Competency-Based Grading Made Easier with the Mastery Book

By: Jordana Benone
High School Teacher and MasteryBook User

Teacher confession: The end of the school year has always been tough for me. While there is always lots of celebration and relief that the end has come, the realities when facing my gradebook make me question every move I made. Of course, this was worse when I graded on points and averages, but even with the change to standards-based and then competency-based grading, I still had my struggles.


  • Were these grades accurate? 

  • Did they best communicate what my students had actually learned or not learned? What about this student that had a giant growth spurt at the end?

  • Is it right to assess her most recent performance or do I need to take into consideration the entire journey? 

(Spoiler alert: It’s right to assess her on her most recent performance, provided the assessment is valid.) 


While these are capital letter Big Questions that I really don’t think any teacher has all the answers for, (although I’m hoping to by the time I retire), using MasteryBook this past term has made confronting my gradebook at the end of this term exponentially better. I feel more confident with the data at hand. Grading conferences with students have been more authentically deep and meaningful than I have experienced before. Conflicts about grades have disappeared. 


I don’t mean to make MasteryBook sound like the silver bullet to all of a teacher’s assessment problems and grading doubts, but I will say that with the purposeful and intentional guidance around how to use this tool and what it is, my students have increased their comfortability with and working understanding of a competency-based education model more than anything else I have tried before.


The brand-new school where I taught operates as a competency-based education system. As someone who has experience in hacking traditional systems in order to teach in a standards-based and mastery-based framework, this was really exciting. Having a platform like MasteryBook to support this work in an authentic way was especially exciting as it meant no more hacking traditional gradebooks! 


Of course, the major hurdle that had to be overcome was first teaching the students what a mastery-based system means. Helping them shed ingrained mindsets of letter grades and averages and points can be really difficult. MasteryBook made this process easier. 


One of the most useful components of the MasteryBook is the colors. The ability to color-code your ratings and then see those readings displayed as a patchwork on your teacher dashboard is a powerful visual for understanding student progress. 


The summary bar with color-coded progress on students’ most recent progress is also a boon. Some of the students understood this intuitively, while others struggled a bit. Wanting to make this understanding stick, we turned to a hands-on activity to help students get this. Students sat at a table with an envelope of color-coded cards of different lengths. They laid the cards out from red, which is our lowest ranking color, to blue which is our highest-ranking color. 


We asked what it meant if a student had a lot of red. “They need to revise and resubmit their work!” “They need to conference with their teacher!” “They need to get one-on-one help!” The responses were quick, correct, and edifying.  


We also explored the idea of the most recent performance by having students trade cards with a classmate who had a card of the same length, but a different color. We asked, based on the color change, what happened to the student’s learning?  “They improved!” “They dipped down so they need to try again!” Again, students were getting it pretty quickly.  


The final test was sending them to their own MasteryBook page armed with this new understanding to reflect on what their data said and make an action plan. For the first time all year, students were accurately and thoughtfully prioritizing their learning tasks. Their conversations with each other revolved around which skill they needed to develop instead of what score they got. When students made what I thought to be dubious choices, they were able to explain why they were choosing to work on a particular activity and used the data in MasteryBook to back up that choice.  Turns out I was wrong and the “dubious” choice was exactly the right one for what that learner needed.


While I could see students using MasteryBook to guide their choices and make purposeful progress and I could hear their conversations about school shift from due dates and names of assignments to competencies and abilities, the most gratifying moment came at the end of the year.  Remember, I confessed that this is the time of year I usually dread because of all the self-doubt that ensues.  This term my one-on-one grading conferences included the question, “How did your understanding of your learning change once we started to use MasteryBook? What did you do differently once you had MasteryBook as a tool?” These 13- and 14-year-old high school freshmen responded in some of the most insightful and mature ways I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.  Some of my favorites include the following:


  • Once we started to use MasteryBook…I finally understood competency-based learning.

  • After using MasteryBook, I had a stronger understanding of…why we did assignments.

  • I now understood that grades were based on our ability to apply certain competencies or not.

  • MasteryBook…helped me push to revise some more work I knew I needed to work on.

  • Once I learned more about MasteryBook it helped me [understand] what I need to revise based on the color and the competency.

  • Once I had MasteryBook as a tool, I started to improve on how I should improve certain assignments rather than just completing countless revisions without a clear direction.

  • Overall, my learning has benefited from using MasteryBook in terms of knowing where I am.

After reading these comments I feel like this is a year where I can genuinely join the end-of-year celebration of learning.  I am not second-guessing the scores in MasteryBook.  I feel confident in my own assessment of student learning and even more pleased that my students have a clear understanding of themselves as learners. Maybe it won’t take me until retirement to figure all of this out after all!


Jordana Benone has over 20 years of classroom experience teaching such high school courses as English, ELD, and theatre arts as well as leading and teaching various intervention programs. In addition to teaching, she has had the opportunity to observe, coach, and mentor other teachers in classrooms across the country. She firmly believes in the power of education and in each teacher’s ability to make meaningful, long-lasting changes in students’ lives.

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