Mastery Based Grading Practices

Think back to when you were a student- what did your earned grades represent? How did teachers calculate their scoring? Why is it that 90% and above was an A and below 60% was a Fail? Are there other examples in life (besides gambling) when you have to earn more than half to be satisfactory?

Grading is an interesting area in education as it is rarely taught how to develop a system when training to be a teacher and different educational systems use their own methods of determining final grades. For example in California, legally the grade book and final grades are owned by the teacher, and only they can change these grades hopefully based on student work. In the UK the government issues exams and the results from these exams are reported by student and used for future placement and opportunity. Teachers in the UK prepare students for these exams but do not control the marking of them. Exams are not every year so there is a lot of anticipation during the exam years for both the students and teachers. The results of these exams are most often scaled normatively, banding students’ outcomes into point values leading some variability year to year as to what a student needs to achieve in order to ‘pass’.

Without trying to change whole systems and apply political pressures and re-educate the masses this blog entry will focus on how best to communicate feedback to students and determine their mastery of content. Mara will share with you tools she has used in the past to work with teachers to redesign their feedback process to improve learning outcomes.

Thinking about the ‘grading’ process one has to consider feedback to learners and its role in advancing learning. In order to achieve effective feedback one needs to consider having clear learning aims or objectives and somekind of understanding as to what is quality and expected outcomes. It is almost like a yin/yang concept and one that should always be advancing or in motion. Though in our schooling system we have summative assessments this does not mean that the learning stops for a particular subject or topic. Instead Mara thinks of it like building blocks where the students demonstrate their learning and a teacher supported by a rubric will assess it.

Dylan Williams is considered a ‘guru’ for formative assessment. He wrote a piece that provides the historical context to the meaning of this term. Within it he advocates that though there are several different practices a key element in formative assessment is the learner’s role to self assess their learning coupled with the feedback from their teacher and peers.

Developing expertise is another space where feedback matters. In this article the authors describe what it takes to become an expert and the various facets to consider. These points are important to consider when determining a system for ‘grading’ or evaluating student work.

To change one’s practice either as a school or individual it is important to have clarity about the role the grade serves and how it is calculated. First one needs to recognize the parameters- for example in the UK these parameters are set by the system and teachers control their feedback to students on the work. In the US teachers are responsible for feedback, grading and calculating final grades. In all situations the students and one’s manager or academic principal needs to have clarity about what the grade actually means and what one needs to do to improve.

One summer, when Mara served as an Instructional Leader, she met with over 20 families to inform them that their child has failed and they will need to repeat either the grade level or several courses. When she held these meetings she would open up the teachers’ digital gradebook and was not able to really understand how the final grades were tabulated. She went back to the syllabus and here there was no clear connection between grades, their weighting and the final outcomes. When she asked the student why they failed their response was- “I don’t know.” In the end because there was no clarity and each teacher had their own system for evaluating students the situation was frustrating for all included. In a few cases Mara resorted to her ‘out of the box thinking’ and assigned the student a summer task that she evaluated against a given criteria matched to the grade level outcomes. If students met this expectation then there was an opportunity for them to earn a grade from her for that subject. This route is not one to consider for system-wide change. So below she has outlined steps for how to evaluate student work transparently.

Grading System and Scale:

  1. Ask what does the final grade represent- expertise in skills learned? knowledge learned? how a student performed in relation to others i.e. normative?
  2. How do you know that others understand how the final grade is calculated?
  3. Outline your system for calculating grades. a) adopt a marking rubric/criteria aligned to content standards or in alignment with subject matter expectations measured externally i.e. GCSE exams, State exams… b) assign point values that are mathematically reasonable (read the article- Case Against the Zero)
  4. Have a look at the presentation shared below and consider your ‘why’ and in what ways you might shift your own practice. Write out your system and practice it. Consider using Design Thinking/proto-type process to get feedback from others. You will need to explain your practice to others and your students especially so they are clear as to how they are evaluated.
  5. Change your syllabi and give your new system a go. Collect data and track its practice. Give students a survey at the beginning of the term and end of the term to get their feedback with regards to how they feel they progressed and were impacted by your feedback.
  6. Share your practice and the results in the comments for this log so that others could learn from you.

Presentation for LAUSD Schools developed by ISIC team.This presentation was shared with schools throughout Los Angeles Unified School District.
Article : Defining and Requiring Academic Achievement:
Carnegie Units, MCAS, and the Meaning of a
High School Education
Really interesting article that captures the history of the marking system and high school education system in the US.
Article: The Case Against the Zero“…the common use of the zero today is based not on a four point scale but on a 100­
point scale. This defies logic and mathematical accuracy. On a 100-point scale, the
interval between numerical and letter grades is typically ten points, with the break points
at 90, 80, 70, and so on. But when the grade of zero is applied to a 1DO-point scale, the
interval between the D and F is not 10 points, but 60 points. Most state standards in
mathematics require that fifth grade students understand the principles of ratios-for
example, A is to B as 4 is to 3; D is to F as 1 is to zero. Yet the persistence of the zero on
a 100-point scale indicates that many people with advanced degrees, including those with
more background in mathematics than the typical teacher, have not applied the ratio
standard to their own professional practices.”
The Effort Effect: ArticleThis article captures Dweck’s Growth Mindset and how to provide feedback to improve a student’s results while being cautious of the generic feedback that has little impact.
I no longer grade my students’ work – and I wish I had stopped soonerThis article is AMAZING and shares a fabulous practice for teachers and students. The main premise is that the teacher provides learners with ongoing feedback throughout the school year or semester and then at the end the student compiles a portfolio to demonstrate their learning and suggest a final mark. This shift from giving every assignment a grade and then averaging the grades (for no clear mathematical reason) to reviewing a term’s worth of progress and measuring achievement puts the emphasis on what has been mastered.
more resources to come…
Why the 100 percent grading system is stacked.A recent article, March 23 by Youki Terada explains the history of the 100% grading practices and provides alternatives similar to the ones captured above.


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