Moving from grading for compliance to grading for mastery

December 13, 2010 •

After comparing four years of semester grades with standardized state exams, teachers at Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minnesota noticed a discrepancy. A small but significant portion of student that got good grades in class did not score well on the tests; while another portion that received high scores on the year-end state tests were C or D students during regular coursework.

This New York Times article quotes the school’s principal, Katie Berglund, saying that they were grading less for mastery of course material than for compliance—completing assignments, showing up on time, participating.

So they made some changes—offering two grades: A ‘knowledge grade’ that averages tests given as part of a course, with homework treated as practice and not counting toward the final grade. They also have a ‘life skills’ grade that accounts for preparation, behavior, teamwork. The superintendent noted changes in behavior, with students focusing more on what they need to learn instead of going through the motions.

Now 90 percent of grades are determined by assessments, and 10 percent on ‘practice’ (homework).

This raises an interesting, larger question:

If mastery is what matters—which Austin argues, with good reason—then can standardized tests capture its full range? Probably not. What other means of assessment could be used for students to demonstrate achievement, and how can school be arranged to enable that?

Berglund on Fox and Friends last week:

Image: Roderick Mills, c/o NYT