Reimagining Assessment
Reimagining Assessment

Educators are rethinking the purposes, forms, and nature of assessment. Beyond testing mastery of traditional content knowledge—an essential task, but not nearly sufficient—educators are designing assessment for learning as an integral part of the learning process.

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When making the shift to mastery-based learning, designing an approach to grading for mastery that works for your classroom is a good way to start.

Mastery-based grading in a blended, self-paced, and mastery-based classroom can be really tricky depending on the mindset of where you teach. Some schools report student progress based on percentages, weighted categories, or points to arrive at a grade. Other schools use mastery criteria or even a pass/fail system to communicate how students are learning. Some schools require a certain number of grades be entered each week, month, or grading period. It can be a confusing process to figure out what all these labels mean about student learning.

When I began implementing blended learning, self-paced structure, and mastery-based learning, I found that the structure of students passing a mastery check to move onto the next lesson was a GAME CHANGER. Prior to this, I was using leveled rubrics to grade major assessments and letting students revise. At the time, I thought this was mastery-based grading. The middle school where I teach is an endorsed International Baccalaureate (IB) Middle Years Program. In an IB school, we are required to use more holistic assessment rubrics, leveled 1-8 where a level 4 corresponds to a basic level of understanding. This assessment often took the form of an end of the unit project. Students could re-assess/re-do if they didn’t reach their goal level on the assessment in order to achieve mastery. The problem was, it was always student initiated and very few students showed interest in revising their work by the end of the unit. This never sat well with me.

Enter the concept of mastery checks: requiring students to reach a level of mastery, determined by whatever mastery looked like in my school, in little chunks. Mastery checks make it impossible for students to get to the end of a unit without understanding the concepts along the way. In theory this made sense, but putting it into practice was my challenge. For more guidance, I took The Modern Classrooms Project’s (MCP) free course, looked at the exemplars provided, and took advantage of all the resources MCP had to offer including the mentorship program. For months, the “grading” piece of mastery-based learning continued to puzzle me: If students do all the “must do” tasks, do they earn a certain grade? If they complete the “should do” and “aspire to do” tasks, do they earn a higher grade? Do I grade all of those pieces? Should it be based on completion or an actual score?

After many conversations with colleagues, trying a few different approaches, and getting feedback from my students, I settled in on an approach that works best for my classroom. Because of the IB influence in my school, I look at mastery in terms of level of understanding rather than the number of correct answers, a certain percentage earned, or number of items completed for a project. This Evidence of Learning summary gives a simple description of the levels of understanding I use for determining mastery. I am fortunate to have a supportive administration that encouraged me along with several colleagues to develop this summary. In conjunction with IB guidelines, we determined that level 4 is required for mastery.

This is the general approach I use for mastery-based grading:

1. Tie Lessons and Mastery Checks to Levels of Understanding

If students have a true understanding at each level, they should be able to demonstrate that level. So, I plan my mastery checks and lessons based on the evidence of learning levels for must do, should do, and aspire to do activities:

  • “Must do” corresponds to basic level understanding/mastery.
  • “Should do” corresponds to either proficient or advanced mastery, depending on the lesson.
  • “Aspire to do” corresponds to the advanced level.

In my middle school social studies classroom, I teach the must do, basic level mastery concepts through instructional videos. They are accessible to all students and thus allow everyone to achieve mastery. On the mastery check for each lesson, the questions for the basic level of understanding come from the instructional videos.

The should do tasks are often an annotated reading and partner discussion that extend/apply the basic concepts. This is where the next level and sometimes the highest level of mastery questions in the mastery checks come from.

Potentially, the aspire to do activities could be used for the highest level of understanding depending on the type of activity. For me this was the simplest way to start, by building quiz- style mastery checks that are based on level of understanding.

Here is one example of a leveled mastery check following a lesson on the Paleolithic Era. The level 3-4 questions are directly based on the must do instructional video and guided notes. These are the basic level of understanding students must achieve to move on. The level 5-6 questions come from the guided notes and an annotated reading activity, which is a should do activity. In this mastery check, the advanced level (7-8) open-ended question comes from a deeper understanding of the should do activity, requiring students to think beyond the text to answer it. If the lesson had included an aspire to do activity, I would have instead used that activity to create the advanced level written response question.

In this approach, all students have the ability to access all parts of the lesson, if they choose. If they choose not to access some or all of the higher levels, that is OKAY. This is the beauty of students having a choice and gives them another chance to own their learning.

2. Only Grade Mastery Checks, Not the Tasks Students Do to Build Their Understanding

Secondly, I do NOT grade the must do, should do, or aspire to do tasks done prior to the mastery checks. I repeat, I DO NOT GRADE the work because this work corresponds to the levels of understanding on the mastery check. If students understand the lesson work, students will reach their level of understanding on the mastery check.

Although I don’t grade tasks, I do give feedback. Students must check in their work with me before attempting a mastery check. If there is something I see that indicates they might not understand, I have a conversation with them and guide them to truly learning the material. I may ask them to re-watch a video or add an annotation to a reading or even just check a provided answer key. I may give them another way to learn the material and figure out how to master a missed concept.

I also find that because I am using blended learning and a self-paced structure, my time is freed up so I can spot check in with students and give meaningful, real time feedback. These letter grade/score-free conversations are often the ones that are the most valuable to a student’s growth and learning.

This is my approach to mastery grading in my MCP classroom. It took some time to figure out a workable way to assess learning that made sense for my situation, but I am in a constant state of growing and thus am never “done.” I would love to hear from you about how mastery grading works in your class or about how you may have taken some of these ideas and changed them.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages, CC-BY-NC 4.0

Karen Simms Headshot

Karen Simms (she/her)

Teacher, Northville Public Schools, and Mentor, Modern Classrooms Project

Karen has been teaching middle school kids for 30 years and loves how they always have a new way of looking at the world. She recently became a mentor for the Modern Classrooms Project and is so grateful for this way of teaching that truly helps every student learn.