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Rural District Leverages their Portrait of a Learner Through Competency-Based Education 

Northern Cass School District 97, which serves 690 PK-12 students from six rural communities north of Fargo, ND, is implementing competency-based education founded on their Portrait of a Learner. In 2017, the district embarked on a transformation journey driven in part by a specific challenge faced by many school systems: the problem of time. What started as a pilot program catalyzed a complete district redesign. 

An essential element of Northern Cass’s learning redesign is self-directed, flexible pacing. Within guidelines appropriate to their developmental level, learners can take the time needed to achieve proficiency on priority standards and provide three pieces of evidence to demonstrate that learning. The district learning management system allows educators to collect proof of proficiency and track learner progress toward meeting standards. 

After embracing flexible pacing, the district changed its approach to grading, moving to a standards-based grading system that reflects a growth mindset. Standards-based grading considers evidence of learning and the data it produces differently than traditional grading scales. It measures students against specific skills and standards rather than on conventional measures, such as a percentage of coursework completed, making it clearer where students are thriving and where they need help. With standards-based grading, failure and making mistakes are part of the learning journey. Students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery and have input on how they show what they’ve learned. Score levels of 1-4 (1: Emerging, 2: Foundational, 3: Proficient, 4: Extending) have replaced traditional letter grades and indicate progress toward achieving proficiency on priority standards. In this model, a score of 1 or 2 conveys not failure or deficiency but that the learner is still working toward mastery.   

Cass’s Portrait of a Learner emphasizes skills students need to succeed throughout life, regardless of their post-secondary path. The focus has shifted to “choice-ready” instead of “college-ready.” Even the youngest learners start developing these skills in age-appropriate ways. 

Before graduation, students complete a capstone presentation documenting how they built the skills outlined in the district’s Portrait. Students have two options for showcasing evidence: they can focus on one competency from the Portrait and highlight multiple activities through which they demonstrated it, or choose to focus on one learning experience, such as an internship or a powerful school-based project and explore all the Portrait of a Learner skills they developed and demonstrated. 

 Although the transition to competency-based learning has taken several years, it empowers students with voice and choice in their education and provides them with the skills needed for post-graduation success.