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Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

School without grade levels? A North Dakota district makes bold changes.

Allowing students to progress through school at their own pace and level is one of the ways a district outside Fargo is aiming to move education beyond traditional approaches.

Chris Berdik/The Hechinger Report
Northern Cass students Jaenna Wolff (l.) and Abby Richman work on history and physical science, respectively, at the Jaguar Academy.

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Moving from one grade to the next is often a rite of passage. But what if there were no grade levels? That’s what Northern Cass School District 97 in Hunter, N.D., is experimenting with. The idea is to untether teaching from traditional approaches – where students are grouped by age and taught at a uniform, semester pace – and instead adopt competency-based education, in which students progress through skills and concepts by demonstrating proficiency. Although it’s still sorting out standardized tests and student self-pacing, Northern Cass took the first steps toward its goal this past school year, launching a pilot called Jaguar Academy. A few dozen teens left their grade levels behind for three periods a day and moved through select courses with a mix of online lessons and teacher-led seminars. 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. For Katelyn Stavenes, a rising ninth-grader, Jaguar Academy is a welcome taste of autonomy. “I can just lean back and do my stuff,” she says, “instead of always watching the clock and wondering, when can I get out of here?”

On windswept fields outside Fargo, N.D., a bold experiment in education has begun. In a lone building flanked by farmland, Northern Cass School District 97 is heading into year two of a three-year journey to abolish grade levels. By the fall of 2020, all Northern Cass students will plot their own academic courses to high school graduation, while sticking with same-age peers for things like gym class and field trips. 

The goal is to stop tethering teaching to “seat time” – where students are grouped by age and taught at a uniform, semester pace – and instead adopt competency-based education, in which students progress through skills and concepts by demonstrating proficiency.

That alone isn’t unusual; a majority of states now allow competency-based pilot programs, and many schools have fully implemented the approach. What makes Northern Cass notable is that very few mainstream schools, let alone districts, have set out to topple grade levels.

But as the movement against seat-time learning grows, more schools nationwide will be grappling with grade levels, deciding whether to keep them or to hack through thickets of political, logistical, and cultural barriers to uproot them. 

Some school leaders insist that competency-based education can survive and even thrive within grade levels, or a modified version of them. Others, however, echo Northern Cass superintendent, Cory Steiner.

“We can’t keep structures that would allow us to fall back into a more traditional system,” says Mr. Steiner. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to manage without grade levels.”

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 states have loosened 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, Mr. 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.

Chris Berdik/The Hechinger Report
Northern Cass student Myles Froehlich works out fractions with the help of dominoes.

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 15 in most subjects and grade levels tested. 

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

For students, more autonomy

Northern Cass took the first steps toward that goal this past school year. A few dozen teenaged students left their grade levels behind for three periods a day during Jaguar Academy (named for the district’s feline mascot) and moved through select courses with a mix of online lessons and teacher-led seminars. Some finished the material pegged to their grade levels by mid-year and moved on, while others took more time.  

As a first-year pilot, Jaguar Academy is just part of the larger overhaul, which includes reworking both academic content and “habits of work,” such as perseverance and collaboration, into progressions of competencies free of grade-level expectations. 

But the program is one of the district’s first forays into a grade-free future. It plans to expand the pilot until it’s an option for all students in what are now called the eighth through twelfth grades.  

For students like Katelyn Stavenes, a rising ninth-grader, Jaguar Academy is a welcome taste of autonomy.

“I can just lean back and do my stuff instead of always watching the clock and wondering, when can I get out of here?” says Katelyn.

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, 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?’ ” Steiner says. “Our conversation went from Jaguar Academy to ‘What if we tore the whole system down?’ ”

Navigating the issues of tests, self-pacing

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, says 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.

For testing and student data reporting, Northern Cass still plans to link students with an expected year of graduation.

“We’ll do whatever we have to do for testing,” Steiner says. “But we won’t put any extra effort or incentive into [the tests].”

Then there’s the question of whether to place limits on how quickly or slowly students move through competencies. For instance, another of the districts mentoring Northern Cass found that just letting students work at their own pace led some kids to slack off and disrupt classmates.

“I remind teachers that we need to put some controls on this,” says Bill Zima, superintendent of the district in question, Maine’s Kennebec Intra-District Schools regional school unit #2 (RSU2). “First-graders are not ready to completely manage their time. Nor are seniors. Nor are adults, really.”

The solution for some is grouping in a single classroom kids who would traditionally be in two or three different grade levels – a longstanding practice of Montessori schools.

“A lot of schools are finding ways to blur grade levels rather than getting rid of them,” says Karla Phillips, policy director for personalized learning at the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, or ExcelinEd.

At Northern Cass, teachers plan to step in if a student gets more than three weeks behind or ahead of an expected “teacher pace.” Students who struggle will get extra support. Students who speed ahead will get a conversation about next steps.  

“Maybe we let them fly,” says Steiner. “Or maybe they want to do an independent project, or work as a peer teacher, or go back to work more on a competency where they’ve struggled.”

Meanwhile, the district is also reworking teacher assignments. Last year, for example, the elementary teachers stopped being generalists and started to specialize. The idea is that teachers will encounter students in a broader range of ages and abilities, but only in their academic areas of expertise.

Breaking with cultural norms

After cutting the regulatory red tape and solving the logistical puzzles, a deeper challenge remains in the move away from seat-time. Grade levels are part of our culture, deeply rooted in how we think about learning and childhood more broadly.

“When you meet somebody and ask how old their kids are, they say, ‘Oh, they’re in third grade or fourth grade,’ ” notes Ms. Phillips.

Cultural norms have kept grade levels partially intact in Maine’s RSU2 district, which has hosted Steiner and Northern Cass teachers many times.  

Back at Northern Cass, however, they believe that grade levels would become a crutch for students and teachers and ultimately stymie reform. “We know that we’re taking a big leap and not everybody’s going to be on board,” says Steiner.

This summer, Northern Cass teachers and administrators have been rewriting lesson plans and assessments. They’ve also been visiting more-experienced competency-based districts such as Lindsay Unified. By 2020, Steiner wants Northern Cass to be the district hosting visitors, as a mentor to other schools mulling the idea of nixing grade levels.

“On their way to visit Lindsay or another of these pioneering schools, they can stop in North Dakota,” he says, “because there’s a school out in the middle of a cornfield that’s doing this transformative work.”  

This story about competency-based education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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