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Our school is drafting a grading policy very closely aligned with your work, particularly your 15 Fixes book! I have two questions: 1) Our English Department is wondering if you know of any research, case studies, or specific schools where mastery based grading is done well, so they can learn more about what it looks like and sounds like in a high school English classroom? and 2) What are some practical suggestions for implementing mastery-based grading of essays in a high school English classroom, so that it won't take too long to grade all of them? Each of our teachers see about a 100 students total. Thank you!

Carolyn Diers Kaneda


Here is a very thoughtful answer to your questions from a wonderful English teacher and
friend in Alberta.

Mastery-based grading (or standards based grading) is a system of assessment that
focuses on learning targets which are determined to be the core or essential outcomes or
standards. After examining the prescribed curriculum, it is essential to determine each set
of core learning targets for each grade and think of how to best scaffold that learning from
grade 12 down. This will help each teacher (as part of a whole ELA staff) to determine
which knowledge, skills and attitudes to focus on at each grade level. This is one of the
most important undertakings for an ELA staff as it clearly communicates at each grade,
what their instructional and learning focus will be. ELA teachers can then select their texts
and assessments, activities and lessons, that will provide students opportunities to move
towards mastery. This article speaks directly to seven reasons for standards based grading
and is a great overview.

Specifically for writing assignments, the traditional number crunching of a variety of
categories in a rubric is rethought in a standards based system of assessment. For
example, if one of your core targets is mastery of dialogue, then you would designs
lessons for students on the seven types of dialogue. Once you feel comfortable that the
majority of your students will be able to demonstrate proficiency, (after instruction and
practice) you ask them to write a short story, where students use their new knowledge of
dialogue in an authentic way. For this story, the assessment focus will be on dialogue only
as that was the learning target. Your gradebook would reflect the learning target
"demonstrates knowledge of 7 dialogue types" and the students would be assessed with a
description of their mastery of that core target. The description could be a simple word,
such as "basic" or "proficient" or could be attached to a 1-4 scaled rubric, that describes
mastery along a continuum (this rubric would be created by you and your staff).

Depending on the age of the student, and your instructional focus, you could easily
evaluate more than one core learning target at a time. Choosing to group core learning
targets and then design instruction around those groupings can be effective. During a unit
of study I might be instructing my students on engaging openings, a thoughtful thesis
statement, clear topic sentences that provide unity and coherence (all core targets from a
program of studies or curriculum) and could, after instruction and practice, assess their
mastery of these three learning targets by assigning them an essay. I could give them a
character sketch assignment where I have broken the specific components of the sketch
into the key learning targets identified (the ones I have been focusing my instruction on
prior to assigning the sketch). Once the assignment comes in, the gradebook would not
reflect a combined score for the sketch, but a description of each student's degree of
mastery of the identified core learning targets/components.

If you are still required to provide a percentage based mark (and many teachers, may be
required to still in a high school setting because of university/college entrance and
scholarship requirements), your staff will have to determine how to translate the more
descriptive standards based reporting terminology into actual numbers. I have provided a
pamphlet from a high school I found online that has created an overall rubric with a series
of descriptors at various GPA values. I have specific descriptive feedback measures related
to the specific learning outcomes that I include with student report cards (done by both
myself and the students), but I am still expected to report a percentage grade.

One of the biggest questions you and your staff will have to address has to do with
allowing students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their mastery through "retesting"
or "reassessment." In my classroom, I have a process in place for students who wish to
engage in a "rewrite" if they feel they could improve their mark on a given assignment. I
provide students with some form of questionnaire, that holds them accountable for
acknowledging my feedback and coming up with solutions to address the identified weak
areas (which core standards or outcomes they are not demonstrating a level of proficiency
in) and explain reasons why strengths were strengths (what core targets they were meeting
and why). We would then meet to discuss the paper and their new ideas. They would then
go away and do the "rewrite." I would not accept the "rewrite" if this process was not
fulfilled. They would hand this new assignment in and I would reassess and record the
mark. I would give them no additional rewrite opportunities on THAT assignment.
However, as the term progresses, and a similar type assignment was given (that addressed
similar core learning targets), I would reduce the weighting of the first one to reflect it as a
learning opportunity (formative), where learning was assessed at a specific level at that
specific moment, and put the onus on the student to LEARN from that experience and
apply their learning to this new task. This would mean they would have to go back to the
previous assignment type, identify strengths and weaknesses, set goals based on the
assignment and the learning targets and go from there.

If you don't set some sort of manageable limit of how many times you will assess a single
assignment... the marking will drive you insane. Students will also become a bit
complacent. They will do a mediocre job the first time, knowing you will provide them with
brilliant and specific feedback (which means you are really doing the work towards mastery
of learning targets, not them). They wait, sometimes for the third, fourth or fifth attempt...
waiting for you to do the hard, critical thinking in relation to a text (and to do the work
required to move them towards mastery of the learning targets), which is counter to what
we want as English teachers.

For students who find that even on the "rewrite" that they are struggling, and in the spirit
of the fixes, would like to improve their mark and their learning... you can always provide
them with another assignment of similar type, that asks them to once again demonstrate
proficiency of specific core learning targets. So, instead of doing the To Kill a Mockingbird
character sketch on Scout, do it on Boo Radley. This puts the onus on the student to apply
learning from the first two times they submitted to you... and not rely heavily on you just
identifying the weaknesses and the whole "tell me what to do to fix this." You never want to
inhibit a student's critical thinking process. You may need to do some one on one
instruction to help guide this student or you may find through your first and perhaps
subsequent assessment of student work that the entire class will benefit from some extra
instruction or continued practice. If few students do well, then you may consider this more
formal assignment to be a formative, or learning piece, recognizing additional instruction
and practice is needed to ensure students have the best shot at demonstrating their
mastery. The real benefit of the formative or "practice" pieces is that they can inform your
instruction and help students develop their metacognitive skills.

I am also sending you an e-mail with some links she suggested.