Westminster’s Annual CBS Summit

Between October 9 and 11, Westminster Public Schools is hosting the second iteration of its educator and administrator summit intended to showcase and explain the Competency Based System (CBS) used to structure curriculum and instruction at all of the district’s schools.

CBS, which has now been in place at WPS for over half a decade, is intended to personalize each student’s education as much as possible by breaking instruction down into units based less on time and sequence than on specific content-related standards.  Westminster students from elementary to high school work on meeting standards at their specific level regardless of their place in a traditional grade level structure.  At the secondary level this may entail work on remediation on an individual basis or in small classes designed to help students meet the objectives that they may have missed; this doesn’t necessarily entail repeating an entire year or semester of work: in chemistry, for instance, a student may only have to catch up to standards in a specific chapter like stoichiometry and their recovery workload will reflect this.  Because the broader framework of competency-based instruction seeks to not treat time as a fundamental variable in education, as is conventionally the case, students at Westminster High School will occasionally graduate in five or six years, but since the implementation of competency-based learning even the standard four year graduation rates have risen markedly.

At the elementary school level, students in Westminster Public Schools will also work on specific content areas at levels that are appropriate for their current proficiency, meaning that a “fourth grader” may work on reading at the fifth level while working on math at the third. It is important to note, however, that there is no grade-level retention at the lowest level of instruction, meaning that a student will still matriculate to middle school even if their proficiency in some or all subjects is at a level below that of their school grade. The system in place at WPS is also responsive to individual student needs insofar as students may move between levels during the year—which at a large school like Westminster High School may create quite a challenge for the staff tasked with scheduling which nonetheless accommodates such instances.

CBS, as carried out at Westminster, requires a considerable amount of data collection and administration, which, rather remarkably, students even at the elementary school level are generally quite enthusiastic about and which they tend to take ownership of. CBS is not without its challenges, one of which—since we’re on the topic of data—is the issue of state assessments which are administered still at the grade level, not at the proficiency level. This means that WPS test scores, which have also risen markedly since the implementation of CBS, would perhaps be even higher and would certainly be much more meaningful and useful within the context of the system if students were tested at the level of their individual proficiency.

Another potential issue is that of the final transcript. By the nature of the CBS, all students who graduate from Westminster High School will graduate with at least a 3.0 because a 3 corresponds to the attainment of proficiency at a level of instruction. This 3.0 does not necessarily mean the same things as a 3.0 from any neighboring district that employs a traditional A-F scale, thus potentially creating confusion in college admissions. To their credit, WPS have been very proactive in addressing this issue and have been working closely with Colorado’s universities and community colleges in striving to overcome this challenge.

For more on the CBS, check out Westminster Public Schools’ website.