Written By Starr Sackstein

Regular, actionable narrative feedback is the fuel for learning, but when it comes to communicating mastery, the standards should be affixed. Presumably, students are working on specific skills and content in each of our classes
and growth must be tracked in a meaningful way according to where students start and where they are now


In the ongoing quest to better communicate learning and progress to our students, we need to provide them standard specific feedback in our assessment of their learning. Rather than give them a grade, consider a standards breakdown with mastery level instead of an averaged letter or number or a rubric. This also arms students with the ability to better self-assess against these same standards when they are being used all of the time. Working with IO Education the last few years, I’ve learned to really use my online communication system better. Now I can provide students both narrative feedback and specific levels for individual standards. Students then can view this feedback and also see their progress moving forward. Using a decaying average (since I still have to have numbers at my school), counts the most recent iteration the most. This way earlier attempts with the same standard before practice has been done, doesn’t adversely impact the reporting of student mastery. Using the language of the standards in the feedback provided offers students language to really understand where the learning is happening; it helps them specifically address the help they need
and their areas of strength.

If you don’t have a system that allows you to put standards with the assignment, you can do the following:

Students may feel frustrated by reaching a level of proficiency if they can’t seem to move to mastery right away. Remember they are moving away from a traditional grading system that gives and takes away points arbitrarily, so working with another system that requires actual growth to move forward will be an adjustment. Remind students that mastery is only achieved when they can consistently use a skill well without being prompted to use it. They need to recognize the problem, know a solution, and then use it with a level of mastery in different situations. This is when they have truly mastered a skill; simply doing something well once can mean they got lucky or had help which on its own isn’t a bad thing, but it certainly can muddy the assessment.


As we continue to move away from the traditional grading system, we must make sure that what we put in its place is sound. The whole point of dropping grades is to make sure learning is communicated accurately and unencumbered with non-academic placeholders.

Some teachers factor things like grading policies and honor codes into their averages which help students achieve an “easy A” for a transcript like the picture to the right, but what skill is actually being assessed in that assignment? No standards are addressed there. And look at the scale? It’s baffling that a student can receive a 6/5 for 120% just for turning in a sheet of paper.


Assessing students is a serious business and the better we get at it, the more students get out of it, enabling them to start doing it for themselves becoming more independent learners. We simply can’t value things like “USB- remains in class” when it comes to assessing learning. So as you decide what goes into your online communication system, make sure to ask yourself, how does this assignment advance student learning? What skills/standards are being addressed?
Is this the first time I’m offering students a chance to learn and practice this skill or is it something that has been previously taught? If a student hasn’t achieved mastery on that skill yet, what other opportunities will be provided moving forward to allow students to develop mastery?

How do you communicate the standards to your students in a way they understand their progress? Please share

Does this sound like something that would be helpful for your school? Click here to schedule a call with a Mastery Learning expert.

*This article was originally published in Starr Sackstein’s Education Week Blog, Work in Progress on March 16, 2017

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