Grading for Mastery

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With a mastery mindset as a goal, the next step is finding a relevant way to judge a student’s work. In a traditional school or classroom, we use an 100 point scale split up into A, B, C, D, and F. The question now is whether or not that is an accurate measurement of mastery. I argue that it isn’t:

  • What is the difference between a 69 and a 70 on our traditional 100 point scale? That one point means the difference between passing and failing but, if I am looking to see if a student is able to apply what they’ve learned and use their knowledge to be successful consistently, is there a true difference between 69 and 70? No.
  • With no real difference between the different point values of a 100 point scale, it is easy to see them as arbitrary numbers. If a student earns an 89, why not round up their score to a 90 and give them an A? One little point means nothing. If it means nothing, what is its value to us?
  • Many teachers curve grades, either so that the top grade becomes an 100 or a balanced distribution on a bell curve. If the highest score is an 80, has that student mastered everything? No. If a student earns an 85, but they’re on the low end of the grades, have they failed? No. This makes grades a competition between students when, really, they should be about personal growth.

If an 100 point scale is an arbitrary, ineffective way to judge our students’ learning, what can we do instead?

This is where the push for rubric-based grading comes in, but those take a lot of time to create and can be confusing to use at times. In my first grade classroom, I use this catch-all 3 point rubric:
3: The student can apply the skill with success consistently without struggle. I’ve got this and can do it by myself.
2: The student can apply the skill with help. On their own they struggle some, but they are getting there. They aren’t there yet, but they are growing. I’m getting there. I might need help.
1: The student cannot apply the skill. They have no success or, if they do, it is so sporadic that I can’t honestly say they understand it. I don’t understand and need help.

My class knows this rubric and I use it to check for understanding using the words in bold. (Aside: I’ve used it far less this year than I’d like and hope to implement it more thoroughly next year.)

Because I am tied to the traditional pre-primary E, S, N grading scale, I directly tie their rubric score to their grade. 3 = E, 2 = S, 1 = N. Less of my students get Es than they did in the first half of the year, but I’m ok with that because its an accurate reflection of their knowledge and growth. And really, what is the point of an E if they haven’t really mastered it? It just becomes a meaningless letter that doesn’t reflect my expectations for their learning.

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