Catalyzing Mastery-Based Learning: NYC’s Mastery Collaborative

By Chris Sturgis (this post originally appeared in 7/9//16)

Mastery Collaborative 'Speed Rounds'

Mastery Collaborative 'Speed Rounds'

How does a huge district open the door to mastery-based learning when the rest of the district is focused on other areas of improvement and innovation?

New York City Department of Education created the Mastery Collaborative to support schools that were ready to take on the new frontier of mastery-based learning. The Department’s policy for school autonomy has formed a strong foundation; however, schools need support as well. Led by an extraordinary group – Jeremy Kraushar, Joy Nolan, and Julianna C. Brown – the Mastery Collaborative is building a network of leader-educators, a knowledge hub, and a shared vision of what mastery-based learning can be in NYC.

“Speed round” conversations at a Mastery Collaborative meeting allow school leaders, teachers, and students from participating schools to “cross-pollinate” effective ideas, practices, and experiences about mastery. In the above photo, Justin, a 7th grader from Brooklyn, talks to Joaquin Vega, principal of Bronx International High School, about how students feel the impact of mastery-based grading.

The Collaborative is made up of forty schools: eight Living Lab schools and thirty-two Active Member schools (a list is at the bottom of this post with links to the articles written about the schools CompetencyWorks has visited). The Living Lab schools provide visitors with a chance to see what mastery-based schools look like and to talk to other educators who are experienced at working in a schoolwide mastery system. Living Lab schools also post resources in a shared wiki page so others can quickly look at different options regarding grading practices, design of competencies, or school policies. The Mastery Collaborative team works with the schools to set goals aligned to a shared community framework, learn from one another, and develop overall guidance documents. For example, they have developed a tool to evaluate LMS systems to expedite the process for schools to consider different products. They are in the process of working with DOE Central’s Office of Academic Policy to offer PD that will help schools develop fair, transparent, and comprehensive mastery-based grading policies and messaging for teachers, students, and parents.

Some of the schools in the Mastery Collaborative sought waivers through the PROSE initiative, a joint effort of the UFT and the Department that has offered opportunities for schools to become mastery-based. However, most of the practices within mastery-based schools do not require waivers.


“Our goal is to create a strategy where more and more schools want to turn to mastery-based learning,” explained Jeremy Kraushar. “We know that a compliance strategy will not work, so we are building a volunteer strategy.” So far it is working: the number of schools have doubled over the past year. Leadership from other parts of the district are coming to meetings to learn more about mastery-based learning and to consider what they can be doing to support it.

One of the Collaborative’s strategies is to form strong relationships with the divisions within the Department of Education that oversee the policies related to mastery-based learning. Brown explained, “Any time there is innovation, schools are going to butt up against the system. For example, grading policy can limit asynchronicity, in which students may be working on different performance levels or units at different times.” Thus, the Mastery Collaborative team has built bridges with the Office of Academic Policy to explore what is allowable or isn’t regarding grading, as well as to begin to shape solutions.


The Mastery Collaborative community has developed a shared language for talking about competency education in NYC with the Framework for Mastery Implementation – school-wide systems, curriculum & classroom planning, facilitation, and communication. The framework will be useful to schools trying to understand the school-wide systems and classroom practices, so it is included in detail below.

If you are new to competency-based education, it’s worth taking the time to watch the five videos at the MC website:


In its first year, Mastery Collaborative developed working groups that bring cross-school expertise and ideas to bear on some of the more challenging issues: Curriculum Design in Math and ELA, Grading Policies & Software, Academic Policy, and Culturally Responsive Education/Equity. Below are highlights of our conversations regarding some of these areas:

Curriculum Design: The Craft of Teaching

Schools have different starting points. Some have well-developed, cohesive pedagogical philosophies that shape the design of the school. For these schools, integrating mastery-based learning creates even more intentionality in instruction and assessment practices, and the transparency enables students to take more responsibility and have even more opportunity for choice. Other schools have primarily depended on the conventional model of direct instruction, individual teachers setting goals, proficiency and grading, teacher delivery of one curriculum, and extrinsic motivation.

Knowing that there was a range of starting points, Mastery Collaborative has designed its focus on introducing practices for the classroom and for the school. Joy Nolan described this as “introducing practices with philosophy around the edges. As teachers try new practices, it challenges assumptions and opens discussion about pedagogy.” She expanded, “Our schools are focusing on the craft of teaching. As in any craft, there is specific expertise to draw on, complemented by creativity. When teachers in a school have shared and explicit learning outcomes, curriculum can be thought of as designing and creating a set of learning experiences. The expertise teachers bring is rooted in their knowledge of the discipline, their range of instructional strategies, and their skill in assessing what students know, their misconceptions, and how to provide effective feedback.”

The Collaborative uses a range of techniques to help schools hear about each other’s practices. At a professional development session, they hold “publishing parties” in which schools open their laptops and share some of their tools and resources in the community’s digital Sandbox, walking around with a microphone asking, “And what is KAPPA International adding to the Sandbox today?” They have three minute “speed rounds” where people quickly explain a practice they have been using or some strategy that is working with each other…and then move on to the next.

The Myth of Objectivity and Mastery-Based Grading

Much of the effort of the Mastery Collaborative is centered on the design and implementation of mastery-based grading. In discussing shortcomings of traditional grades, Brown noted that “once students see a number grade, they can’t see the feedback anymore.” She explained that in the traditional system, grades are often used to sort students, and sometimes there isn’t much feedback because there is no firm belief that all students can learn to a level of mastery. We need to think about how the way we communicate with students relates to the growth mindset. The focus should be on how we deliver feedback to best help kids learn, rather than as a mechanism for tracking. “What is the purpose of grading?” asked Brown. “Is it telling us something about a point in time, or can it help us to understand progress? We need to continue to press for more innovation and deeper alignment of grading practices with student learning.”

“One of the biggest fallacies is that number grades are objective,” continued Brown. “We think that because it is a number, it is inherently objective, but that isn’t true. Teachers develop totally different ways to assign numbers, they weigh things differently. There are psychological effects that are related to the process of being graded. It’s one of the most powerful signals we have and we need to make sure that it is both accurate and motivating.”

Transparency Begets Equity

“If it isn’t explicit, then it is inherently inequitable,” explained Kraushar. “When we allow the education system to be opaque, then we are tolerating subjectivity. Given the power of racial bias, this has the power to generate inequitable outcomes for students.” Brown expanded, “We need to think intentionally about what we are doing to help students develop their identities as learners. If we aren’t challenging our biases, we are at risk of labeling students, thus shaping their experience in school and their motivation.” Making the connection back to grading, Brown emphasized, “We have to be aware of the impact of ranking students. Some students benefit from ranking, but what is the impact on the remaining ninety percent? There are many ways to recognize academic excellence without ranking students.” This kicked off a conversation about other ways we might recognize students: for their effort, for growth, for deeper learning, for learning from their mistakes. We could have bands rather than individual ranking. We could even rethink how we determine the culturally powerful role of valedictorian.

The Mastery Collaborative is increasing their focus on equity over the coming year. They’ve started with a small working group to explore culturally responsive education (CRE) and equity – and in the coming year, each Mastery Collaborative school will set and implement a goal to increase CRE/equity in some way. The focus is primarily on combining competency-based education and culturally responsive education as a means of increasing racial equity, reflecting the district’s emphasis to improve achievement for young men of color and the ongoing racial gap in graduation rates.

“All of us carry some types of bias with us,” said Kraushar. “The question for all of us educators across the system is whether we have processes and practices that will help uncover them. Mastery-based learning goes a long way toward offering many of those practices: standards-referenced grading, transparency, and more opportunities for students to express themselves and have choice within the curriculum. Equity depends on transparency and accountability.”

For more on the Mastery Collaborative, stay tuned for the discussion with John Duval, Executive Director, Model Redesign Team at the NYC Department of Education.





Problem Solving with Math Ninja Lisa Genduso from Carroll Gardens School for Innovation

By Zoë Kashner

Lisa Genduso is a math teacher at Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, part of the MC Living Lab.

Lisa Genduso is a math teacher at Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, part of the MC Living Lab.


Tell us about your problem-solving class. What do students do? Why was the class created?

About three years ago at this time, we were noticing that while we had strong programs, some of our kids needed additional support. So, through that, the problem-solving classes developed to complement what was happening in the traditional math class. Students do game-like challenges to get them thinking mathematically in an engaging way.

These were additional math classes to the core math class? What grades were involved?

Yes. In our first year, we started with our sixth graders. Since they were new to our school, we wanted to get them into the problem-solving mindset that we wanted to build. This year we brought it up to our sixth graders and our seventh graders.

How does problem-solving support students' success in math generally?

I like to summarize problem-solving class as critical thinking class. We don’t necessarily worry about the answer—we try to encourage kids to have metacognition moments, like: “What are you thinking about in this moment in order to help you solve this question?” We want to build on strategies, so that they can take those strategies into real-world situations they deal with, or just into a good old-fashioned math problem, where they’re going to have to sit there and build upon their prior knowledge and persevere through solving it.

We found that when it came time to deal with a more involved math problem, kids kind of lost interest—they didn’t stay focused, even if they had the math skills. But problem-solving class pushes kids to be okay with grappling with something that isn’t necessarily easy at first, and trying to figure it out.

I imagine in addition to building their skills, it has also built their confidence.

I think so. I will settle on 1-2 questions in maybe most class periods. They always start off with, “I need help with this,” and I laugh and walk away. I just kind of leave them to get messy with it. Usually they can get there, or at least have ideas in place to get there. It’s funny, it’s now the end of May, and there are still situations where it’s been two minutes and they raise their hands and I say, “It’s May, I didn’t answer this question in September and I’m not going to start now.”

Do you see an effect on their regular math classes?

I do. As far as sixth grade problem-solving goes, I do.  They solve problems around tables, and that’s because so much of the sixth grade unit is built around those ratio units, where they look for patterns, and they can find their answers together. They look on a graph, and they can find their answers.  I build off that idea, so that I work in conjunction with the team.

How do you have 25 students doing 15 things in one class session? How do students experience it? How do you keep track of what everyone is doing and give feedback?

We are helped out by the fact that we are an ICT school, so there are two teachers. Within some of our bigger projects, my co-teacher and I will specifically say, “I’m the point person for this half of the class,” and “You’re the point person for this half of the class,” so that instead of getting through it with 25 different kids in this unit, I’ll get through it with maybe 12 or 13, and that makes it a little easier. We’ll also do things like make use of technology. We have 1-to-1 technology for the students, which allows us to have a “sum up” time, in a Google Doc, where kids can say what they did that day and get feedback.

So in a way, you can support them without checking in with every child in the class during class time?

Yes, as you begin to teach kids how to do this, you can give them five minutes at the end of the class and say “OK, go to your Google Docs, and summarize your work for today.” And that gives us the opportunity to just read the independent reflections, and you can very quickly see who understood their goal for the day, and who didn’t, and that sets up what you’re going to do with the kids for the next class.

How do you go about giving feedback to the ones who are struggling?

It depends on what we’re up to with a project. There are days when some kids are starting to do the “Do Now” and a teacher will pull a group of 4 students to the back and say something like “I saw that you guys were having a similar situation, you were struggling with this, let’s clarify that, so that we can proceed from there.

Another thing that can be useful is, using the technology, you can do ShowMe lessons or PowerPoints, Screencasts, where you can be talking the kid through something.  You can really have a lesson set up for a kid who didn’t understand something and needs a refresher, or a kid who’s really advanced, and needs to move ahead of everyone else. You can spend 15 minutes setting up an independent lesson for them, and they can hit play and go through their lesson on their own.

Do you have advice for teachers who want to start allowing students to progress asynchronously, but don't know how to get started?

I think what teachers have to be most prepared for is that so much of their planning has to be on the front end. You know, you’re not just making one lesson plan then, you’re making bigger paths for kids to follow. If there’s technology available, that’s probably going to allow for the easiest way to make that happen.  If there’s not technology available you can still do it, but you have to be ready to go with paper, pretty regularly, and stay organized with folders. If you have the technology, it’s easier for kids to progress asynchronously, using different online platforms, or just Google Folders, Google Docs. Google Docs is a great help in allowing kids to work at their own pace.

Having the students access work themselves is a good way of doing it?

Yes, that works, and also it gives the kids that independence. If you give them a good checklist, you know, instead of having them always asking, “Well, what do I do now?” you can tell them “You finished your step 3, look at what your step 4 is.”

What is the role of distributive leadership at your school? How does this collaborative environment empower teachers to go for it with mastery?

We have a really strong chair leadership model here. We currently only have one administrator. Last year we had a principal and an assistant principal, and our principal who left to go to the district office really set this up for us, and our AP has moved into the principal’s spot, and so over the past few years we have really built capacity by creating positions, like our department heads, who are responsible to check in with our teams by subject areas.

We have grade teams that make sure all systems and routines are set up for a grade, that also allows for looking at student work protocols for different students in each subject. We also have branched out and created focus leaders for different topics in our school. So, this year we have a technology focus leader, a mastery focus leader, a mentorship focus leader, and we have an extended learning opportunities focus leader. In addition, our department heads meet weekly with the administration so that the eight of us can be on the same page. The principal obviously knows what’s going on with all of us. Just as things can overlap, it gives us an opportunity to have those weekly discussions.

Our staff is open to communicating and trying different things. The administration has set the tone that “I’m OK if you try something and it doesn’t work.” That kind of attitude to experiment in our own classrooms and feel OK about that has provided us with the opportunity for people to be more open minded about everything.

As far as mastery specifically goes, then, we are given flexibility to set up mastery in different ways based on different departments. For example, the literacy department wanted to focus on ten shared outcomes that they use across grade levels, that they even use with the social studies team. Math and science wanted to handle it differently, we had more, we wanted to make it more skills and practice-based, and make it a little more specific like that. So we went to our administrator, we said this is what we think works for us, she said, “OK, give it a shot,” and it’s worked for us, so we have been allowed to continue that. And we can do that because there’s that flexibility to say, “This might not have worked well, this did work well.” There’s openness to try something.

For example, Jared Sutton, who is our mastery point person, he likes coding, and he used GoogleScripts to create an online grading/tracking platform for us. That’s how he spent his summer. It has the capabilities to have not just our own mastery-based grading platform built into it, but it also has our mentorship program built into it, and it has our behavior trackers built into it.

You have a completely customized grading system?

Yes, Jared thought he could figure out a way to make more things work together, and he locked himself in a room over the summer and did that.

How does mastery work for high-performing students and special needs students?

Students are evaluated the same way, they receive the same grades on any assignment that they hand in. My students receive different assignments or additional assignments along the way, yes, but the grade values that they receive are always based on a learning outcome that’s tied to their grade level, and that’s what they receive.

In order for us deem a student as meeting a learning outcome, we require they have to have met or exceeded that learning outcome in at least three trials. So, one of those high performing students might need only three times to meet the outcome, taking the form on a exit ticket, a quiz grade, and a project. And they might have done it three times, and done that learning outcome well, so they’re good.

Some of those kids might need additional time to meet that outcome, and that’s fine. They might need seven opportunities to meet it, seven different trials. We’re not concerned about when the student meets that learning outcome, just whenever they get to that date, the student is able to get that concept and meet that outcome. So if they meet it in October rather than February, it doesn’t really matter to us. We actually moved our report cards to June—only in June. Throughout the year we give progress reports, based on what’s in our online platform, where we say to this point, your child has met this percentage of learning outcomes that have been assessed. It may say what they’re on track to do, but still saying nothing is set in stone.

So with a high performing student, if it only takes them three shots to achieve an outcome, is there a point in the year when you give them additional challenges?

It’s not like they get to October and they’ve finished the sixth grade outcomes, so they can move to the seventh grade outcomes. Throughout the units they’ll have additional opportunities [to stretch their skills]. Additionally this year we started an intensive program, where instead of kids only being in traditional ICT classes, they are homogeneously grouped in grades, based on skills, and these groups change flexibly. So in November we noticed that we have 13 high achieving sixth grades who are pretty much beating all of the math and learning outcomes, so those kids are grouped together, and they started doing some advanced work two times a week all mixed together to work on additional concepts. This also allows for our seventh and eighth graders to – the seventh graders start to do some of the eighth grade algebra work as seventh graders.

How does (or how can) MBG make teachers better at their jobs?

It can work, providing that there’s clarity to the system—you can’t hold anything back—teachers, parents, students need to understand what it means. The goal of mastery is that everyone understands everything. And for some people that comes naturally, and some people have to work really hard at it.  So then you have to put the time and effort into working really hard at it.  It’s not OK for kids to be happy with an “A” for approaching, getting a 2 in a different kind of competency based grading system, there has to be that realization that makes you strive to get those threes and fours—those “meeting”s and “exceeding”s. Until those things go together, it’s a hard system. When families don’t care about things like that, it doesn’t work as well.

It helps teachers prepare better. You can very clearly see where students can be successful, and you can very much see what their next steps are.



Interview with Barry Frank of Queens School for Inquiry

By Zoë Kashner


Why do you believe in mastery-based teaching and learning?

I think that a mastery-based system puts the student at the center of learning and puts the responsibility for learning on the student. With the old model of the university, the professor was the sole source of information.  Because technology has advanced to where it is, and almost all the information is accessible to almost everybody, that old model no longer works. So the role of the teacher has to shift to help the students wade through all the information and learn how to access it and how to evaluate it. And as the role of the teacher changes, the role of the student changes.

Mastery-based learning is actually a methodology of teaching. At the core of it, students move along the curriculum or material as they demonstrate mastery, and there are no constraints of time. And in that system there needs to be clear expectations, plenty of opportunities to practice without penalty, and feedback.

Standards-based grading is about assessment and grading, and how those scores are then communicated to the students and parents. So there is overlap. One of the biggest things about standards-based grading—why it’s so important and necessary—is that it does away with the commodification of grades. By commodification, I mean where students are focused not necessarily on learning, but just on earning a grade. And then teachers can also use grades punitively. I know that’s a blanket statement and not every teacher does that, but it’s part of the traditional grading system. There is zero research that proves that it works; it’s just tradition.

What are your top 2 pieces of advice for educators interested in making the shift?

There are small shifts that a teacher can make within his or her own practice. Ken O’Connor, author of A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades, has a repair system. It’s a really good starting point because there are practices in there that a teacher can do without changing everything.

So, I do have two pieces of advice. Read everything that’s out there about mastery, because the practitioners don’t even agree on a definition. One of the biggest aids for me was reading everything on standards based learning, on mastery learning—articles and books. Just familiarize yourself with what’s out there and see what works for you.

And if the first piece of advice is “read everything,” the second one is “go slowly.” It’s so important to go slowly because this change requires such a huge paradigm shift for everyone involved. It’s really important that all the stakeholders in the community not only understand how the system works but why we need to make that shift.


How has the Mastery Collaborative supported schools in its first year?

It’s really a community. There has been support in both directions. At the quarterlies, or through email, or just networking—I’ve had many teachers, administrators, and coaches who have contacted me to talk about my experience or resources, so we’ve definitely supported the collaborative in that sense.

But then again, we’ve taken away a lot. I guess I’ll speak for myself and not for the whole school, but for me, what being part of the mastery collaborate has done is help me move the focus from standards-based grading to mastery learning. It’s important that I make that distinction. When we began our mastery journey, it was six years ago. We didn’t do it as the whole school, I was part of a pilot group. There really wasn’t as much talk about proficiency learning or mastery-based learning, the term that was used was standards-based grading. And while there is the same core in both methodologies—they go hand in hand—we were more proficient with standards-based grading than actual mastery learning. So being part of the mastery collaborate has shifted our focus to the instructional aspect of mastery learning as opposed to the grading system of standards-based grading.  

Can you please tell us about the handbook you created for QSI students and families?

School-wide, this is our 3rd year with standards based grading, although like I said, there had been a smaller pilot group playing around with it. As we began our school-wide plans, my administration and I realized that there was a real need for a cohesive vision. There were parents who were confused, there were teachers who were confused, and because this was a massive paradigm shift, there needed to be clear expectations.

Clear expectations is one of the goals and benefits of a mastery-based system, and we needed to have them for ourselves as well. So I went to the internet, and did a bunch of searching, and there were only two school districts that I could find that publicized this type of handbook. I reached out to them and said, “Hey, can we borrow, steal, adapt, adopt…” and they said, “Sure, do whatever you want with it.”

What was the response from of the students and families?

We made the staff handbook and the community guide. It was all very helpful because it laid out what we were doing for complete transparency. At that same time, we had shifted from using traditional rubrics to using proficiency scales. We decided to use the Marzano Proficiency Scales. I think that created a lot of confusion, and the handbook cleared some of that up.

In addition to the handbook, I created a screencast. I replicated a presentation of a Q&A that I did for the PTA. That was probably the most helpful. We also put the community guide at the beginning of the planner that students get it at the beginning of the year.

Have you noticed a difference in your students since making the shift? What kind of reaction did you get?

At first, confusion. We’re starting to get there. We see—especially with the younger kids—a faster shift. The shift in the younger grades was a lot more noticeable in terms of taking ownership of their learning, being able to speak more about demonstrating proficiency instead of earning a grade. That’s one of the biggest shifts in the middle school. In the high school, one of the biggest shifts is the desire to reassess. Sometimes I still think it’s driven by the desire to get a high score, in all honesty, but the ownership been pushed onto the students, they feel accountable for their learning. But that paradigm shift hasn’t taken place 100% for the older students, and I don’t expect it to.

Because we are an early college school, that complicates things. Some of our juniors and seniors are taking almost all college courses, and then they are not using mastery learning. For example, I teach college English. In the 11th grade, they take the English regents a year early, and if they meet the Queens College criteria, they go into English 110. A lot of our college professors are coming from the college budget, and they are college professors.

At the end of the day, we are using the traditional grading system in those college classes because we are locked into what the college does. Now, part of our mission is maybe to enact some change at the college level. We’d love to see Mastery Learning take hold at Queens College, but we haven’t really gotten there yet.

It’s kind of an uphill battle with our juniors and seniors, they are so used to this traditional grading system and then they see it in college, and that almost undermines the work we do at the lower level.


Mastery Motivates Students: “No Way” vs. “Not Yet”


Mastery Motivates Students: “No Way” vs. “Not Yet”

by Zoë Kashner

Can a mastery-based school culture give students a useful way to track their own progress and achievements? A visit to Flushing International High School (FIHS), one of eight Mastery Collaborative Living Lab schools, provided some insight into this issue.

During the visit, school leadership, faculty, and students discussed with guests how a focus on mastery has changed the outlook of school departments, individual teachers, and especially students. Rather than looking at grades only as a final score, students now track their progress toward mastery throughout the year, on a group of subject-specific goals. Goals are assessed multiple times over the year, allowing students to see which specific goals they need to focus on to improve their mastery of key skills and knowledge.

FIHS Science teacher Jordan Wolf with students

FIHS Science teacher Jordan Wolf with students

Switching to a Mastery-Based Model

This method of grading is of recent vintage at FIHS. Five years ago, the leadership and staff began to discuss concerns about the role of assessments. “We were not communicating our grading and assessment policies clearly enough,” explained Principal Lara Evangelista.

To address the problem, teachers began creating homemade report cards with many personalized comments to indicate how well students were meeting specific standards. At the end of marking periods, students were able to see how they could improve in specific terms. Then, the staff came up with an even better idea, said Evangelista: “Why don’t we tell [students] at the beginning what we are looking for?”

Over the course of the next four years, school leadership, faculty and students integrated clearly stated learning goals into everything from lesson plans, to the online grading system, to teacher-student advisories.

An International Perspective

Students at Flushing International High School after presenting on a panel about mastery-based grading at their school

Students at Flushing International High School after presenting on a panel about mastery-based grading at their school

Students at FIHS are all recent immigrants who are new learners of English. Students entering the school have been in the United States less than four years. They  come from 40 different countries, and while the majority of students speak Spanish or Mandarin, more than 20 native languages are represented at this school. For many, FIHS is their first school in the United States. Students new to the school are often “experiencing culture shock,” explains vice-principal Kevin Hesseltine. “It’s overwhelming.”

FIHS is one of 22 schools around the country that practice the International School model. This model emphasizes five core principles: (1) heterogeneous levels, (2) experiential learning, (3) project-based problem solving, (4) language and content integration, and (5) one learning model for all.

This collaborative approach to learning can seem like a topsy-turvy world for students who may be used to a more competitive, memorization-based education in their countries of origin. Hesseltine remembers a former student from mainland China who explained that she didn’t like group work because her motto, based on her experience in school in China,  was “Kill or be killed.”

While concern with achievement can be healthy, beating out others for top grades isn’t a goal that leaders want students to have at FIHS or at any mastery-based school. Instead, students should focus on the learning goals, and their own progress towards independent mastery of them.

Tracking progress and grades

To transition to a system where learning goals are emphasized—and frontloaded—FIHS began looking at different online grading systems that could be shared with students and families throughout the year. They found that the JumpRope grading tracker offers not only goal-based grading, but also a system of color-coding that works especially well for parents who may not speak English. In a student’s online report, red shading indicates an area of weakness. Green indicates the student is on track, meeting expectations for a given goal, and yellow means that the student is on the margin of meeting and not meeting a particular expectation.

Using JumpRope requires teachers to implement a backwards design, articulating learning goals before giving and recording assignments and assessments. Each assignment or assessment is then linked to specific learning goals.

At FIHS, the math department led the way through the transition to JumpRope. Teachers used per session funding to meeting outside of school during the late spring to determine together what they wanted their learning objectives to be. The math department came back in the fall with a working list of learning goals across all four high school grades, and began to implement the JumpRope mastery tracking system.

Each department migrated to the JumpRope system as they were able to, with some more cautious departments waiting until others had laid the foundation and worked out the kinks in the program. Principal Evangelista explained that in a school where teachers and administration collaborate constantly, “trust is essential.”

Ongoing Improvement

Some incoming students find the grading system—as well as high school in general—overwhelming. Though teachers make every effort to write goals in student-friendly language, understanding the more fine-tuned aspects of expectations can still sometimes be a challenge for students who are still acquiring English. Older students remember going through the wording of each goal with a dictionary when they first arrived in ninth grade.

This activity sheet from science teacher Jordan Wolf’s lesson about physiology includes a learning goal and a brief rubric at the top.

This activity sheet from science teacher Jordan Wolf’s lesson about physiology includes a learning goal and a brief rubric at the top.

The grades that students get are cumulative throughout the year, so each student has the chance to improve. A panel of students explained how working with JumpRope motivates them to improve throughout the year.

Students grow to understand that if they are not meeting expectations, they can get coaching from their teachers on crucial next steps to increase their mastery, get some more practice, and improve their grades. The message is “not yet” rather than “no way, you failed.”

“If you have a bad grade in one outcome, you can do extra homework and do well in that outcome,” explained one student. (The extra work provides evidence to the teacher that the student has progressed toward mastering that outcome.)

Learning Goals at the Center

Now that teachers and students are used to a mastery-based approach, learning goals have become the basis for all teaching and learning at FIHS. Activity sheets that students use to complete assignments now include specific learning goals, and a rubric so students can understand expectations for demonstrating mastery. Both students and teachers agree that putting learning goals at the center provides a useful framework for their mutual work.