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Piloting Mastery-Based Grading

Moving to a grading system that emphasized mastery of standards and prioritized student supports for those at risk of failure

Overview

After the shift to remote learning, more than 10% of students at Monterey Peninsula Unified School District struggled to meet course requirements and were at risk for receiving a failing grade. MPUSD had already articulated a longer-term goal of moving towards a grading system that was based on standards mastery; the team leveraged early adopters to design a new grading pilot and support programs to get students back on track.

“I'm optimistic about our shift towards standards-based grading and I think that the pandemic really showed that our traditional system of grading was punitive and causing many kids to fail. […] I think we've changed some of the practical applications of how we grade in a way that gives me hope for a kind of long-term transformation.” - PK Diffenbaugh, Superintendent, Monterey Peninsula Unified School District

Approach

MPUSD leaders brought together a cohort of teachers and school leaders to examine grading policies and reasons for course failure. Looking more deeply at the data, the team identified patterns of inequity (i.e., those students most likely to receive a failing grade were students of color) as well as the fact that reasons for failure often had no actual association with mastery of skills and competencies (e.g., lower grades resulting from late work or a single missed assignment).

Based on this discovery work, the district:

  • Provided principals with classroom-by-classroom data on failure rates, which helped drive site-level conversations about learners, broader patterns, and planned interventions for each student;

  • Created a “do no harm” grading policy that focused on mastery of learning, which included having teachers identify three assignments, tests, or projects that, if completed successfully, would mean the student would pass the class. They also recommended (but did not require) that teachers use a grading scale of 1 to 4, instead of 0 to 100, in order to lessen the impact of any single “0” on an assignment;

  • Shifted to a standards-based grade book and communicated with families about how new grading systems would work;

  • Engaged more deeply directly with families about the supports their students needed. This resulted in the creation of an individual learning plan (ILP) and cohort-based support for each student who was experiencing difficulty (e.g., had incomplete grades).

The district saw a 60% reduction in its failure rate during the pandemic as a result of these changes.


This strategy is a part of TLA's Hop, Skip, Leapfrog release, which explores the concrete ways in which schools and systems pursued student-centered innovation during COVID-19. Explore the full guide to find additional strategies, insights, and resources.


Strategy Resources


How Monterey Peninsula Unified School District Reduced Their Failure Rate by over 60%

This Getting Smart article tells more of the story behind MPUSD’s switch to mastery grading... Learn More

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