes it easier for each PLC team to develop common performance assessments that assess student mastery of course-based competencies and to use those assessments as part of a data cycle that includes the following action items:

  • Establishment of targeted learning goals;
  • Development of instructionally relevant assessments;
  • Generation of valid data;
  • Analysis of that data; and
  • Implementation of targeted improvements.


3. We report student progress based on mastery of common course competencies and school-wide expectations for learning.

Why This Matters:  A lot of schools in New Hampshire will tell you that they “do” competencies. By that, most schools mean that each team or department has worked together to define competencies and develop common assessments to measure these competencies. Students are relatively aware that their grade, in some way, is connected to these competencies. At Sanborn, we “do” competencies too, but for us the act of “doing” is at a higher level. Mastery of course-based competencies is not just part of a student’s final course grade at Sanborn, it IS their grade. In order to receive credit for a class, students must be at a proficient level in each of the competencies assigned to that course. The report card allows us to be crystal clear with students about the skills and the learning that they are responsible for in each of their classes. This raises the bar for academics at our school.


4. Our grades separate academics and behaviors. Final course grades are now purely based on what it is our students know and are able to do.

Why This Matters:  Years ago, parents and students would express frustrations over the varying grading practices that teachers used to calculate a final course grade. Over time, in my community, they came to use the phrase “Sanborn A” to represent a phenomenon of grade inflation that they were experiencing at Sanborn. Although teachers would do their best to try to raise the academic bar in their classes, their efforts were met with limited success because our school was using a very flawed set of grading practices that melded together both academic and behavioral grades. Most teachers at the time would put quite a bit of weight into cumulative tests designed to measure a student’s ability to access, synthesize, and extend the material that was presented in class. Doing well on these tests was the obvious way to get an “A” in the class. I met a lot of “A” students; however, who openly admitted they were not good test-takers. For them, they were able to rely on “behaviors” and “good study habits” such as turning in homework on time, participating in class, and doing extra credit assignments to boost their grade.  While admittedly these are all desirable behaviors that “good” students should have, using these behaviors to calculate a final course grade was resulting in a misrepresentation of what it is students knew and were able to do. It led to gaps in learning and, over time, the concept of an “Easy A” developed at my school. By separating academic and behavior grades, we have helped restore the validity that an “A” has in our grading. An “A” now means that a student has exceeded the academic standard or skill for that competency or course. This shift is having a huge impact on learning at our school.


5. Our teachers have recommitted to the ideals of the professional learning community (PLC) model and are well on their way toward implementing these ideals in a way that focuses our teams on student learning and mastery of competencies like they never have before.

Why This Matters: Rick DuFour, one of the leading experts of the professional learning community model, once defined a team to me as a “group of people working interdependently to achieve a common goal for which members are collectively responsible and mutually accountable.” In all areas of the public and private sector, we organize ourselves into highly-functioning teams because we know that is the most efficient way to operate. Why then, in schools, do we treat teachers as independent contractors of student learning? Rick DuFour believes that when schools can organize themselves into highly functioning teacher teams that are focused on learning, great things will begin to happen. As a school administrator, my job is to provide teachers with an organizational structure and the time to be able to meet in these teams. This was as true for us at Sanborn as it would be for any school that wants to take their PLCs to the “next level.” I can see first-hand from some of my amazing staff members that when you give teachers time and structure, they really will do amazing things. I often tell people that my role as the principal is to give them wings and let them fly. My teams amaze me every day.


As a building principal, I feel a renewed sense of confidence in our system that when I am talking with parents about concerns they are having in one of our classrooms or with one of our staff members, I can say to them that it doesn’t matter which teacher your child has, our school is committed to the same goals and our teachers all hold students to the same academic, social, and civic expectations. With that same level of confidence, I can openly tell parents that regardless of the teacher or the course, grading is an exercise in professional judgment wherein an educator seeks to ensure that the grade each student receives is an accurate representation of his or her learning. Our system isn’t perfect yet. We have much work to be done in the areas of developing quality performance assessments based on higher-order thinking, we plan to continue to grow and refine our professional learning community model, and we need to focus more efforts on addressing students who struggle with learning as well as those who excel. Having said all of this, I am confident we are well on our way toward being a premiere high school in New Hampshire and beyond.

Originally published at

47 comments for “Five Things That Changed At My School When We Adopted A Competency-Based Model

  1. January 4, 2013 at 3:27 am

    Brian, I can second your outstanding efforts at Sanborn, your work in becoming a competency-based school has lead to Sanborn being a beacon of light here in NH. I know the work you have done with your report card has been back-breaking alone, so the sum of your efforts here are certainly Hurculean.

    One area in particular that I want to comment on has been your efforts to separate academic grades from behavior. My experience has been that behavioral issues are typically engagement issues. When students are engaged, they “behave”. All too often our grades are tied to such things as effort, behavior, etc. This often results in lower grades because disengaged kids don’t always produce like we would hope they do. Besides, in a competency-based system, behavior is, itself, a separate “life skill” competency, but not a content competency.

    Thanks for sharing, Brian. I’m looking forward to reading more from you here.

    • Dr Bluz
      January 4, 2013 at 5:01 pm

      Nice article on change. Thanks.

    • January 4, 2013 at 6:11 pm

      I agree. It seems one of the major differences between competency-based and traditional ed (although it certainly doesn’t have to be this way) is separating the academics from the habits of mind (or dispositions or lifelong learning skills..they are called so many things).

      On the competency education wiki there are a couple of links to different examples of habits/behaviors that schools are emphasizing.

  2. January 4, 2013 at 9:10 am

    Competence is good. I observed that with my children – the smaller scale than a school. 🙂 The younger daughter develops much faster than her older brother because she instinctively tries to catch up with the better one. We simply shouldn’t put comparing to such extent that it causes more frustration than benefits.

    • Dr Bluz
      January 4, 2013 at 5:00 pm

      Alfred Adler would look at the younger child working that hard as an attempt at “dethroning” the older children. Children “compete” in the family system for the attention of the adults in their lives. Younger children have a slight advantage over older siblings due to the oldest sibling not having someone to observe as they go about making life decisions (except of course for adults; and if adults are not good at life’s decisions….) The younger children have older siblings they can watch and find “better” or alternative ways to get attention.

  3. January 4, 2013 at 12:23 pm

    I’m looking forward to considering this post with depth as I look for new and better ways to foster student learning and engagement. Thank you for sharing.

  4. NancyEH
    January 4, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    I’ll be interested to see your students’ standardized testing results 5 and 10 years down the road.

    • January 4, 2013 at 6:13 pm

      It’s amazing how the districts that are embracing competency education are already seeing results in less than 3 years of implementation. Adams 50 upgraded all of their elementary schools so none are remaining on lowest performing schools status.

    • January 4, 2013 at 9:33 pm

      Why are you interested in standardized test results? They are a weak proxy for real learning. Better to find out how graduates do in college, work, civic and family life. I don’t know the work of this school. It sounds good. I hope they really do try to ‘let the test scores take care of themselves’ and focus on deeper and more extended learning that students – and society – need.

  5. January 4, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    Your work at Sanborn HS is a great example of how to meet the NEASC Standards – good for you for diving into the deep end! it is clear that you are seeing the rewards of your efforts through increased demonstrations of proficiency by your students and a laser focus on student learning by the staff. I hope you will continue to share your successes with the educational community.

  6. Mark Johnstone
    January 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Hi Brian, Thanks for this report on the competency-based model at your school. I was interested by your effort to separate academics and behaviors and by the perception that this lead to “grade inflation.” I’ve encountered a similar problem where I work, in a university bridge program in Saudi Arabia. I attempt to measure both competency and behavior though have not successfully separated them. I believe that behavior based assessment is legitimate – particularly in my subject, which is English – since we are attempting to determine which academically successful students are most likely to succeed in higher education. We know that it is persistence, not language competency, that is the better indicator of future success. Now that you have successfully separated academic competency from behavioral competency, are you still measuring behavior, and if so, how are you doing that?

    • January 4, 2013 at 6:09 pm

      Hi mark, We do indeed still measure behavior. We have six school-wide behavioral expectations that teachers can report out on each marking period. Grades for these appear on our report card by course, and a summary of these grades appear for the year on the transcript. So, for example, on your final transcript you will have a summary of your ability to be a “quality producer who can recognize and produce work of high quality” as a freshman, a sophomore, a junior, and then a senior. This is new for us — we only have 2 years of data so we haven’t turned this feature on yet on our transcript, but it is available to us.

      This link explains our process more:

      • January 15, 2013 at 11:54 pm


        I concur with the separation of the behavior from the learning, but where is the teeth in reporting the behavior on a report card/transcript? Do you find employers or colleges pay any attention to this and hold students accountable to their high school work habits? My MS is doing just this, and I am being pressured to do the same at our HS, but don’t want to do the work unless there is meaningful responses later on. I am interested in how your community responded.

  7. January 4, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    Great work!
    I would love to see a follow up to this article that addresses in more detail the issues around:
    1) How you eliminated the zero grade and what you replaced it with (Proficiency scales for example?)
    2) How you addressed grading students with disabilities
    3) How you prepared and/or involved the greater community in this transition
    4) Do you provide students and parents with information specific to “behavior” and habits? Is this also in the form of a grade, and if so, does this end up on the student’s transcript?
    5) How have you addressed the advanced student who underperforms on homework/classwork, cuts class, etc, but is able to ace the tests?
    6) How you have communicated with colleges to help them better interpret students’ transcripts.

    This is a great direction to take your school and I would like to hear more about your progress.

    • January 4, 2013 at 11:23 pm

      For years, folks have proclaimed that they’ll not “die on that hill.” The hill can be compared to the bell curve that many folks won’t/can’t shift the paradigm. I am all for the competency grading as well. I, too, am interested in reading more about the how-tos.

  8. Wayne Phillips
    January 4, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    Thank you for leading the way for high schools. It seems change in education begins in the elementary schools and then runs into a roadblock at middle and high school. Many elementary schools have separated work habits, etc. from academic goals for years. At our school we have the outcomes based on the provincial curriculum for each subject area in the report cards. Teachers tell the students what outcomes they will be learning in each class. Outcomes are posted around the room and often on assignments. The students are evaluated throughout the year on where they stand for each outcome. That is the results that are conveyed to the parents. Not a letter grade or percentage which really do not tell the student or parent what needs to be improved upon. There is no scale from one to ten or anything like that. We feel the students either show they know the outcome, are working towards it, or really are struggling. That is what the report card also says. We worked with parents in our community. We identified the parents that are the leaders away from the school and made sure they knew what we were going to do and why. We got their input and then pushed forward. Sorry for the length. If you have any questions, please email me. Keep up the awesome work and hopefully we will begin to see greater change in our high schools.

  9. January 4, 2013 at 5:59 pm

    Congratulations Brian! We at Overton High School jumped in last year with a few of our subjects that were not performing well on the End of Course Test used for State Accountability. We had the highest gains in the district on our Algebra I test. The Algebra I teachers really took the concepts behind our Standards Based Grading System to heart and their efforts were proven out in their results. Anyone attempting to implement anything like Standards or Competency based learning should be prepared for a great deal of resistence and misunderstanding because it is a true shift from anything you will have done before. Meet often, talk often, and work together. This year we have expanded the model to all End of Course Test Subjects as well as AP classes that were not achieving at least a 50% pass rate. The great future benefit of switching to this model is that the transition to Common Core Standards becomes a much more organized and manageable process.

  10. January 4, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Separating behavior from learning makes sense, but it is also important to understand how many (I estimate half) of all behavior problems are actually manufactured by the schools during the lower grades. The article here talks about high school students where the student has already reached a point where his education is mostly his responsibility. In the lower grades, parents take a much greater role in overseeing the child’s education. In general, oversight takes place in the home, in the form of homework supervision, and this, in effect, creates a role for the parent as an enforcer of someone else’s demands. Although most parents will support the school in whatever they expect, there are cases where the child simply fails to get the work done, largely because of problems with working memory and processing speed. The parent lacks authority to decide what to do, with disastrous implications for the home and for the child’s education. As long as we continue to empower teachers with the authority to not just assign, but grade severely, work done at home, we will breed a subgroup of children who are unable to finish work in a reasonable amount of time, and act out in response. Homework reform is critical to altering that problem. I daresay that if we did that, by high school, we would have a substantial reduction in behavioral problems.

  11. Rose Colby
    January 4, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    It has been an honor and pleasure to work with Brian Stack, his school leadership team and his faculty in moving from a traditional high school experience to a competency based learning environment. In all of this transformational work, the grading change has been the most difficult yet, the most rewarding. Moving to competency based learning is meaningless unless the grades communicated about the learning are truly representative of the level of mastery of student performance.
    Brian is correct–many schools walk the walk of competencies but do not change much else about the learning experience.
    In schools that have embraced this difficult work of grade reform, we have found out some interesting qualitative and quantitative data. One aspect of competency based grading for the ‘high flyer’ students, is that they no longer are rewarded with high grades for working hard. Those essential skills are communicated with a separate rubric to parents and colleges. So there is an element of deflation for this group.
    One grade schema used in some other schools is the A (Above Competent), B (Beyond Competent), C (Competent), NYC (Not Yet Competent), and IWS (Insufficient Work Shown). The NYC is interesting in that a student receiving that grade then can work on competency recovery, diminishing the need for course recovery.
    Sanborn Regional High School continues to move forward, evolving into better instructional practices and building more and more resources for students.

  12. Justin Clark
    January 4, 2013 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article. I have one question: When you started to and continue your “leap into the deep end of the pool,” were the “ideas” (no “zero” policy, heavy weight on grade for summative exames, etc.) presented as policy and enacted, your team worked the bugs out as the year(s) went on, or was there conversation about the “ideas” with the staff with the idea that it may/may not become policy? Thanks in advance for your response.

    • January 4, 2013 at 8:12 pm

      Great question! We actually “piloted” these ideas with a core group in our freshman team and they showed three years worth of “data” on how the policies would work and how they impact instruction before we rolled it out school-wide.

      • Justin Clark
        January 4, 2013 at 9:21 pm

        Thanks for the quick respsonse. Three more things if you don’t mind:
        1. How many people were part of this “piloted” program (I know you said a “core group,” but I am not sure what that means)?
        2. When you say “rolled-it ou school-wide,” does that means it became policy? Were all teachers teachers given the mandate to implement the “ideas” that were rolled-out?

      • January 5, 2013 at 2:03 pm

        It is interesting how this discussion — currently also going on in our school district — tends to focus more on the ‘grading’ aspects than the ‘learning.’ Reading the same researchers’ work, I’m consistently reminded it is about the learning.

        Thanks for the great post — I’ve captured your school’s two grading documents and dropped them in a shared Google folder for our teachers. We’re not technically pursuing a competency-based model, but as one commenter observed above, the common-core standards (and, I believe, the assessments that come along with them) go in that direction. I really think your parent communication in those two documents is very solid. I’d love to hear how your community has responded.

        Wes (@WesLVHS)

  13. Irfan Sheikh
    January 5, 2013 at 2:45 am

    Great food for thought as we head back to school. An excellent article that I will share with our teaching faculty as it speaks to an ongoing conversation we are having around adaptation and reculturing as a school community in response to the shifting educational environment. Thanks!

  14. Kevin Wilcox
    January 5, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    I am glad you are happy with the progress your school has made, but as a teacher nineteen years I have seen this model being pushed for the last decade, and I am more convinced every year that this is moving in the wrong direction.
    Common assessment, when defined as quizzes and tests, especially if they are multiple choice is dumbing down curriculum and teaching. Rubrics bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator. They stifle creativity and analysis. Students will do exactly what the rubric says and nothing more. They become so dependent upon them they can’t think for themselves.
    Teacher collaboration is great and should be the norm. This process does not need to centered around common assessments or some corporate meeting model. SMART goals, etc. are silly devices that help newer and poorer teachers at the expense of experienced and talented teachers.
    I do really like the idea of separating behavior and content knowledge in grades, however, much of a students success in a class is dependent upon their willingness to work and struggle. It is a very difficult balance to reach. Hopefully, your grading system helps with that.
    By following the steps you have described your test scores will improve, but learning and thinking will decrease. I know as an administrator you are bound to the will of the politicians that establish stupid laws and standards. The last ten years have been devastating to education in America and unfortunately it looks like the next ten are going to be much of the same.

  15. January 5, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Congratulations on eliminating the practice of giving students zeros! This is a remarkable change and now that you are grading students on what they “know and are able to do” parents are able to get a true picture of their teen’s strengths and needs. You are to be commended for engaging your teachers in high quality professional learning in order to affect student achievement. I disagree with those who think the last few years in education have been devastating. The Common Core has now afforded our schools to develop a nationwide professional learning community. We can now speak a common instructional language. It is time for equity to occur within our school systems so that students in our school districts with a lower tax base can actually have the same resources afforded to them as those in our wealthier districts.

  16. January 5, 2013 at 7:47 pm

    This is a topic that is much like the implementation of a Standards-based Grading model. I have written several articles on the subject and have attached a link to a blog I recently had posted. Enjoy and feel free to contact me if you want to discuss further.

  17. David Weir
    January 5, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    I applaud all the efforts to make students’ learning more outcome-based. The initiative is NOT new, however. Improvements that really matter must have students not just engaged in their own learning, but the learning of their classmates’ learning, Besides active peer tutoring, schools must start developing effective testing centers, so teachers aren’t barraged with students wanting them to do the retesting.

  18. January 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm

    Brian, Congratulations on making this monumental change! My business partner and I have been working with man y other clients on doing the same thing with varied measures of success. There seem to be several reasons this is a successful or a non-successful transformation.

    1. Staff resistance to the new ideas and the basic of idea of no longer using grades as punishment or as a carrot. It does not take much for one or two teachers to torpedo the initiative by working subversively with parents.
    2. Speaking of parents, it has been my experience that the parent group most opposed to this initiative or the parents who think that grades provide bragging right – “my child is an all A student,” “My child is Valedictorian.”
    3. Parents who most like this are those who understand that life is not a game of Jeopardy and that being proficient is what we are really striving for.
    4. If you have not read Tony Wagner’s book, The Global Achievement Gap please do so. He lends support to what you are doing on an even larger scale.

    Good luck to you and your staff – this is a very encouraging article.

  19. Dale Skoreyko
    January 7, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Nicely written. For the past few years up here in Alberta, Canada we have been examining “Pillar Two” with great interest. As a high school principal I have seen the “Sanborn A” and engaged in a similar activity to provide an opportunity for teachers to establish grading criteria for their subject areas. The discussions that resulted among colleagues were the best professional development I could have wanted. The result was two fold; the teachers (and students) now had a clear understanding of the essential demonstrations of knowledge and skills that were prescribed by an ‘A’, and everyone knew that behavior marks were not part of achievement grades. The “no zero” issue became moot since it was unlikely that a student would ‘achieve’ a zero on an assessment. Students MUST complete their summative assessments. We have a myriad of strategies to ensure that required assessments are completed (after all, we know where they go to school! Eventually they’ll just walk through the door).

  20. January 8, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    My comments are addressed to your last paragraph where you say it doesn’t matter what teacher a student has because in a true competency-based sy they will be graded the same way and equally.

    • January 8, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      Sorry, I hit the post comment button by accident.
      I don’t think it’s accurate to say that all teachers will mark all students equally and fairly. There are many subjective issues that come into play, such as the dynamics between teacher and student, the teacher’s ability to differentiate instruction for that child, the experience of the teacher, etc. To say that none of this matters is almost like saying that marks can be machine generated or are fool proof. Just not possible. Parents need to understand that although there is a common ethic and a common curriculum and agreed to standards, that their child will be looked at as an individual not as a mark on a paper or a project. This does not necessarily mean that we make exceptions or count in points for those “dispositions” that you have so carefully separated out of the report card mark. What it does mean, for me at least, is that we are careful that we don’t lose sight of the student in front of us in our attempts to demonstrate learning on content. At the same time, much of what I’ve been reading lately says that those dispositions are more important for success in life, however that may be measured, than whether a student masters the content of a geometry course.
      My thoughts in the raw,

  21. November 18, 2013 at 4:39 am

    Profile School is in the midst of a complete grading and assessment overhaul. Sanborn High School has excellent sample report cards accessible online which has helped us greatly with how to report out on competencies, 21st century learning expectations, school wide goals and soft skills. I would like to learn more from your team about how they came together on common competencies and grading expectations and whether or not your team had formal training and if so with whom. I believe we could benefit from a few workshops on competency development, grading and assessment. Thank you, Jennifer

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