In a recent EdSurge article, writer Felice Hybert introduces the notion of eliminating grade levels in an effort to better connect classes to careers. Hybert highlighted work in the Kankakee School District in Illinois where elementary students are introduced to a number of career pathways in an effort to start conversations and explorations around career possibilities.

By high school, students are engaged in a college and career academy that is project-based. Efforts are now underway to transform these high schools into competency-based models.

In New Hampshire, a movement called NG2: No Grades, No Grades — Personalized Inclusive Education Pathways Through Multiage Competency-Based Education has been paving the way for many New Hampshire schools at the elementary level to develop "move when ready" systems and eliminate grade levels. The focus of NG2 work is on co-teaching, project-based learning and equity.

The common denominator in the work happening in both Illinois and New Hampshire is competency-based learning.

Competency-based learning is sometimes referred to as mastery learning, proficiency-based learning and even, to a lesser degree, standards-based learning. To be clear, we need a common understanding of what this model means for schools.

Chris Sturgis from iNACOL provides context for this by identifying five tenets for competency-based learning in schools today:

  • Students advance upon demonstrated mastery.
  • Competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students.
  • Assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students.
  • Students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs.
  • Learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions.

It is the first of these tenets — students advancing upon demonstrated mastery that explains why so many schools are starting to look at move-when-ready learning models that blur the lines between grade levels.

In my latest book "Breaking With Tradition: The Shift to Competency-Based Learning in PLCs at Work," I talk more about what it looks like for a school to adopt a move-when-ready system. There are three big ideas that schools must consider:

Policy language: Policy language supports a model whereby students can advance academically upon demonstration of mastery, regardless of grade level. Policies provide students with multiple and varied opportunities to advance upon demonstrated mastery anytime, anyplace, anyhow, at any pace, unbounded by a school calendar or clock. They allow students to advance beyond the school they are in to the next level. At the elementary level, policies support multiage groupings of students; at the secondary level, extensions to higher education when students are ready based on their own learning progression.

Progress monitoring: The pace and progress of each student is monitored as they are challenged at their appropriate level. In move-when-ready schools, students effectively monitor and self-assess their pace and progress. A mechanism exists for the school to track student pace and progress such as a personalized learning plan.

Demonstration of evidence: Students must produce sufficient evidence in order to be deemed proficient move-when-ready schools have established quality control systems with clearly defined levels of proficiency that are used to determine when students are ready to "move on" with teacher input.

Competency-based learning, with its ability for students to move when ready, could provide students better opportunities for college and career success at all points in the K-12 system.