Reflecting on Assessment, Part 3: Communicating Mastery-Based Grading to Students, Families and Educators

by | 05.18.22

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

The reality is, in most of our schools, grades aren’t just a conversation between teachers and our students. There are so many people beyond our classrooms who are interested in grades, including students’ families, administrators and district-level leaders. As we rethink traditional assessment, we need to be able to build systems that work for our students and remain legible to the stakeholders. Everyone’s school community is going to feel different in this regard. 

I continue to work on the best ways to talk about student growth with families and school leaders without relying on numerical scores. I think it comes down to building a common understanding early on – communicating what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and why it’s worth the extra effort for administrators and families to learn to read a progress report that might look different from what they’re used to.

Below are strategies I use to communicate about mastery-based grading to fellow educators, students and families. 

Communicating With Our Fellow Educators 

I sometimes lead sessions with educators and school leaders about rethinking assessment. The first thing I ask them to do is essentially an audit. I’ll invite them to analyze grades and grading as they’re currently happening in their school and district, and identify the disparities in how grades are distributed. A lot of times, this surfaces issues in how bias and systemic racism play out in grading and assessment. Administrators and teachers care about those disparities, so it’s powerful to ground the assessment conversation in this data.  

After looking at the data, I like to turn to student voice. I encourage educators to survey kids and hear their story by asking three questions:

  1. Do grades help you learn? 
  2. How do grades make you feel? 
  3. Why do teachers give grades?

Simply reading through those responses is almost always enough to help educators understand that grades aren’t simple numbers, and they have a really powerful impact on how students feel about themselves. This is almost always the most powerful piece of this conversation, and it often opens my fellow educators’ minds to new ways of thinking about grading to best support our students’ growth and self-belief.

Communicating with Our Students 

When a new group of students walks into my classroom, my process for introducing my approach to assessment is similar to the way I discuss it with educators, in the sense that I first want to show them why traditional grading doesn’t feel right to me. 

For those students who have received messages that they’re not good at school, it’s so important to give them the opportunity to see the problems inherent to grading, so they can locate those problems outside themselves. Even those who have been successful need help in understanding that they shouldn’t just see themselves as a label with a letter “A.” 

I start this conversation with a slide deck in which I show a grade book setup, with a hypothetical student and five assignments. We talk about how the scores reveal that the student struggled at the beginning, but by the final assignment, they had mastered the skill. Then, there’s another student who was just proficient on every attempt and didn’t show any growth. We talk about which student traditionally ends up with the higher grade if we average the scores, and how that score doesn’t end up reflecting learning. These gradebook scenarios help my students see the thinking behind my assessment process. Then, over the first couple weeks of school, I’ll offer three quick assessments on a small skill, so we can talk about how their three attempts reveal learning over time. 

By starting on a micro scale, students see the process in action and begin to internalize the philosophy behind my approach. I like them to see that if they struggle early on, their first assessment doesn’t “hurt” them. I want them to see that as long as they’re growing and improving and using feedback to learn the skill,  making a mistake in this classroom is just something that helps you grow. And if they grow, then we leave that mistake in the past.

Communicating with Students’ Families

When communicating with families, I use many of the same scenarios that I use with students and educators to describe the inequities in traditional assessment systems and why I believe a mastery approach better reflects growth. We usually have an open house at the beginning of the year in which I get to talk through this with families. (This wasn’t quite the same during the pandemic.) It’s a chance to say this is how I grade, this is why I grade this way, and this is how your student can be successful.

The only time I get strong pushback is from families of students who have earned good grades in the past as a result of exhibiting the behaviors school rewards, but maybe without mastering new skills. Those are the hardest conversations, because now that the student is accountable for learning, not just doing, it’s not uncommon for that student to get a lower grade than they’re comfortable with and used to. And I wish I could say I had the perfect solution for that specific scenario, but I don’t. Those are still really uncomfortable conversations.

Usually, though, when parents and caretakers hear, “If your kid learns what they need to learn, they’ll be successful,” they intuitively understand what I’m doing. It ends up feeling a lot more straightforward than when I used to say things like, “Seventy percent of their grade is going to be tests, and 10 percent will be this, and 20 percent will be that.” 

My goal is really to communicate the simplicity in the approach: Grades should reflect learning, and that’s what I’m striving to offer my students.

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