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Innovative Approaches to Mastery-Based Grading

Jennifer

Jennifer Wolfe

The Learning Accelerator

Springpoint is a national nonprofit organization that partners with districts, charters, and networks to support them in the design, launch, and iteration of new, innovative high schools. As part of this support, Springpoint provides training, coaching, and resources to school designers as they create school models that are grounded in the needs of their specific student population. One such resource--Inside Mastery Based High Schools: Profiles and Conversations--profiles school practices that address many important questions in mastery-based systems.  

Mastery-based systems allow students to advance after they’ve demonstrated a particular skill or piece of knowledge, rather than after a set amount of time in a course. This principle aligns with TLA’s definition of blended and personalized learning.

One item of particular interest to practitioners who implement and refine a mastery-based approach is how to translate a mastery-based grade into a report card. Ideally, schools could shift to a totally mastery-based report card, but many educators still operate in environments where they must report letter grades. Springpoint’s report profiles two schools who are taking innovative approaches to solve this challenge.

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Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) serves over-aged (16-23), under-credited students who all enter at least two years behind traditional grade level and 100% of whom qualify for free/reduced lunch. Many of the school’s students face significant challenges including mental health issues, homelessness, and youth parenthood. BDEA’s curriculum and approach is quite different than traditional schools. It is organized to provide opportunities for students to master large competencies and corresponding “benchmarks.” Educators describe benchmarks as the skills that must be acquired to achieve each competency.

How BDEA tackles mastery-based grading: BDEA articulates standards for being graded as “not yet competent,” “competent,” or “highly competent coupled with” supports to move along the path to mastery. BDEA’s grading standards include additional performance bars like participation, attendance, independent work, and demonstration of key habits of mind. This is done according to BDEA’s Common Grading Protocols. School administrators say that the mastery-based structures they’ve implemented have steadily increased student outcomes. The use of mastery-based reporting helps encourage students to remain in school as it creates a more positive and less punishing form of assessment.

Casco Bay High School for Expeditionary Learning is a small and rigorous mastery-based public high school in Portland, Maine. It is a public school of choice serving about 400 students, 50% of whom qualify for free/reduced lunch. Students engage in their learning in cohorts.

How Casco Bay tackles mastery-based grading: Casco Bay uses a constantly evolving Faculty Grading Guide. The grading scale is 1-4, with 1 meaning “does not meet standards”; 2 meaning “approaching the standard”; 2+ (a recently added category) signalling “close to meeting the standard”; 3 meaning “meets the standard;” 3.25 to 3.75 used at discretion to mean “partially exceeds the standard”; and 4 meaning “exceeds the standard.”  These grade points then translate to a traditional transcript. One challenging aspect of moving to a mastery-based report card is how to reflect other important skills such as homework completion and positive attitude. At Casco Bay, the school leadership promotes these skills through its Habits of Work (HOW) rubric. Students are given a grade in Habits of Work, and use this as a mechanism for making sure students working hard get credit. If you get a 3 or higher in HOW, students will never fail that particular class due to success in these life skills.

Casco Bay students regularly exceed state and district standards on the Maine state test. The school communicates with parents about its mastery-based approach through conferences, exhibitions and the always evolving and informative Family Handbook. The handbook includes the Faculty Grading Guide, which has been very helpful in making mastery-based grading transparent to families.

Within TLA’s own work, ReNEW DTA Academy takes an innovative approach to grading. Student grades are determined primarily by the score they receive on the quiz for each learning objective and mastery assessment. You can learn more about the grading strategy here.

We look forward to the evolution of new grading rubrics and transcripts as more schools shift towards mastery-based progression. If you know of others we should investigate, please email me at jennifer.wolfe@learningaccelerator.org.

Jennifer

Jennifer Wolfe

The Learning Accelerator

Jennifer Wolfe is a partner with The Learning Accelerator.