Pittsfield School District in rural New Hampshire doesn’t seem different from any other rural district. The school is a center for community activity. The teachers pride themselves on building relationships with parents. The building looks like an ordinary school.
But there’s something extraordinary happening at Pittsfield. The district is working to get rid of grades (the age group that students share a class with) and grades (how performance is measured). It’s part of an effort known as NG2, or “no grades, no grades.”
You may wonder how a small school district in New Hampshire has anything to do with your child. But consider this: What would happen if your child’s teachers focused on his interests and strengths—on what he can do—instead of focusing on what he can’t do?
Now consider this: What would happen if they did that for every student in your child’s school?
More than 40 states across the country have adopted policies to promote personalized learning. And that trend is ramping up as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opens the door further for personalized learning initiatives.
Programs like NG2 have potential for all students. But it can be a game-changer for kids with learning and thinking differences and other disabilities.
A Closer Look at Pittsfield
Take, for example, Joey, a student at Pittsfield Elementary School.
Joey has and . His teachers know he’s smart. But they also know that sitting still, focusing and following multi-step directions are challenging for him.
Danielle Harvey, dean of instruction at Pittsfield School District, says there are a lot of students like Joey. Whether or not they have an identified learning and thinking difference, the school wants to provide support. That’s where NG2 comes in.
With NG2, Pittsfield is attempting to address two major issues:
- Traditional testing doesn’t measure all the skills that are key to long-term success. For instance, they don’t address whether kids can collaborate or self-advocate. Traditional testing also doesn’t give all kids a way to show what they know if the format of the test doesn’t let them demonstrate their knowledge.
- Students are traditionally grouped by age, not by their needs or their level of understanding.
Now, Joey and his classmates can engage with and show their learning and understanding in many different ways, not just with paper-and-pencil tests. Changing these norms requires turning the system upside down, which takes a lot of work and planning. But because it matched their vision for learning, Pittsfield dove in.
It was one of the first schools in New Hampshire to volunteer for the Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) pilot program, which reduces how much traditional standardized testing is used. But just because the school doesn’t have traditional grades doesn’t mean they’re not held to the same standards as other schools.
The PACE model includes a peer review process to evaluate the quality of district’s assessments against a state-level rubric. This helps to ensure the quality of testing and scoring. Participating schools also take part in statewide testing once in elementary school and once in middle school. Students also take the SAT in high school.
Using the NG2 model, Pittsfield also developed non-age-based pathways for learning. That means kids move forward not based on their age, but on their understanding.
When they’ve shown they’ve understood the concepts to succeed in a subject, they move up to the next level. And if a kid needs to slow down to really get a skill, that’s OK, too.
“No Grades, No Grades” and Kids With Learning and Thinking Differences
These changes can have drawbacks. The big question is: How do we make sure that these types of education changes consider all kids from the get-go, instead of making the program fit them after the fact?
Over the last three years, Understood founding partner the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) has been closely following schools and districts like Pittsfield to try to answer that question.
NCLD has been exploring how districts and states are considering kids with disabilities during conversations about things like competency-based education or personalized learning. What they’ve learned in that process is that there’s a lot of potential—and a lot of risk.
The key factor? Planning to address kids’ needs before putting the program in place.
For example, if Joey continues to struggle in reading, is there a system in place to ensure there are different ways to address his needs? Are there supports for age-appropriate social and emotional learning? How is the school collecting data to monitor progress and make decisions about the types of instruction he needs?
Luckily, Pittsfield and other schools and districts in New Hampshire are having these conversations. And they’re working on solutions, too.
D.J. Bakie Elementary School, another school that is implementing both PACE and NG2, is taking steps to ensure accessibility from the very start. They’re doing things like putting Universal Design for Learning (UDL) ￼into place throughout all grades. (Open this PDF to read more about D.J. Bakie Elementary School.)
Personalized Learning Programs and Your Child
Soon, it may be your school or district talking about putting a program like NG2 into place. You can be prepared by asking questions to make sure the school thinks about your child’s needs before the program is developed. Questions like:
- How have you prepared to put this system in place for all kids?
- What thought have you put into including kids with learning and thinking differences?
- What training do your teachers have or will you provide for them on an ongoing basis about students with learning and thinking differences?
- How will you make sure everyone is sticking to the interventions designed to create better outcomes for all kids (including those with learning and thinking differences)?
- How will you be monitoring progress to see if kids fall significantly behind?
- What is the plan for supporting kids who may fall behind?
Systems like “no grades, no grades” have a lot of potential to customize learning for the needs of each student. That’s what’s happening for Joey.
And this success didn’t happen by accident. It’s what can happen when innovative students, parents and educators work together to do better for all students.
Read more about PACE in a case study written by NCLD. Explore a fact sheet on personalized learning. And learn how a high school in North Carolina is using project-based learning to help kids succeed.
Any opinions, views, information and other content contained in blogs on Understood.org are the sole responsibility of the writer of the blog, and do not necessarily reflect the views, values, opinions or beliefs of, and are not endorsed by, Understood.
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About the author
About the author
Ace Parsi, MPP served as the personalized learning partnership manager at NCLD.