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July 11, 2019
Vol. 14
No. 31

Grading for Mastery, Not Mystery

Assessment
Remember when you were a teenager taking your driving test for the first time? Did you pass? If you did not pass on your first try, you knew you had more than one chance to earn that license (and probably did, at some point). It didn't matter how you did relative to your peers, or if you were an excellent driver or just a good one. If you had the skills and knowledge to pass the test, you achieved a license, no matter how many attempts it took.

Goals Not Grades

Grades as a means to report intelligence and/or effort compared to peers has become a staple of education, but it wasn't always this way. In the one room schoolhouse that dominated the Colonial period, students were free to work toward learning goals at their own pace. Multi-aged classrooms allowed advanced students to move more quickly, while those who needed more time could take it to build a stronger foundation. All of this was done without the addition of a grading scale. Just like that driving test, students had to demonstrate proficiency or mastery before moving forward.
Understandably, educators and learners need some measure of proficiency to track progress toward a learning goal and to identify strengths and needs, along the way. Fortunately, state standards provide the framework for a mastery-based grading system. With standards-based grading, students have clear, standards-aligned expectations for what they need to know and be able to do, and this clarity makes it easier for students to take ownership of their learning, a key component of college and career readiness.
Standards-based grading is not new, but it is also not widespread, despite demonstrated benefits to learning and achievement. So, how can we incorporate this concept in today's age of accountability? We have to rethink our gradebooks, to start.

Reimagine the Gradebook

Imagine your gradebook was not labeled by assignment, such as a test or quiz, but was labeled by standard, instead. You would have to set a benchmark for mastery of each standard and you would also have to determine how many standards must be mastered for a student to progress to the next grade. I would argue that at the minimum, the power standards for each course would have to be mastered. What qualifies as a power standard? Larry Ainsworth identifies four criteria for power standards that can help you identify the power standards for the course you teach:
  1. Endurance: the standard continues beyond one grade level.
  2. Leverage: the standard has crossover value or interdisciplinary connections.
  3. Readiness: the standard is a prerequisite skill for more advanced skills.
  4. Testing: the standard appears on accountability assessments.
This is not to say that you will only teach power standards. Mastery of power standards is the baseline for advancing to the next level you can still teach all the standards.
Now, let's look at the gradebook in Table 1:
express1431 fig1
The highlighted standards are considered power standards. John knows that he has three standards he needs to work on, two of which are considered power standards. After some time, John mastered four of five standards and still needs to work on one power standard. Jane has three standards to work on, one of which must be mastered to move on to the next level. With some extra time, Jane mastered all standards for this period and is ready to move forward. Student growth is clearly understood and demonstrated while students own their learning.
I asked my 12-year-old daughter and her best friend what they thought of this system, and they both had difficulty wrapping their heads around not reporting achievement as a percentage or letter grade. Then I asked, "If you get a test back and you achieved an 85, you know that's a B, right? How do you know what standards you mastered and what standards you didn't?"
Their collective "Ahh!" said it all. They loved the idea of knowing what needs more work. If middle schoolers can get on board with mastery taking the mystery out of grading, why can't we all?

 Lee A. Westberry is program coordinator for the Zucker Family School of Education and assistant professor of Educational Leadership at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C.

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