In his proposed budget , Governor John Kasich calls for the creation of a competency-based education pilot program. Competency-based education is premised on the idea that students only move on to more complex concepts and skills after they master simpler ones. While that sounds somewhat negative at first blush, it also means that mastering current content quickly leads to advancing sooner than the standard march from grade to grade. Kasich’s proposal would provide grants to ten districts or schools that were selected through an application process created by the Ohio Department of Education to pilot the program.
The competency-based model goes by different names in different places. In Ohio, there are schools that already utilize it but call it something different: mastery grading. (Be sure to check out how schools like Metro Early College School and MC²STEM high school, as well as districts like Pickerington, make it work.) Mastery grading assesses students based on whether or not they’ve mastered specific skills and concepts. Instead of an overall grade that takes homework completion, daily assignments, class participation, and test grades that cover multiple standards into account to formulate an average, mastery grading breaks down a student’s performance on individual skills and concepts. Teachers or districts can determine a scale that works for their teaching styles and students. For example, a math teacher might use a scale in which 90 percent equals mastery, 70 percent equals developing mastery, and anything less than 70 percent indicates no mastery. An English teacher might utilize a rubric that looks like this:
Regardless of the system, mastery grading allows teachers to make it clear to parents and students precisely what the student has and hasn’t mastered. Instead of interpreting what Tyrone’s B in algebra means, Tyrone and his parents know that he understands polynomials at 97 percent mastery and two-variable equations at 90 percent mastery; but he has trouble with inequalities and the quadratic equation, where his mastery hovers at 65 percent. Similarly, Jasmine and her parents would know that, in her biology course, she’s mastered DNA and RNA and their processes at 92 percent mastery, evolution at 94 percent mastery, and cells at 96 percent mastery.
The key to mastery grading is that if the student doesn’t master the concept or skill, they don’t move on to the next topic. Instead, the student receives additional instruction and remediation, practice, and support (like tutoring, group work, or blended learning models). For instance, let’s imagine that Tyrone needs additional help to master the quadratic equation. This extra help can take multiple forms: Tyrone could log in to Khan Academy. He could receive one-on-one tutoring from his teacher during or outside of class. Or he could work in a group of similarly struggling students to complete a project on the real-life applications of quadratic equations. There are dozens of support options, but the end result is the same. After receiving remediation for the material he hasn’t mastered, Tyrone retakes the assessment. If he achieves mastery, he moves on (say, to exponents and factoring). If he doesn’t achieve mastery, he receives more support.
Mastery grading has profound implications for three reasons. First, it teaches children about growth mindsets. Failing to master something the first time is not a harbinger of failure, but a checkpoint that signals a need for more hard work, time commitment, and help. Tyrone doesn’t fail algebra (or feel like a failure) because he hasn’t mastered inequalities. Instead, he knows he’s mastered some parts of algebra but needs more help with other parts. Thus, failure becomes a learning experience instead of a death knell; students receive another chance to master a concept outside of the traditional, weekly, or unit test that comes and goes but once. Second, by targeting support in specific problem areas for individual kids, teachers can circumvent the boredom that often plagues advanced students. Jasmine, for example, doesn’t have to waste her time being bored with evolution or DNA review. Instead, she moves on to ecology and genetics while the student sitting next to her receives additional help with DNA. Third—and most importantly for parents—it promises the confidence of knowing exactly what kids have and haven’t learned. No more last-minute surprises that kids have fallen drastically behind and no more glossing over struggles because the class is moving on to the next thing regardless of whether all students have mastered the content. It’s progress demystified.
Another unique aspect of mastery grading is that it frees students from the antiquated notion of seat time in favor of content. Teachers and parents know instinctively and professionally that all students are unique, one-size-fits-all does not work, and education must be personalized. This need for personalization, however, doesn’t seem to apply to class schedules or grade bands. Why must an advanced student sit through sixty minutes of geometry every day for an entire year if she mastered the concepts after a single semester? Why must struggling students feel like an extra few days on a difficult concept equates to failure and falling tragically behind, rather than an opportunity to work hard and overcome an obstacle on the way to mastery? Those who would envision high school classrooms with a lone baby genius or middle school classrooms with a struggling nineteen year old are missing out on the fact that students can be in one building while learning the content that (supposedly) belongs to another. In fact, that happens in Ohio schools already—there are seventh graders taking algebra in their middle school building, and there are juniors taking remedial English in their high school building. All mastery grading does is make content king on the road to an ultimate goal—a goal that remains the same for all students even as the path to get there varies.