Rochester teachers Melissa Cunliffe and Sara Cantrell talk about competency based learning and New Hampshire's new assessment strategy

As one of New Hampshire’s four PACE school districts, Rochester is ground zero for working out the future New Hampshire public education, giving children the opportunity to learn in their own way.  But Rochester’s educators and their leadership are not being shown a new way to teach; they are building new ways for their children to learn, from the ground up.

To see how it’s going, I spent yesterday with the wonderful Maple Street Magnet School principal Robin Brown visiting five schools at every grade level.  I came away amazed at how completely this 4,300 student district and its 346 teachers have committed to their new path.

As this 10 minute interview with fourth and fifth grade teachers Melissa Cunliffe and Sara Cantrell makes clear, for them, there’s no turning back.

Edited Highlights

Melissa: “My name is Melissa Cunliffe. I am the 4th, 5th grade teacher here. I team teach with Sara. I have both of our classes for math and a mixed ability grouping. I have been a classroom teacher since 2000 so about 14 years now.”

Sara: “And I’m Sara Cantrell. I teach 4th grade here, but we also do a 4th grade, 5th grade mix and my focus is in language arts with our team teaching. I’ve taught for nine years.”

Bill: “What’s your experience of the expectations that the Common Core standards set for your students?”

The kids are reading complex,
difficult texts and
not just saying,
'Okay, I've read that page'.

Sara: “I have to say I really liked the increased expectations.  The kids are reading complex, difficult texts and not just saying, ‘Okay, I’ve read that page’. They’re digging deeper and learning those close reading strategies.  As they go through high school and college and on to grad school, those are skills that they’re going to need – reading for understanding, making connections, asking questions, taking note of things that they find interesting. We do a lot of that in my class. But I think what I really like the most is the upped rigor.  The expectations are increased and I’m seeing that they can rise to that.”

Melissa: “We’ve just taken the competencies and actually put in place expectations that go beyond just the competent level, which already is a pretty rigorous standard….We discuss what the 4th grade expectation is and the 5th grade and then also looking at what it means to be beyond and advanced in that competency as well, so really pushing those kids to deeper and higher levels of understanding within both the math and the language arts.”

"It's not just,
"You got 80% on this test."
It's, "These are the skills
that you have a competent or beyond
level understanding of.
And these are the skills in which you're
not yet competent."

Bill: “Did you find you were able to better do that than you could before you had implemented common competencies?”

Sara: “I think so. I like that the competencies really spell it out.  What does it look like to be competent, to be beyond competent and advanced?  We’re working on Greek mythology in my class and we’re citing the text explicitly. And the kids can explain that to you. I find that it gives them a clearer understanding of what the expectations are in learning and for me in teaching.”

Melissa: “It’s not just, “You got 80% on this test.” It’s, “These are the skills that you have a competent or beyond level understanding of. And these are the skills in which you’re not yet competent.” These are what we’re going to work on through our re-teaching. So that really spells out very clearly what they know, what they don’t know for us as educators and for the students as learners.”

Bill: “Are you writing performance tasks?”

Melissa: “Yes. We both are on the team for that as well.”

There are lots of different ways
that kids can show what they know.
So we're very excited that we
get to be part of the solution.

Bill: “And what do you think about that process?”

Sara: “I couldn’t be more excited because I have long railed against standardized testing on a personal level. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all education system – or it shouldn’t be. There are lots of different ways that kids can show what they know and so we’re very excited that we get to be part of the solution. We do project-based learning here where kids show what they know through doing and creating and research. So I think it’s a perfect fit for what the kids can do and what’s developmentally appropriate as well.”

Melissa: “We also do blizzard bags for our snow days here that we make up through a blizzard bag, and this year Sara and I have also adapted project-based assessments, performance assessments are their actual blizzard bag day work.”

Sara: “Absolutely.  And it really gives kids so many different avenues to show what they know. It’s not just fill in the bubble, you know, one right answer, sort of thing.

Bill: “Tell me whether you’ve been exposed to the Smarter Balanced assessment and what you think of it.”

Sara: “We did try that last year.  It was better than some of the other standardized tests. It was difficult for some kids, even our tech-savvy kids. But I recognize it was a trial.”

Bill: “How about the complex, multi-step problems?  How up to that were the kids?”

Sara: “I found them pretty challenging. But the kids did relatively well with them, and it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

Melissa: “Sara’s been doing a lot with the kids reading multiple text sources and the kids are using them to form opinions. So they’re getting a lot more this year.  We’ve learned a little bit different approach to our teaching as a result of that test, too, to help get them prepared more for that style of assessment.”

Bill: “What do you think about the idea of doing PACE assessments alternating with the Smarter Balanced?”

Sara: “I think it’s fabulous.”

Melissa: “I like the balance of it and I think that’d be better for the kids. I think to do the computer test year after year would burn the kids out.”

Sara: “They were certainly burnt out last year.”

Our experience in developing
the PACE assessments is that
kids are learning
through the assessment.

Melissa: “And I think kind of balancing the mixture would be a much better way for the students to demonstrate what they know.”

Sara: “Our experience in developing the PACE assessments is that kids are learning through the assessment. They’re taking in knowledge, taking in information, synthesizing it, and are really looking for that depth of knowledge going deeper. So for me as a teacher, my teaching time is very valuable, and when we looked at last year all of the different standardized test that we did, we realized we lost a lot of teaching time. So for me, the fact that kids can learn through the assessment is a double bonus.  We find out what we need to continue to work on, but the kids are learning at the same time.”

Bill: “People might be afraid that you’d be softer on your kids when you score them compared to Smarter Balanced.”

Sara: “I can understand that concern but it’s on us professionally.  I want my kids to succeed and I am pushing them very hard. So for me, it’s not, “Does it reflect well on me?” I really want my kids to excel.  So it would a responsibility but I think we can handle it.”

Melissa: “I also see it as being a team of teachers. So the 5th grade teachers would sit down together and go over, let’s say, the math 5th grade performance task.  It wouldn’t be just me alone grading just my students. We would have to have that balanced approach, looking at multiple teachers’ input and deriving the grade that way.”

Sara: “Right.  We even discussed that calibration process – that several people across the district would look at the same piece of work.”

Bill: “What do you think about this idea that we might actually get the pilot waiver and this very year you would have the opportunity to both administer the Smarter Balanced to some grades and performance-based assessments in others?”

Melissa: “I’m extremely eager because I did help write the 5th grade math one, and you also helped to write the –”

Sara: “The 5th grade language arts.”

Melissa: “So we personally have a vested interest because it’s actually our assessments that are being put out to be tested. We might get some feedback on how to adjust them, but it would be nice to see how they do on them to help us as we’re developing a new style of assessment in the future.”

Sara: “I think it’s something, too, for New Hampshire to be proud of – to always be trying to improve and to lead the way for what we know is best for kids. And yes, it is always changing.  We’re always learning.  But I think it’s awesome that we as a state are doing better for our kids.”

Bill: “Thank you very much.”