Scrap the Grades: How one Connecticut district moved off the low-performing list

In Windsor Locks, Connecticut, “24 credits and a D-minus average” aren’t good enough to earn a high school diploma, Superintendent Susan Bell tells Hechinger’s Tara Garcia Mathewson.

The small, formerly low-performing district has shifted to a “mastery” model, sometimes called “competency-based learning.” Coursework is broken down into skills. Students must learn the skills to move on to something new. If they need more time to reach mastery, that’s OK.

After five years, test scores are rising and the district no longer is considered low-performing.

According to 2015-16 state accountability data, high-needs students in the district performed better than high-needs students statewide in both English language arts and math, and, overall, district students showed more growth than the students statewide.

In addition to being assessed on mastery of academics, students receive a separate evaluation for “habits of scholarship,” such as “conducts self in an appropriate manner,” “completes homework,” “maximizes time on task” and “participates in class discussions.”

“To participate in extracurricular activities, students must be in good standing behaviorally as well as academically,” writes Mathewson.

Getting parents to buy in to the new model has been a challenge.

Here’s a story from WNPR and more from Connecticut Magazine.

Competency Works looks at mastery-based learning in New Haven Public SchoolsWindsor Locks Public Schools, Naugatuck Public SchoolsSuperintendents Leading the Way in Connecticut and New Haven Academy.


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Joanne Jacobs

Joanne Jacobs

Joanne was born in Chicago and named after her grandfather, Joe Jacobs, who’d been a police reporter for the Omaha Bee-News. At the age of eight, she and her best friend became the creators and co-editors-in-chief of "The Wednesday Report" for four years. After years as a San Jose Mercury News columnist, Joanne started an education blog in 2001 and wrote "Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds." She freelances for online sites, newspapers, magazines, foundations and think tanks. In addition to blogging at, Joanne writes Community College Spotlight at
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