A Colorado school district does away with grade levels
To overcome low test scores and a high dropout rate, the district is implementing radical reforms.
School districts across the US are trying to improve student performance and low test scores. But few have taken as radical an approach as Adams 50.Skip to next paragraph
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For starters, when the elementary and middle-school students come back next fall, there won't be any grade levels – or traditional grades, for that matter. And those are only the most visible changes in a district that, striving to reverse dismal test scores and a soaring dropout rate, is opting for a wholesale reinvention of itself, rather than the incremental reforms usually favored by administrators.
The 10,000-student district in the metropolitan Denver area is at the forefront of a new "standards-based" educational approach that has achieved success in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but has yet to be put to the test on such a large scale in an urban district.
"There was a sense of urgency to attend to what wasn't happening for kids here," says Roberta Selleck, district superintendent, explaining why she decided to go with a drastic approach. "When you see the stats for the whole school district over time, we realized we are disconnecting [from] our kids."
The change that's getting by far the most attention is the decision to do away with traditional grade levels – for kids younger than eighth grade, this first year, though the district plans to phase in the reform through high school a year at a time. Ultimately, there will be 10 multiage levels, rather than 12 grades, and students might be in different levels depending on the subject. They'll move up only as they demonstrate mastery of the material.
But Dr. Selleck and others are quick to emphasize that that's only one piece of a radically different, more student-centered, approach to learning – and that it's not the same as tracking, the currently out-of-favor system of grouping students by ability.
Students help craft own lesson plans
The district is training teachers to involve students in the lesson plan in a far greater way than before – the students articulate their goals and develop things such as a code of conduct as a classroom. And when children fall short of understanding the material, they keep working at it. The only "acceptable" score to move on to the next lesson is the equivalent of a "B" in normal grading – hopefully showing proficiency and giving kids a better foundation as they move on to more advanced concepts. Advocates sometimes describe it as flipping the traditional system around so that time, rather than mastery of material, is the variable.
While the idea of "standards-based education," as it's often known, has been around for a while, the only public district where it's been tried for any length of time is in Alaska, where the Chugach district – whose 250 students are scattered over 22,000 square miles – went from the lowest performing district in the state to Alaska's highest-performing quartile in five years in the 1990s, a shift the former superintendent, Richard DeLorenzo, attributes to the new philosophy.
"We saw how radical a reinvention needs to happen," says Mr. DeLorenzo, who is serving as a consultant to Adams 50 and is now the founder of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, which is seeking to spread the model.