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Would a Mastery-Based Grading Scale Work for Your School?


a smiling teacher sitting in front of a group of students

The standard, letter-grade system we widely use for academic grading here in the United States is well over 100 years old. The roots of systemic achievement evaluation go back to Yale, but it was Mount Holyoke College that started grading students on the A-F scale back in 1897.


In many areas of education, we’ve learned that the old ways aren’t always the best ways, and grading is no different. For years, teachers have questioned the value of letter grades and the practice of advancing students no matter what grades they receive.


Mastery-based grading (also known as standards-based grading) is an alternative student evaluation system that’s grown out of those frustrations. Its primary purpose is to honor the learning differences among students and accommodate them for true learning and understanding.


Being open to such an improved framework and philosophy can make a good school great for students, teachers, families, and administrators. And one way to determine if mastery-based grading environment is right for your school or district is through analytic data.


In this article, we’ll outline what exactly mastery-based learning and grading are and how they might be implemented in your school. We’ll also look at how data can help you determine if your students and teachers will benefit from this system.


The Mastery-Based Grading System: Centered on Student Learning


Mastery-based grading started receiving attention in the late 1960s. This system emphasizes the facts that academic skills build upon each other, and students shouldn’t move on to new lessons until they’ve mastered previous ones.


The solution of mastery-based grading requires a focus shift from teaching to learning. Rather than teaching to a minimum standard, educators foster a learning-positive environment. Students work together to learn and aren’t penalized for imperfection, meaning they can revise and resubmit work until they’ve mastered the skill.


Simply put, mastery-based learning is about truly mastering a skill, not just managing to get a passing grade. Some phrases you may see or hear on mastery-based grading include:

  • Mastery not minimum. The goal is to master a skill, not achieve the bare minimum. This is especially important in STEM areas, where foundational skills are essential. Teachers regularly provide feedback to support this.

  • Self-paced. When students aren’t expected to learn and perform at the same pace, it reduces fear and increases motivation. Instead of being penalized for a lower skill level, students learn from mistakes and get the chance to improve.

  • Student learning centered. The teacher is a constant guide and evaluator, but the students also work together and help each other. Not only does this promote healthy communication and collaboration, but it also drives agency. Students take ownership and are proud of their work.

Simply put, mastery-based learning is about truly mastering a skill, not just managing to get a passing grade.

a teacher kneeling down and giving a student a high five as they leave for the day

Implementation and How Teachers Track Student Progress


At first glance, mastery-based grading might appear to require endless resources and a complete restructuring of your curriculum. Fortunately, schools can implement the philosophy in ways that suit their circumstances.


Some of the basic shifts when you implement mastery-based grading are:


Determine Learning Targets


Depending on whether your school is public, private, Montessori, or another framework, you may have more or less control over official learning targets. Still, it’s likely that established learning targets exist, and this step involves breaking them apart and writing them out.


If you have some freedom in this area, sit down with teachers, administrators, and the community to discuss what’s most important for students’ progress. Know that it will probably take a few rounds to get things listed out in the most effective manner.


Provide Options for Skill Demonstration


Any teacher knows that students have their own talents. Some show off skills on paper while others love to do class presentations. Some prefer to work alone while others shine in groups.

When you provide a few different options, students can focus on a particular skill and learning more deeply, rather than having to fight anxiety about how they demonstrate it.


This isn’t to say there’s no value in trying out different things, such as a quiet student learning to speak to a group, for example. It just might not be the best way to have them also demonstrate arithmetic skills.


At first glance, mastery-based grading might appear to require endless resources and a complete restructuring of your curriculum. Fortunately, schools can implement the philosophy in ways that suit their circumstances.

Evaluate on a List of Expected Outcomes


Instead of a report card listing singular letter grades for science, math, physical education, etc., list out the major skills a student should master and note the progress for each using a number scale.


For example, rather than marking “B” for all of language arts, mark a 1, 2, 3, or 4 (with 4 indicating full mastery) for each of the following:


Reading

  • I can identify the main topic of a paragraph.

  • I can retell the beginning, middle, and end of a story.

Writing

  • I can write a complete sentence with a subject and verb.

  • I include proper punctuation and capitalization.

Generally, teachers gather this information throughout the marking period already, and see the areas that need work before completing report cards. This also gives parents and caretakes a way to see where they might help students at home.


Separate Academics from Behavior


A traditional grading system makes it difficult to tell where exactly a student struggles. Is long division a truly confusing process, or is the child instead nervous to ask questions in class?


Mastery-based grading assesses things like class participation, meeting deadlines, and attendance to help identify all relevant challenges facing a student.


Again, this sort of evaluation helps families support success at home and avoids reducing students to their academic ability.


Challenges of Mastery-Based Learning


Shifting to mastery-based grading practices is possible for just about any school, but that’s not to say it’s without challenge.


If you decide to implement mastery-based learning, prepare to work through certain things with staff and families:

  • The time it will take to complete the transition

  • What it might cost

  • Who decides what skills to highlight

  • How to determine timelines

  • When to say a struggling student has worked enough

Assure your community that, as with any transition, there will be difficulties and room for improvement. If students progress immediately, wonderful! If mastery grading takes a little longer to reflect students' increasing skill, that's alright too.



Use Data as You Consider Mastery-Based Learning for Deeper Understanding


The proposal of mastery-based grading will likely bring up numerous opinions for and against the shift. Bringing data to the discussion will show how the change might improve your school or district.


Eidex software includes two assessment products: Prism, which analyzes school data down to individual student and teacher performance, and Focus, which enables you to compare your school to district and state peers. Whether you want to look at academics, behavior, or budgets, you can analyze the data that shows where mastery-based grading can help most.


If you do end up implementing mastery-based learning, data will continue to help as you present outcomes and improvements to your community.



Whether you want to look at academics, behavior, or budgets, you can analyze the data that shows where mastery-based grading can help most.

Contact Eidex for the Insights Students Need


When you’re ready to dig into the data on your school building or district, trust a software partner that’s run by caring educators like yourself. Eidex was built by people who have been in the field and are invested in what you do every day.


Our assessment products are accessible and easy to use with engaging, meaningful visualizations. Even after we deliver, we keep in touch to ensure you’re able to make the most of the software. We’ll keep customizing and guiding as you discover all the ways Eidex can move your teachers and students forward.


If you’d like to learn more, please call (844) K12-DATA | (844) 512-3282 or complete the simple contact form on our website. We’ll be happy to set up a meeting and provide quotes and demos as needed.


References


Kati, R. (2022). Is master-based grading better for students than traditional grades? Education World. Retrieved from https://www.educationworld.com/teachers/mastery-based-grading-better-students-traditional-grades


Palmer, R. (2010). E Is for Fail: How come schools assign grades of A, B, C, D, and F—but not E? Slate. Retrieved from https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2010/08/how-come-schools-assign-grades-of-a-b-c-d-and-f-but-not-e.html


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