Districtwide Competency-Based System
District State: Colorado
District Website: westminsterpublicschools.org
Challenge: Declining test scores and an increasing number of at-risk students forced the Colorado Department of Education to place Westminster Public Schools on academic watch. A significant percentage of kindergarten students were coming to school ill-prepared—and many were never catching up. Affluent families were pulling their children from the district.
Initiative: In 2008, Westminster became the largest district in the country to move toward an entirely competency-based model. Administrators eliminated traditional grades and grade levels. Students must now show mastery of learning before moving to the next level. The Empower data collection system makes a student’s academic record transparent to other educators and follows the student as they progress. “A student now picks up in the fall where they left off before summer break,” says Stephen Saunders, the chief communications officer.
Impact: The district has shown steady academic improvement since the start of the competency-based system, and 2018 was a breakthrough year. The Colorado Department of Education removed Westminster from the state accountability clock, and the district had the highest graduation rate increase of any in the Denver metro area.
Advice: “A competency-based system requires a willingness to make classrooms student-centered and to focus on what works for students, not adults,” says Saunders. Early resistance from some skeptical educators has turned to a near unanimous commitment.