cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Friday, November 16, 2012

Standards-Based Grading, or How Teaching For Mastery is Different

Teaching for mastery is different.

Teaching for mastery especially means giving up a lot of old and cherished assumptions about assessment. Anybody who has adopted SBG in any way can attest to this. But I am continually amazed at how unwilling many of us can be to letting go of old, ineffective methods, beliefs, and assumptions about assessment.

At its essence, valuing mastery means not only tracking relative mastery but also accepting mastery as the measure of student success in our classrooms. And that means letting go of the value we have always placed on the routinized behavior of the the dutiful student.

This is is probably the hardest shift of all.

As I shifted over to SBG, I noticed how much of our system of math teaching is organized around students being merely dutiful: sitting still, listening quietly, practicing silently, accepting information without challenge. It's a model of student passivity that places everybody into the known and accepted hierarchy. The "good" students land at the top. The "middle" students land in the middle. And the "weak" students land at the bottom.

But as we all know from having inherited, taught, and assessed these students, this schema does not measure mastery, skill, or comprehension. Dutiful students often lack conceptual understanding or procedural skills. They often have distorted memories of algorithms they heard about but never owned.

Changing over to an SBG system of teaching and assessment has meant that I have to create conditions under which any student — even ones with problem behavior or lack of "dutiful-ness" — can achieve mastery.

To me, this idea exposes the biggest flaw in the existing system. If a teacher or administrator decides from the outset that a given student is a "B-" student, then what reason does that student have to make the effort necessary for improvement?

This system also fails to allow for individual (or group) movement up the fixed staircase of the classroom hierarchy, except for improvements in "dutiful-ness." And it seems to me that if we want to improve access and equity to mathematics for all students, this is the single biggest obstacle we face.

It also seems to me that we need to consider the possibility that any hierarchical model might be transformed from a staircase to an escalator, in which all students can be expected to reach the target floor or level of skills and understanding. And that means we will have to allow for the possibility that all students in a class demonstrate the mastery that is asked in a way that permits them to receive a higher score than the "B-" or "B+" that they have always been pigeonholed into.


  1. This is my first year with SBG and I agree, it means nothing unless you include mastery. I use Marzano's 4 point scale and students know a level 3 is the target. If students don't reach level 3 after the first or second assessment, they have the rest of the quarter. I'm a big fan of multiple opportunities. I want my students to be successful and some need more time than others.

  2. I agree, but it is difficult to get others on board: