Reflecting on Assessment, Part 2: Making the Shift to Mastery-Based Grading

by | 05.10.22

Tyler Rablin is an English teacher in Washington. Connect with Tyler on Twitter @Mr_Rablin.

In the first post in this series, I described the way a student inspired me to rethink assessment many years ago. I’ve since embraced a “standards-based” or “mastery-based” approach. What this means, on a basic philosophical level, is that I believe it’s my job as the teacher to look for evidence of student learning wherever I can. I work to make sure my students’ grades are more closely tied to their learning and skills than to behaviors, like turning in certain assignments on specific dates.

I find that most of my fellow teachers agree that they want grades to accurately reflect student learning, and the roadblock to rethinking more traditional assessment models often comes down to logistics: What does this mean for my planning? What does this mean for my gradebook? I want to share a bit about how I got started.

First, we can map out multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning toward each standard.

I think the best place to start is with the learning standards or outcomes we want our students to reach. We can look at our priority learning outcomes, and for each one, write down the progression of skills we’d like to see students demonstrate. We can plan out ways to allow students multiple attempts to demonstrate their understanding of each learning outcome. It’s important that we stay aware of what standard each demonstration attempt aligns to in order to ensure that we are giving multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding of a single standard.

Making a list like this allows us to dip our toes into rethinking assessment. Just exploring this way of thinking opens the door to more possibilities for how teaching, learning and assessment can happen in a way that doesn’t feel too overwhelming.

Next, we can try out a variety of opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning.

As I started to change the way I grade, I was open with my students about what I was trying and why, and I gave myself the space to try out different approaches to formative assessment. Approaches to assessment design can be as varied as educators, but here are a few strategies that I’ve found useful for formative assessment:

Offer students choices. In addition to tests and projects, I regularly give my learners the chance to do “brain dumps,” so they can show me everything they know about a particular skill. I also invite them to fill out this “Choice Grid Memo” to explain why they chose a particular way to demonstrate their learning. I find that choice empowers my students, and gives me a better sense of where they are in their learning.

Hold student conferences. I hold student conferences every few weeks, and these conversations really give me insight into what my students know. This gives them an opportunity to raise their voices, reflect on the learning they’ve done and support everything with evidence. Learners really “own” their learning thanks to these meetings.

Try a feedback-forward approach. When giving feedback, I focus on trends, not individual errors, while looking ahead to students’ next learning goal. I also include audio feedback so that students can hear my voice alongside written comments. And I gather all feedback in an interactive portfolio, so they have something to look back on as they look ahead to more learning.

I shared these tips – plus the tech resources I rely on, like templates and rubrics – in a Twitter thread a while back, which you can find here. I’ve collected a lot of my work around assessment and grading (templates, blogs, webinars, YouTube videos, etc.) and organized it into categories on this document. I hope you’ll take and use anything you want or need for your own thinking or for your classroom: Assessment resources >>

Finally, we can consider how we can manage our recorded grades in a way that works with our online gradebooks.

I find that when colleagues aren’t sure how to get started with rethinking assessment, the anxiety is usually tied to the constraints of the online gradebook. Mapping out multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate learning around each standard, as I described above, helps us organize our thinking around the data – in this case, grades – and helps us see how each discrete data point is a snapshot of a student’s understanding at that moment in time. In traditional grading, assessment scores are averaged. But if you see a learning progression across the three attempts, and the student reaches the outcome on the third try, is it fair to calculate their grade by saying, “We’re just averaging how you did over time?” Or, do we want our gradebook to capture the truth that the more recent demonstration of growth more accurately reflects learning?

Right now, I record my grades in a Google Sheet organized by category. For example, if my students complete an assessment demonstrating their ability to analyze theme development across a text, I would enter the “score” beneath that header. Then, when I give them another attempt to show learning – through a revision of their work or a new assessment – I would enter the new score under the same header. That way, both the students and I can see over time how their skills are growing, tapping into students’ intrinsic motivation.

In my online gradebook, I mark most major assessments as completed or missing, without using numbers. And then when it’s time to enter grades, we use their feedback from across units to determine one big score. I set the score to 5 points, corresponding with letter grades.

I’ve found that any of the main online gradebooks can be made to work with this system, but we have to communicate with students, families and our administrators about what they can expect, because our grade reports will look different from what they’re used to.

In the final post in this series, I will share ways of communicating about mastery-based grades with students, families and fellow teachers. What I’ve found is that by communicating our “why” early and clearly, we can get buy-in from all the stakeholders who care about students’ growth. Making these changes can make a real difference in the way our students talk about their learning and the way that they feel valued. It’s amazing, and it’s something that school leaders and students’ families usually get behind.

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