Why Does it Take Programmatic Shifts to Implement CBE? A School & Vendor Partnership. 

Inquiry, innovation, and impact are the three tenets of The Mount Vernon School. Our goal is to prepare students to become engaged citizen leaders who are eager to make their impact on the world. Using human-centered design thinking as a guide, Mount Vernon fosters a learner-centered culture where students are encouraged to ask questions, find unique solutions to problems, and take agency over their learning.

Provoking a paradigm shift in school culture and teaching practices is no easy feat: it’s an uphill journey with many obstacles along the way. Leading a team of dedicated educators up the path towards innovative, sustainable change places significant demand on teachers, students, and parents. As leaders, how might we remove the barriers, remnants of an older paradigm, to make competency-based education (CBE) a successful practice where students’ learning is empowering, personalized, and accurately measured?

A provocation, such as this, recalls for me Gleicher’s formula for change: there has to be dissatisfaction with the status quo, along with a clearly communicated vision, followed by actionable, accessible steps for getting there. Otherwise, the resistance will always be greater than the momentum. We must do more than communicate the vision. We must do more than train teachers and other stakeholders. To make the path forward accessible, we must ask the question: Do our resources and tools (like our LMS) support and make possible such a transformation, or do they make it more difficult because the design was meant for a different kind of outcome?

In my neighborhood in north Atlanta, there was a problem with one of the main thoroughfares. Despite the presence of parks and kids riding bikes, drivers proceeded with great speed because the road was designed to connect various enclaves and serve longer transits. City designers attempted to curb speeding with clear, obvious signals, such as stop signs and speed bumps, but it didn’t work. Forced to rethink their entire approach, city planners eventually removed obvious markers, like stop signs and speed bumps, and replaced them with roundabouts. Although the roundabouts were less obvious indicators, the design successfully forced people to slow down. Although the messaging was clear in the initial design, it wasn’t enough. A design that would reshape behavioral output was needed, and roundabouts were the key. No longer able to charge forward in a linear path, drivers had to slow down, redirect focus, and drive with a heightened sense of awareness. Similarly, when thinking about school change, what if we redesigned our learning management systems to slow us down and redirect our focus to the standards and competencies that are the real markers of growth while removing obstacles to make possible Gleicher’s third variable ­— namely ensuring that the steps forward are accessible?

With this in mind, Mount Vernon School made the deliberate decision to partner with Altitude Learning to implement a Learning Management System whose design supported CBE assessment practices while making it nearly impossible to continue cruising forward with a traditional approach to learning and assessment.

Altitude Learning partners with K-12 schools and districts to catalyze and accelerate their shift to learner-centered education. With professional learning services and a technology platform, they work hand-in-hand with leaders and educators to create the conditions for learner-centered change and provide tools for scale and sustainability. Altitude Learning solutions facilitate learner agency, competency-based assessment, and authentic learning experiences and empower students to drive their own learning. For The Mount Vernon School, Altitude Learning supported our desire to provoke four paradigm shifts to reshape our practices.


  • The Redo Cycle in Altitude Learning was designed to extend learning experience until mastery is demonstrated. Teachers are able to encourage students to redo “a Card” (the assignment or assessment) by placing it back in their “Playlist” (the action items in the student’s to-do list). The teacher will reassess the Card once it’s resubmitted, which is an important component of CBE.

Paradigm Shift 1:
Assess standards, not assignments

One of the things that makes Altitude Learning unique is that it functions not only as a teaching and reporting tool but also, perhaps most importantly, as an assessment tool. In previous contexts, we often disseminate content and resources and receive work to report out grades using an LMS, but the scoring and marking of work happens outside the design features of the system, allowing for teachers to adopt different grading practices. “[Although] each teacher builds her own intricate system,” writes Joe Feldman, “that flows from her beliefs about learning,… when teachers have varying and contradictory approaches to grading, they end up working against each other…” (Grading for Equity 57). Altitude Learning promotes a pedagogical perspective, one that cultivates a growth mindset in a competency-based context. It is designed to prevent such contradictory behaviors. Consider the following examples:


  • Teachers can only provide proficiency-scale scores, as opposed to letters or numbers, that are always tied to a discreet standard (or standards) nested under a certain competency area.

Multiple proficiency scores that are entered for a given standard calculate a roll-up score based on a decaying average, making the most recent demonstration of learning 70% of a student’s overall achievement. Teachers must score something as either “formative” or “summative,” but the formative scores do not roll up into the overall final score, thereby preventing teachers from making students’ practice a high stakes performance task. All of this, of course, is designed in a way to direct the teacher to assess the standard or competency, not the artifact or assignment product.

This cognitive shift from grading assignments to measuring targeted mastery is subtle, but key. For example, one teacher had students compose a poem to demonstrate basic comprehension of a character’s development in a novel. As the teacher graded the product, his tendency might have been to grade the poem. The Altitude Learning Platform, however, nudged him to re-anchor on providing feedback and scoring on the actual competency or skill: in this case, understanding character development. That was the standard, not poetic composition. Just like the roundabout, Altitude Learning makes us slow down and redirect our focus to the standards and competencies we’re actually targeting, thereby preventing us from blazing through a stack of assignments and unintentionally grading the wrong thing.

I experienced this firsthand when teaching a class on Banned Books & Censorship. A student turned in an assignment, and my gut initially told me “this is B work.” However, because the assignment was tagged to discrete, clearly-stated standards and learning outcomes, I was “reoriented” to assess the work through that lens, which revealed the student’s proficiency in the standard, despite my initial biases.

Paradigm Shift 2:
Focus on progress, not points

At Mount Vernon, we believe the purpose of competency-based assessment is to tell a student’s learning story, how the learner has grown over time. The benchmark for educators is no longer weekly input in a gradebook, but rather continued feedback on a learner’s mastery toward a concrete skill, behavior, or disposition.

In a traditional grading model, all stakeholders know the lure of a 100—a status symbol easily interpreted by any generation. Yet, built into a point-based system is inequity and ambiguity. If Maya earns a 90 because she turned in her work a day late, and Mike earns a 90 because he misspelled 10 words, what does that 90 represent? What does that 90 tell Maya and/or Mike about how they can grow in their next attempt? At Mount Vernon, Altitude Learning has helped students (and teachers) to focus less on earning points and more on seeking actionable feedback to develop better proficiency in a given skill or standard. The shift to a 4-level competency scale (Novice, Emergent, Proficient, Advanced) has positively impacted students’ relationships with scores. Students, teachers, and families expect “novice” and “emergent” scores when new concepts and skills are introduced. These aren’t seen as failing grades—they are simply part of the learning process. The focus has migrated from the score itself to the actionable narrative Mount Vernon teachers provide through Altitude Learning. This is how students turn feedback into action.

Mount Vernon had alignment on the vision and trained its staff, but the proverbial roundabouts were still needed to cause stakeholders to pause and redirect their focus on student growth rather than student scores. For this, The Mount Vernon School used the Progress feature in Altitude Learning to track student learning.

The Progress tool is organized by specific standards nested under broader competency areas, rather than by category (homework, classwork, quizzes, etc.), and shows a student’s change over time. Assessments don’t live in a silo separate from student work artifacts. Instead, directly below the visual representation of progress is every assignment assessed on that standard, including student work and educator feedback.

The adoption of Altitude Learning resulted in a fundamental change in focus at Mount Vernon School. Previously, the calculation to tabulate final grades, an average, was widely known by all stakeholders. However, what the final grade measured was not clear at all. Think back to the Mike & Maya example. Through partnership with Altitude Learning, The Mount Vernon School has flipped the conversation with teachers, students, and families about what is being measured to the foreground, while the platform does the math (a decaying average per standard) behind the scenes.

Paradigm Shift 3:
Separate feedback on academic objectives, behaviors and dispositions, not all-in-one scores

Another unique feature of the Altitude Learning platform is how it allows The Mount Vernon School to house three distinct competency libraries in its ecosystem. Disaggregating academic benchmarks from behaviors and dispositions makes it easier to ensure that the academic score measures the learning and nothing else. It also enables teachers to measure more clearly and report more intentionally about student development in regards to work habits and mindsets.

Inspired by Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap and the World Economic Forum’s research, Mount Vernon educators created The Mount Vernon Mind — a set of mindsets that fosters ways of interacting with the world in order to make a positive difference and contribution and blurs the line between the classroom and the real world. Additionally, we developed a robust, custom taxonomy of academic competencies to pair with their existing mindsets. Using the Altitude Learning Platform not only enabled educators to separate feedback on academic mastery from assessment of student behaviors and dispositions, but also allowed students to view assessments across teachers and disciplines. For example, a student can view their progress towards becoming a “Creative Thinker” for a specific course, across all courses this year, or even all assessments & feedback ever received. This access can help students, educators, and families recognize patterns and spot growth opportunities. At Mount Vernon, gone are the days when Mike and Maya would receive the same score for very different work. Now, Mike might receive Proficient or Advanced scores on mindsets and Emergent or Novice on a spelling competency. Maya, on the other hand, might earn Proficient or Advanced on the writing competency but maybe Emergent in punctuality.

Paradigm Shift 4:
Provide a portrait of success, not a target score

What all this amounts to is overcoming one form of an age-old paradox first presented to us by Plato. In this context, it might go something like this: How does a person know if they’ve been successful at learning something, or better yet, at becoming competent at something if they don’t know what success even looks like? When Mike and Maya received a 90 score, did they have a clear idea of what they had been successful at? Do colleges have a clear idea with this kind of numerical data? Too often we ask kids to succeed at something they know little or nothing about, and consequently, they’re unclear on how to embark upon the pathway towards competency. “Think of learning how to juggle,” writes Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams. “You take three balls and throw them into the air. You catch one, but the others fall. Immediate feedback: it didn’t work… How did you know you failed? Because you know what it looks like when someone succeeds at juggling. You can see the target and you can compare yourself to that target right now” (The Standards-Based Classroom: Making Learning the Goal 77). Altitude Learning helps the instructor paint a clear portrait of success by foregrounding standards and aligning feedback to discreet standards and competency areas, while also giving students agency and choice in the process. Students themselves can help paint the portrait by creating their own Cards (assignments and assessments), generating rubrics (that are tied to the competency libraries), and arranging their Playlist (their to-do list for assignments and tasks) according to the path they desire to take for success — a path they now can clearly envision themselves.

In conclusion
It’s not lost upon us that the paradigm shifts described do not exhaust what we mean by competency-based education. However, what The Mount Vernon School has achieved in partnership with Altitude Learning has cleared the path for forward progress. Because our vision is clear, and our LMS’s design removes the barriers to getting there, we feel like we’re on the winning side of Gleicher’s formula for successful transformation. We’re excited that Altitude Learning can support our efforts to grow and deepen our CBE program, steps that will include designing transdisciplinary learning experiences where standards and competencies can be clustered across what used to be more siloed departments. We’re excited that the platform can help us cultivate a culture of agency and equity where students have a role in shaping their learning pathway that takes them where they want to go as independent learners. We already can see the deeper effect as students assess and reassess both formatively and summatively in ways where both the timing and the format of such experiences are more personalized and meaningfully connected to each student’s unique learning story. It’s a roundabout journey, for sure, and one with many iterations to come, but each lap continues to elevate our learner-centered practice of being a model CBE school—a school whose tenets of inquiry, innovation, and impact remind us that this transformational shift is less about an actual destination and more about the iterative journey itself.

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