Compliance Isn't Mastery Of Learning

Written by: Starr Sackstein 


School is a game in many ways and so the rules create winners and losers. Points are earned by those who know how to play the game well and those who refuse to play it often find themselves not achieving success in the same ways as their peers who can nimbly navigate the playing field. In this valedictorian address above, the student addresses why he doesn’t feel he best represents his graduating class speaking to the ills of choosing courses that have weights and then spending most of his time working to achieve good grades which he claims has little to do with actual learning. He also speaks to the other more qualified students in his graduating class or more deserving of the honor.

Since I share the views of this young man, every time I hear educators starting to shift their mindsets about what learning looks like and how we communicate it, I get excited. Now, I understand that my views on grades are definitely progressive for most people. Some folks believe that students need them to do well and to be motivated and perhaps some kids have learned that this is the only way.

Some folks believe that something in the middle is more appropriate and therefore they may not grade everything, but are okay giving tests and putting letters and numbers on report cards and other intermediary projects so long as feedback accompanies the number. We all believe that feedback is necessary to help students grow as learners because good, actionable feedback tailors learning to the individual student and provides strategies that help each one of them where they actually are, making progress far more attainable and tangible. When we couple this kind of feedback with student reflection and self-assessment, we have a winning combination of actually knowing what kids think about their learning and what we see of it as their teachers.

But things get dodgy with scoring when it starts to get down to compliance measures. Many school systems now are forcing educators to reconsider the language of their grading policies to promote mastery of skills and content and NOT compliance. So things like attendance, participation, behavior and quantity of work can’t be in the grading policy.

Because mastery can be shown in a number of ways, schools must carefully craft their new grading policies to clearly demonstrate how students can find success without using points and/or compliance measures as a means to raise or lower the communication of learning. Old habits die hard, however, and when these issues are debated among a lot of educators, finding space for extra credit and/or make up packages come into play as well as what to do about students who are chronically absent.

Another issue that tends to come up is what to do about late work. We can all agree that learners learn at different paces and therefore hard deadlines may often not reflect a student’s best effort. Some students will dutifully turn work in when it’s due and others will use the extended time (sometimes not because they need to) to get work in right before the semester ends. Teachers seem to worry that if this becomes a part of the school culture even the students who would be inclined to get the work done on time, will choose not to now because why should they if other students will be still get the same grade later?

Although I understand this mentality, we need to fight to change it. Learning is NOT a competition despite how we rank kids and pit them against each other. In some schools, kids are still tracked and they claw their way to the top to beat their classmates out for better grades. Other issues that arise have to do with homework and whether or not it should be included in a grade. This is one topic that really gets me going because homework should never be mandatory. It should be an opportunity to provide practice where needed and should be used to support not penalize for a number of reasons, not least of all the equity of many home situations. Mastery of content and skills take time and kids need to be allowed the amount of time needed to attain that mastery. We need to offer them opportunities to show what they know in a variety of ways and then not penalize or reward those who do it slower or faster. Mastery is just that and it doesn’t matter when a child gets it, it only matters that they do.

We need to monitor learning that happens in school, offer opportunities for growth both in and out of the classroom and allow for different needs as we go. Students want to learn and we just need to listen to the how and what of their interests to support them in the best ways we can. As more school systems abandon the more traditional ways of grading and start focusing more on mastery and standards, students and families will have a better understanding of what students actually know and can do and that can only improve the learning moving forward.

Providing support for schools transitioning and perfecting a mastery learning approach is the ‘Why’ behind Mastery Portfolio. Our communication tool, The MasteryBook, supports educators, students and families in understanding what students know and how to continue their progress.

  What kinds of conversations are you having in your school around grading policies and what are the biggest challenges or successes? Please share

*This article originally ran in Starr Sackstein’s Education Week Blog, Work In Progress, on June 17th, 2017.