Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mastery Grading: Year 2. Some thoughts as the year gets started and cautious optimism.

Last year, my first year of teaching, I took on the ridiculously complicated task of attempting to implement mastery grading in my classroom. As I noted in my MA Thesis (yes, I'm about to quote myself--so sorry), despite the difficulties I had, "mastery grading is ultimately a promising system, one that I truly believe will provide students with a greater sense of control over their learning."

Building on Year 1
At the beginning of this year, I narrowed down the number of mastery targets I'm using for grading, tried to make them parallel in scope*, and was able to take on weighting with greater confidence that the percentages more accurately reflected relative importance within my curriculum.

I worked out a system where assignments ("practice toward mastery") as a category are weighted zero but are entered in School Loop (online gradebook) as either "Complete" (100%) or "Incomplete" (50%). Certain assessments are counted toward mastery of various targets (categories) and can be marked as "EE" (Exceeds Expectations: 95%), "P" (Proficient, Meets Expectations: 85%), "AE" (Approaching Expectations: 75%), "FBE" (Far Below Expectations: 65%), or "I" (Incomplete: 50%, as noted above).

I can't totally get away from percentages, unfortunately, but there is at least a level of interpretation required to make students think about what the grades mean. Additionally, I can use the comments section to provide individual feedback about every mastery assessment that I enter, so that there is more showing up on the report card than just a number.

Questioning the System (mine, the man's)
We had a chaotic start to the year with more students than we were staffed for and crazy, untenable class sizes until budgets could be sorted out and hiring could be done. So, for a time, mastery grading took a back seat to classroom management and crowd control.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. Hiring: accomplished. Class sizes: shrunk. Students: checking School Loop as the end of the first marking period approached. Most, as I expected, focused on the assignments that were marked "Incomplete" and didn't even seem to notice that they weren't being calculated into their current grade for the class. One student, however, we'll call her E, noticed. She not only noticed, she was mad.

She came to me after class one day to discuss her grade. Although I'm just getting to know her well, she very obviously knows how to "do school" and is clearly in the habit of getting good grades. She turns in all assignments on time, and her work is strong. The summaries she had turned in, however, were not yet proficient. I wasn't concerned about this as learning is really just getting going, but she was not happy.

She first asked, very politely, for clarification about how her grade was being calculated. She then posited that it was perhaps not fair for her grade to be based solely on a single assignment. Why, she asked, were the other assignments she turned in worth nothing? What, she wondered, was the point of doing them? All fair questions. All asked in a delightfully mature and thoughtful manner. I was thrilled and crazy anxious.

I explained my thinking about wanting to move students away from the idea that they should get good grades for checking boxes and completing assignments. I explained that I wanted to encourage them to see homework and classwork as practice toward demonstrating mastery. I explained about the mastery targets. I explained that I wanted their grade to reflect how close they were to achieving mastery.

E was skeptical, still seemed unhappy, but said she'd be willing to check the rubric and revise the summary she'd turned in to try to make it better.

After she left, I tried to breathe and calm down, but I had some serious doubts. Here was this good student, one of the few I had hoped would understand the system early on, not getting it. Not only not getting it, but mad about it. What would her parents think? What would the school think? ACK!

My anxiety got worse when I checked in with my coach, S. A panic attack about all the things I'm NOT doing to support ELs in my classes led to a stressful discussion about how this whole grading system business fits into the systems in place in the district.

I have to give grades every six weeks. Sure, they can just be check-ins on a running total for the semester, but they should be as meaningful as possible, right? Oh damn. Right. What am I communicating to parents and students, who are used to a very different system, when students like E (who I think are right on track) come home with a 75% on their report card? How am I going to communicate that this normally A student is right on track with what amounts to a C? How am I going to communicate something like that to parents whose English and/or literacy levels are low? Will this affect students' ability to get scholarships, jobs, honor roll recognitions, places on sports teams?

The marking-period system is inherently contrary to the ideas of mastery grading, but I'm not going to take it down alone, at least not any time soon. And what do I do in the meantime? Every possibility I came up with seemed either too daunting or too much of a compromise on my underlying philosophy or both. Giving up and moving to a standard completion-based system (20% Homework, 40% quizzes, etc.) certainly crossed my mind more than once.

A Break in the Clouds
Things got better quickly, though. As a stop-gap, and with the help of S, I made a decision about what to do for the first marking period (which ended Friday). Grades would be based on the two mastery targets we had covered most deeply: summary and narrative writing. Period. I would stick with it and try to make a year-long progression of mastery over the weekend.

I communicated this to students and encouraged them to revise the assignments that would serve as the basis for their grades. Many of them came for additional help in improving their summaries and narratives. I referred them to rubrics and checklists, made some scaffolds for those that were in most need, and began to feel really good about the work that was happening in and out of class.

E came back to me the following week with a revised summary that was improved but still not perfect. We talked some more about what made it better and what was still lacking. Both of us clarified our understanding more than we could have otherwise. She left with ideas about how to improve even more and the intention to do another draft.

I got caught up on my grading and students continued to turn in revised drafts of summaries and to improve their narratives.

In the middle of last week, E came in with another draft (her third or fourth at this point). It was fantastic. She had "Exceeded Expectations" and earned an A on that assignment. She expressed satisfaction not only at the increase in the grade-book grade she would receive, but at the work she had put in(!!!), at the way her brain hurt(!!!).

At the same time, growth mindset is being reinforced in their math class and in AVID (possibly in other places, as well, but I've talked to the teacher of those classes about it specifically).

Students are being taught to help one another with questions in math, rather than by giving the answer. I saw this spill over onto the feedback they gave one another about their narratives: "How might you add more imagery here?" "How could you make the conflict clearer?" scrawled on the side without ANY prompting by me!

And I've heard stories of students helping one another understand imagery in AVID: "How could you show you feel cold without using the word 'feel'?" It's brilliant! And their narratives are getting better!

Next Steps
All this has left me optimistic that mastery grading can work, even within the marking-period system. But cautiously so. For there are still a lot of questions and uncertainties.

This weekend, I'm working on charting out how student learning outcomes progress and build on one another over the year. I'm writing rubrics, some of which I've been able to break down by semester targets (e.g., these pieces are not expected until the second semester, these are expectations in the first).

I'm stuck, though, with how to treat marking period grades. Mastery grading is supposed to tie grading to an assessment of where a student is on the road to proficiency. It's supposed to make that journey more transparent and understandable. But if that's the case then students cannot be expected to get As in the first six weeks of school. They are still developing at that point. Nor can they be expected to grow at a steady or one-size-fits-all rate. Learning happens differently for everyone, and for many it happens in fits and starts.

One of the important ideas behind a mastery grading system is that I am measuring what I say I'm measuring. If I say I'm measuring mastery, I can't base grades on whether students are using good work habits (i.e., moving consistently and steadily towards mastery at a pre-determined rate).

But students and parents are used to grades being tied to other things: completion, attendance . . . sometimes it feels like, self-worth. And so for a hardworking student who is on track to mastery to come home with a C is devastating. And probably confusing.

Another problem is averages. Averages are great for determining the rate of steady climbs (or descensions). They are not great for assessing mastery when there has been a big jump at the end or when students produce inconsistent bi-modally distributed work (sometimes awesome, sometimes terrible). What am I really measuring with an averaged score in those cases?

So, I'm working these things out. Or trying to. And I'm happy with the work I'm put in and with home much my brain works. Your thoughts are welcome, desired, NEEDED.

*I'm still working on a definition for this, but, basically, one of my concerns last year was that the mastery targets I articulated were not equal in the level of learning they assessed. That is, some focused on a product outcome, some were more closely tied to a way of thinking, some were steps toward completion of a product, etc.

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant post. Thank you. I had many similar questions a few years ago. Thinking deeply about SBG gets us to the root of what we believe in as teachers. There's never one right answer, of course.

    Your question about marking periods (and Sem 1 vs. Sem 2 grades) is an excellent one. You're right that students shouldn't need to master a skill right at the beginning. Learning takes time. My idea was that it became "harder" (whatever that means) to get an "A" (whatever that means) second semester vs. first.

    Last thing: I applaud that you're full-steam-ahead on homework being practice and not being calculated into the grade. It was always too scary for me.

    You're thinking good things and doing good work.