But What About the Test?


But What About the Test?

By Christy Kingham

As testing season looms, MC Mastery Mentor & teacher leader Christy Kingham answers the persistent question: but what about the test?

Christy works with a student at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, NYC.

Christy works with a student at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, NYC.

How can high stakes testing “live” in a setting that also uses mastery-based grading? Project-based learning? Culturally responsive practices and content? Too often, innovative school design is thought of as difficult or impossible to implement amidst heavy testing requirements.  But success on standardized exams is not incompatible with mastery-based grading and project-based learning. In fact, I have seen in my fifteen years in education how these two innovative approaches facilitate a wide range of success at schools.

I often hear from and read about practitioners who worry about tests, especially high-stakes tests. It is not their fault. As practitioners, we receive mixed messages with one message usually the loudest: the test is the most important, the test is the data, the test defines your teaching, the test, the test, the test.  

There is a lot of valuable research and data that underscores the lack of authenticity and inequity inherent in high stakes standardized testing. But, I hope to provide a perspective of an educator doing innovation work “on the ground” while addressing the reality of standardized tests. To be clear, this piece is not advocating for standardized tests, rather it’s a demonstration that high-stakes testing does not erase the feasibility of innovative practices like mastery-based learning.

While we wait for large-scale change in states where high stakes testing is prevalent, replicable innovations are happening in small pockets across the country. It is possible to destigmatize , “teaching to the test”  when it becomes teaching skills that are prevalent on the test.

I am a teacher and instructional coach at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria (TYWLS), a 6-12 public school in the New York City DOE. Our school is just one example of a “testing” school that also uses innovative practices, including a whole-school, mastery-based grading system. Our students find success on the multiple New York State exams and AP exams they take each year. We have been able to find successful a balance between the tension of innovation and standardized testing.

As a Living Lab site for the NYC DOE’s Mastery Collaborative, we often host visitors and present at conferences about our whole-school mastery-based grading system.  At every session, there are folks who quickly reveal a seemingly fixed mindset about the importance of “the test” as well as the challenges testing presents. We try to make the connection for practitioners in traditional settings that they likely do this type of work already by analyzing what’s on the test and teaching and reteaching skills and content.  What is different about planning mastery-based curriculum using a project-based methodology that includes a high stakes test is that we prepare for, but go well beyond, the test.

Know Thy Test

All data can be useful if you know how to use it. Even the data we receive from exams. But far more informative is our day-to-day systematized and transparent data about student’s mastery of skills. At the base of our curriculum planning, we have a mastery grading system designed. Our learning targets and rubric criteria are written and aligned with 21st-century skills and content standards alike.  

To plan a curriculum that acknowledges and prepares students for a high stakes test, we begin by deeply analyzing and dissecting the exam, noticing trends over-time in regards to the skills students will need to master to be successful. We highlight repeating skills, themes, vocabulary and even the structural design of the exam and align them to our already created mastery system, which is robust enough to include anything that comes up in our dissection. If there is a high-frequency skill that is not addressed by our grading system—a rare occurrence—we will discuss this skill as a department to determine if additions or adjustments need to be made by adding a larger 21st-century skill to our system.  

During dissection, we collect content or content-based themes that repeat over the test and across years. We thoughtfully fold these themes and content into our projects. But those less-frequent or one-off aspects of content can be memorized right before the test.  

But, What Does it Look Like?

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At TYWLS of Astoria, our grading system, rubrics, findings from the test, and PBL design principles guide and shape our big picture planning work. We design projects or units that are authentic and rooted in real-world skills, and that also allow for a recursive folding in of the high-frequency test-dissection findings. This is a puzzle, and it is not easy work, but it is worth-it work.

As we move into more detailed curriculum design, aspects of the exam are woven into each project or unit.  Looking across the year at projects in, say, a U.S. History course, the repetition of primary source document analysis comes across clearly. It is a skill needed for the test, but we fold it into a project, such as a recent “Truth to Power” project. Students were challenged to write letters to policymakers sharing their ideas about how to end mass incarceration and eliminate racial caste systems.  Throughout this project, assessments and experiences are designed with the U.S History Regents skills practiced throughout. Because the project is completely planned and student-centered, the teachers are freed up during project time to coach students. They have designed formative assessments, including Regents-style document dissection, that allow them to individually coach or work with small groups to support student mastery of skills.

Another project, in 11th grade English, is called “Exploding the Canon,” in which students propose curriculum design to high school teachers and professors of teacher education. They provide evidence for their selections, which often work to diversify the texts read in high school English classes. All of the aspects of the NY State English Regents exam, in this case, can be folded into this project. Non-fiction and fiction short and long readings with any high-frequency skills or content are layered in, and essays leading up to the proposal are designed to look and feel like the test essays but contribute to, and often form the basis of, the project.

The designers of these projects have created memorable experiences and provided opportunities for students to collaborate and do deep, meaningful work. Student work becomes the project, and, best of all, they are preparing for the test without the stress of the test while building widely applicable skills.  When projects are engaging, students more easily transfer their skills and understanding of content from project-to-project and then to a testing situation.

Across the country practitioners, schools, and even districts are designing innovative curriculum that also prepares students for high stakes testing, and it is a constant, evolving process. Even at our school, with an established mastery-based grading system and a project-based learning approach, practitioners are constantly iterating on their practice in this regard.   I hope that other learning environments that have found similar success in navigating the tension between high stakes testing and innovations will share their practices. By designing curriculum in this way, we are both providing the students with power for the exams they need to take now, while also sending a message to them that it is not the test, the test, the test.

Christy Kingham -  Teacher Leader @    The Young Women’s Leadership School, N.Y.C

Christy Kingham - Teacher Leader @

The Young Women’s Leadership School, N.Y.C

Christy Kingham has been a middle and high school English teacher since 2004.  She is currently at The Young Women's’ Leadership School in Astoria, Queens, as an Instructional Coach and Curriculum Developer in addition to teaching English. Christy spent her first seven years teaching in Bedford, N.Y at Fox Lane Middle School before moving her career to NYC.  She graduated from Georgetown with a B.A in English Literature and Teachers’ College with an MA in the Teaching of English. Since the summer of 2011, and has been a teacher leader with the New York City Writing Project. Christy spends her summers facilitating workshops for teachers of all disciplines and grade levels and also teaches graduate school courses for Drexel University’s online masters program.  Her online classroom can be found at www.christykingham.com and her school’s site at www.tywls-astoria.org


Pro tips for college success


Pro tips for college success

Alums from MC Living Lab School UA Maker Academy share pro tips for college success for college-bound high school seniors.

Interviewed by Joy Nolan



1)    Do not miss class. You will miss one and you won’t want to go back. You don’t have someone telling you to go to class, once you get out of the mindset of going to that class at that time. Getting back into that mindset is really hard, and it’s all on you.

2)    Manage your time, but don’t over-manage your time. Especially going into a non-mastery setup in your college classes, you can actually think too much about your own standards/rubrics for your work.

3)    Find people you can talk to, academically and emotionally, all that. It can be a professor, the lunch lady, friends, upperclassmen . . . find people you can connect with.

4)    Ask upperclassmen who have taken similar courses for their advice.




1)    Go to office hours. College teachers set time for students to come in and talk about what’s happening in class, and how you can improve your grades. It’s really helpful because they give you insight into what you can do to improve.

2)    If you’re moving away and living in the dorms, don’t do random selection for your roommate! Find someone you relate to. Random selection happens automatically but you can find your own roommate by posting on social media related to your college: Here’s my hobbies, what I’m like, hit me up. I recommend people do that. If you can’t relate to your roommate, you can’t really hang out. There can be awkward silences. I know that firsthand this year, so I don’t hang out in my room as much as I would otherwise.

3)    Have a schedule for your work week, and schedule in a nap time. That helps me reenergize. It might seem like you have only 2-3 classes a day, but they are content heavy, so you need your rest.




1)    Get a planner. I set up my events on the calendar in the front. I write in all my assignments on the dates, and at bottom of page there’s place to write your weekly goal. It’s worth the work to do this because it’s a stress reliever; if you’re trying to remember everything, you’re going to get stressed out and not remember. (Milam: I want to add to that! Sometimes a class gets canceled, and some things get pushed back and other things are doubled up, so update your planner when that happens.)

2)    Sign up for your classes as early as possible. I signed up toward end of July and a lot of the classes I wanted or needed were booked. There was no space for one of my math classes, so I’m going to take a winter class in January, a 14-day class that’s a lot of work. You don’t want to fall behind.

3)    Really pay attention to annotating and note-taking skills when you’re still in high school. Let’s say you have 30 pages to read on one night—you’re going to have trouble unless you can take good notes. You can use the textbook sometimes to help take notes. For example, in my World Civ textbook, at the beginning of the chapter, there’s a highlight of 3-4 points that gives gist of each section, and page numbers.

4)    You have to make sure you have the support you need. The resources don’t come out and find you!



1)    Network! I see a lot of people miss out on opportunities because they don’t talk to other people. Find your niche, but also be open to find new career ideas. If something new gets you interested, it may make you want to change your career. In high school, I networked a lot. I got in with Mouse—and that’s how I got my passion for user experience. [Mouse partners with to foster greater diversity and humanity in STEM by working with teachers and students to access and amplify technology as a force for good.]

2)    Know how to manage your time and do it alone. There’s no one at your college making parent calls. Use a planner or figure out what works for you and set yourself up for success.

3)    Find your community. Otherwise, you’re on your own. Find people who help you be productive, and who you can talk to about your day if you have stuff on your mind.

4)    Closed mouths don’t get fed. I see people suffer in silence. If you have something going on, speak up and take advantage of opportunities. If you’re struggling in a class, it’s going to affect your grade—so see if maybe you can drop. There is nothing wrong with dropping a class if you find it’s not a good fit.

5)    If you miss class, you are screwed. Go to class!




Confessions of a Convert: How do you move away from teaching to the test? What are the benefits for learners?

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Hunters Point Middle School teacher Taryn Martinez describes her shift to mastery-based learning.

Mastery Collaborative Active Member school Hunters Point Community Middle School (HPCMS) in Queens hosted a Showcase Schools visit this year on using collaborative team structures to develop schoolwide mastery-based and project-based curriculum.

Living Environment teacher Taryn’s part of the Showcase visit presentation is adapted here.

Thanks for sharing this, Taryn and HPCMS!

I started my career with the idea that testing was the most important indicator of success. I started teaching at a school that focused on teaching to the test, and that’s what I believed in. Moving to a mastery-based school was a big culture shift for me in many ways. At Hunter's Point Community Middle School, classrooms are built around community, creativity, and scholarship. We use schoolwide learning outcomes, project-based work, and learning across content areas.

When I first started at HPCMS though, I didn’t let myself believe that culture would work to support students. I continued to teach with the mentality that all that mattered was prepping for the test. However, all of that focus on test prep didn’t give me the results I wanted. 76% of our 8th graders passed the Living Environment Regents, and only 16% earned a score of 85 or higher. These were not the stellar rates I was expecting.

My next year, I did something different: I took the plunge and let myself try interdisciplinary teaching and learning, based not on the test but beyond the test.

I revised and relaunched the 8th grade interdisciplinary project, called Mission Outbreak, with a focus on epidemiology. Epidemiology is found nowhere in the Regents. Students conducted in-depth research about a disease of their choice to assess its mortality rate and its epidemic potential. They took field trips to places like the NYU Spatial Epidemiology Lab and Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health to speak with experts. They learned about health conditions of tenements  in social studies. They wrote and graphed exponential equations in math, comparing rates of infection to rates of inoculation. They designed PSAs in ELA to inform the public about disease prevention. They researched impacts on body systems and cells in science.

And, shocking to me, this type of teaching did give me the results I wanted.

83% of our 8th graders passed the Living Environment Regents, and 30% achieved an 85 or higher.

Now I know those test scores aren’t the whole picture, and they’re not all that matter. I can tell this mastery-based, interdisciplinary teaching works because students told me it works. They wrote to me in no uncertain terms thanking me for the real experiences they had in my class. They started fundraisers for environmental groups after we learned about ecology. They enrolled in more challenging high school courses because they knew they were capable.

Making the time and space for myself to believe that a mastery-based model that puts students in the center of their own learning works. It transforms the educational experience. It allows students to not just pass the test, but to become deeply invested in their learning.


Combatting Racism...with Antiracism! Ideas from MC school leaders


Combatting Racism...with Antiracism! Ideas from MC school leaders

By Meg Stentz

What would it mean to create an equity audit at your school? What learning would you uncover if you set out to examine the gap between passing rates and true college readiness? This is just one of the powerful ideas that surfaced among school leaders at the MC Winter Quarterly meeting.

MC School Leaders huddle at the Winter Q to talk about race & mastery.

MC School Leaders huddle at the Winter Q to talk about race & mastery.

For three years now, the Mastery Collaborative community has partnered with the Center for Racial Justice in Education (formerly Border Crossers) to offer workshops on race, racism, and education for hundreds of teachers, counselors, and school leaders. During these leveled workshops, skillful facilitators guide participants in unlearning the racism that we all absorb living in a white supremacist culture. In Level 1, facilitators unpack the idea that race is socially constructed, but has very real consequences. Participants get a brief but powerful history of race and racism in the United States. They learn to identify how racism manifests in ideology, institutions, interpersonal interactions, and internally. In Level 2 the focus is on role playing scenarios that involve race and school, practicing breathing before responding, and importantly, “naming race” in how we analyze and handle each scenario. This year, the MC has launched a Level 3 workshop-style training where participant teams translate their understandings of Culturally Responsive Teaching into their classroom context and unit plans. Taken together these trainings are meant to equip educators to engage more openly in addressing race when it comes up in their classrooms and schools, but many participants leave ready to carry their learning into other spheres as well.

The impact of this collective  learning was on full display last month when we asked MC members at a community-wide meeting to work in discipline-alike groups and huddle around this, among other, questions: How can we dismantle a focus on whiteness in favor of a more anti-racist approach?

The ideas that sprang up from these initial conversations are rich. We wanted to share the thinking of some of our school leaders about how antiracism can be, is, and should be, enacted in schools:

  • Integrate the “Respect for All” plan in the PD curriculum

  • Create relational trust and dialogue. Speak from your own positionality and your own stories.

  • As a leader, model apology, acknowledge what hasn’t worked, and position yourself as a learner. This sets the tone for staff to engage in difficult learning too.

  • Conduct a quantitative equity audit. Examine gaps between passing rates and college readiness rates. Look at data broken down by race, gender, socioeconomic status, students with IEPs, students who are language learners

  • Gather student voice through student interviews and surveys. Use this to inform decisions about the school policies and instruction.

  • Create opportunities for parents to talk to one another, as well as opportunities for students and staff to engage with one another.

  • Create and use student crews or advisories to discuss issues in the school, in the city, and in the culture.

  • Words matter. Be thoughtful in how you frame issues, and what vocabulary you use. Know your school community and focus on building partnerships and relationships.

These ideas represent just a few of the first-thoughts that our community suggested. What would you add? Write to us at team@masterycollaborative.org to share your best practices in antiracist, culturally responsive, mastery-based education.



The Mastery Collaborative Approach: Student Centered, Culturally Responsive, and Competency-Based

By Joy Nolan

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center, find it here.

For the dozens of member schools in New York City Department of Education’s Mastery Collaborative (MC), student-centered learning is competency-based (also called mastery-based) and implemented with a culturally responsive lens. Student-centered approaches are the inspiration for and the engine of our learning community. As part of the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Leadership, we push each other as fearlessly as we can toward the teaching moves and school cultures that work best for young people—and to change or abandon what’s not working.

As new members of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative, our program team is excited to be embarking on a two-year investigation of the Mastery Collaborative model, which infuses mastery-based learning with culturally responsive approaches. Our research partner is The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University.

This study is the first to investigate how culturally responsive, mastery-based education influences traditionally marginalized students’ learning, engagement, and outcomes in school. We are eager for the study’s results, whatever they may be. There is urgency here because each student has just one shot at getting a high quality public school education. We don’t get to equivocate, take the slow road, or tune out useful criticism. That’s why we’re working hard to identify and spread what is working as widely, deeply, and quickly as possible.

Students at MC member school KAPPA International High School, Bronx, NY, with Principal Panorea (Penny) Panagiosoulis.

Students at MC member school KAPPA International High School, Bronx, NY, with Principal Panorea (Penny) Panagiosoulis.

We echo what our valued colleague, Paul Forbes, Executive Director of Educational Equity, Anti-Bias & Diversity in the NYC DOE’s Office of Equity and Access, observes: 

“We know what needs to be done. Do we have the will to do it?”

The MC provides community for leaders, educators, and students who possess that will. This kind of determination will be crucial for us as we dive deeper into the work. Moving toward more effective mastery-based and culturally responsive approaches is a complex and multidimensional process that is as challenging and confusing as it is joyful and inspiring. NYU’s research is focusing on the most powerful aspects of our model to ensure that whatever we find will help others generate the determination they need to continue to innovate and apply best practices known to enhance equity. In NYC, as we infuse mastery learning with culturally responsive practices, students tell us that this work is powerful and meaningful. (To hear their perspectives, check out this incredible video.) So, as our community awaits results of NYU’s study, we’d like to share a few observations now about working toward mastery-based, culturally-responsive approaches to education. Over the next several months, we plan to share more posts on this work with you here. For now:

1. This model works well for all students. Culturally responsive, mastery-based education is not a special initiative for traditionally underserved learners. This is not an extra support for students who are behind. This is not an exclusive opportunity for high-performing students. It’s just a powerful way to do school. It benefits different students in different ways. We have yet to encounter a school where learners don’t respond positively to this model.

  • For students of color, this approach can mean learning in an environment where one can experience being seen, valued, welcomed, supported, and held to exciting expectations. It also means students regularly engage teachers and school leaders who are willing to look at and work on their own beliefs, biases, and expectations, and strive to improve their cultural competency—the ability to be aware of one’s own cultural, social, racial identity and perspectives, and the ability to interact effectively with others who are not like yourself, however you define that difference. Students notice when their teachers are comfortable with them and believe in their potential—which is why we work as a community to look at our own beliefs, biases, and expectations—and to build our cultural competency, and our skills as growth mindset coaches.

  • For students who attend highly selective schools and tend to stress about grades, this approach offers an opportunity to focus more on learning and less on the competitive nature of 0-100 grading. (Is it really meaningful to give one student an 89 for 10 months of work, and another student a 91? What does that 2-point spread capture? The more you think about grades, the more apparent is the false objectivity they convey.) As student Georgios put it: “Instead of comparing grades—which we used to do before we had mastery—we are comparing our thoughts.”

  • For English learners, this system offers a way to develop mastery of discipline-specific learning outcomes and language acquisition outcomes, and clarity about both. “I’m a recent immigrant, so my grammar is not perfect. But I can still move ahead quickly in math and science,” said one student at MC Living Lab School Flushing International High School last month. Have a look at this language outcomes rubric to see how Flushing International High School makes clear the pathway toward English proficiency for English learners. Flushing International also has outcomes and rubrics for each discipline, and for the work habits that underpin success in all disciplines, plus the adults in the building share responsibility for teaching and coaching on all these outcomes. “If you’re a math teacher here, you’re still a language teacher,” says Principal Evangelista.

  • For students with an individualized education program (IEP), this approach can mean increased focus on growth and progress, and can clarify and support learning by naming and explicitly teaching habits, skills, and mindsets learners use to get traction in school. The flexibility to return over time to specific learning goals helps everyone, but our educators who work with students who have IEPs tell us this is especially valuable for those learners.

  • For students with learning gaps and misconceptions, a CRE/mastery approach supports positive learning identity and mindsets for learning, and also homes in on specific skills and understanding students need to build and master before they can move ahead. There’s also the advantage of flexible pacing; learners can spiral back to shore up what they still need to master, while moving forward on the aspects they are ready to engage afresh. When you get a 70 on the Unit 4 test in a traditional school, Unit 5 is likely to start Monday, with no clear plan to make up the 30% you have not yet mastered. Sal Khan’s nonpareil treatise on pacing and masterypoints out the considerable shortcomings of moving ahead while leaving learners and learning behind. His funny and apt house-building analogy starts: “We have two weeks to build a foundation. Do what you can!” A mastery approach—with its signature flexible pacing and actionable feedback—can be a curative and a preventative measure for gaps and misconceptions.

2. All schools are culturally responsive. The question is: to whom? It can be illuminating to reflect on the ironies in that claim and question. The Civil Rights movement was about removing access barriers to our culture’s institutions. As racial justice trainer and early childhood educator Megan Pamela Ruth Madison clarified for me during a training called “Talking About Race (and Mastery),” the work that remains undone is making those institutions equally welcoming and useful for all. 

Given our country’s long history of racism, to go about educating children in a colorblind way is almost surely to reproduce racism—so we cannot do that. About 85% of students in NYC public schools identify as being of color. They are from hundreds of cultures and countries, speak dozens of languages, and come from a wide range of economic realities, as well. In NYC, about 60% of the teaching force is white. We find the precepts of cultural responsiveness to be a powerful student-centered framework for seeing, welcoming, and valuing the diversity across our beautiful city. So what is CRE? Let’s go to its founder for the basics. Here are Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings’ three pillars of culturally responsive education (CRE), which are a touchstone for the MC’s work.

  • All students can, and must, experience academic success

  • Students must have command of cultural competence: the ability to understand their own cultural identities and lenses, and to interact effectively with others who are very different, however each person defines that difference.

  • Students must develop critical consciousness, through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order. With support, students can turn awareness into power. 

3. An explicit anti-racist stance is needed. Nationally, 80 to 90% of our teaching force is white, and just over half our students are people of color. This is factual, not news, and not to be avoided in polite discussion. In a society with a centuries-long history of racism, to operate from good intention without a racial justice lens and gameplan is almost certain to create conditions that reproduce oppression and inequity. Our community’s game plan: name race and racism, investigate and reflect on how race shows up, and on our nation’s racial history; role play and critique our efforts until we are more capable in our dealings with young people; hold sustained conversations about how race can play out in grading policies, classroom management, and curriculum design; seek to enrich our collective expertise by using as touchstones the work of leaders who are clear-eyed about race and education. The MC community has gained much from the work of The Center for Racial Justice in Education, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Zaretta Hammond, Django Paris, and others.

4. Transparency is a paramount value. Students’ learning goals and criteria for success should be shared from the outset—or co-created with learners. “Shared” does not mean “handed out.” Taking time to build shared understanding is crucial. We know school is a nonstop game of beat the clock, and teachers are rightly skeptical of time-consuming asks. And we know, because we have seen, the incredible power and value of dedicating instructional time to talking over learning goals and criteria for success. Taking time to establish this with learners is one of the most important value-adds of a mastery-based approach. It clarifies everything. It helps students learn how to learn. It ensures there’s no secret path that some students innately know but others never figure out. The time is definitely worth it.

5. Learning is a process undertaken by the learner. This was my 2018 mantra. It seems so basic, but it’s not how we generally proceed. As we lay out what we want students to learn, as we design units and lessons to make that happen, we need to be aware that what we are doing is creating a set of conditions for the most important thing to happen: learners learning. That is to say, the lesson plan or unit plan is there to serve a purpose, and is subservient to that purpose. We need to value students learning much more than we value “covering everything.” Deep conceptual learning requires processing time, what Zaretta Hammond calls “chewing.” We know there are ten or so revolutions that need to be covered in global history—but mastery-based teachers tell us that if you teach several of them thoroughly, students will transfer their understanding successfully and will be able to analyze historical events they have not encountered before. Deeper is better than faster, because that’s what makes learning sticky.

Student Kaitlyn (center) and Dean Jessica Jean-Marie from Harvest Collegiate High School, with MC Co-Founder Jeremy Chan-Kraushar at MC Film Festival, June 2018.

Student Kaitlyn (center) and Dean Jessica Jean-Marie from Harvest Collegiate High School, with MC Co-Founder Jeremy Chan-Kraushar at MC Film Festival, June 2018.

As a community, the MC has found that being fearlessly student-centered means being culturally responsive, even as we perfect our mastery-based systems. These are two highly complex areas of research and practice—how can we combine them? We don’t think it’s easy, but we do think it is necessary. Happily, we collectively find that digging into the work makes the next step of evolution and perspective possible. And we have an entire community with the will to do this work. I like to say that the word “mastery” gets all the attention, but the word “collaborative” is our secret weapon. Educators across MC schools express excitement as they get traction with practices that are intentional, transparent, and equitable. As our valued partner and colleague Lonice Eversley, a Peer Collaborative Teacher at Careers in Sports High School in the Bronx, reminds us frequently: “These are the moves of a highly effective teacher!” A mastery-based and culturally responsive system benefits learning for all students we have met so far.

To learn more about the research study currently being led by Mastery Collaborative and the The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University visit this page.



Ask MC: Habits of Work

Dear MC,

Our school has been mastery-based for two years now, but we still struggle with habits of work. Right now we have schoolwide outcomes for work habits that account for a small percentage of students’ grade—“Professionalism,” “Communication,” “Leadership,” and “Community Building,” to name a few. These habits of work show up separate from academic habits on our students’ report cards.

We want to make sure we’re using these outcomes in a useful and consistent way, so we gave the whole staff a survey to ask: Which work habits outcomes do you understand? Which work habits outcomes do your students understand, and how do you know? How often do you assess each of the work habits outcomes?

We discovered that most of the staff regularly assess “Professionalism,” but almost no one regularly assesses “Leadership.” During PD we will present these survey results and have the staff tackle each outcome in breakout groups. We’ll use discussion prompts like: How do you explain this outcome to students? How do you use the outcome in your class?

What else should we consider? What are some “best practices” in regards to habits of work?


Working on Work Habits


Dear Working on Work Habits,

Surveying your staff is a great starting point for this conversation—it helps you to meet teachers where they are now, to highlight where staff is already in agreement, and to identify where there’s more need for conversation and sharing. Brava!

We suggest framing this conversation around basic principles of mastery learning—such as transparency, learner metacognition, timely/actionable feedback.

  • Transparency: Learners should know when they're being assessed on what. They should have the rubric, and it should include what each habit looks like, sounds like, feels like. A rubric with criteria for mastery will allow students to work towards independent mastery, and give teachers a grounding for providing actionable feedback. In the rubric, try to avoid "sometimes" "always" "never" language, and instead get more explicit about the look-for indicators of mastery for each habit.

  • Metacognition: Ideally, students are continuously building understanding of each habit, and where that learner is on the path to mastery. Students can reflect on their growth by using a rubric to self-assess and peer-assess their work habits. When teachers assess the habits, learners should be able to see their scores across time and receive feedback and coaching around their progress, perhaps in conferences. This sustained attention to growth allows students to be aware of their own learning process and progress.

  • TImely/actionable feedback: Ensure that all habits are explicitly taught and practiced in class. Unpack the rubric for these skills with students and model what mastery looks like through examples of student work, role play, or fishbowls. Give students timely and actionable feedback on their progress towards mastery so that they can continue to develop their skills. If you assess it, you should teach it!

Keeping transparency and student growth at the center of the staff’s conversation will help you to create a system that feels clear, fair, and helpful to students. Let us know how it goes!






By Meg Stentz

At NYC Lab High School for Collaborative Studies, a few teachers are taking on mastery-based teaching and grading. Spanish teacher Sarah Mirabile shared how she transitioned her classroom to reflect the philosophy of mastery.

Identifying learning goals

First Sarah looked over her curriculum and daily learning targets and simplified them. She identified 19 learning targets for her year-long course.

Example learning target: Yo puedo explicar (en inglés) la diferencia entre dos formas gramaticales en el pasado -el pretérito y el imperfecto. Translation: I can explain (in English) the difference between two grammatical forms in the past - the preterite (simple past tense: I walked) and the imperfect (I had been walking).

These learning targets are granular and assess through quizzes, which students are able to re-take at any time. In addition to identifying these granular learning targets, Sarah identified four more broad overarching skills that students gain in Spanish 1 and will continue to use throughout their Spanish-language education. She calls these high-leverage skills outcomes. There are four skill outcomes in her Spanish 1 course.*

Example skill outcome:Yo puedo identificar y distinguir entre situaciones en las que debemos usar el pretérito versus el imperfecto con referencia al pasado.
Translation: I can identify and distinguish between situations in which we should use the preterite versus the imperfect with reference to the past.

Defining outcomes is often the first step in transforming to a full mastery/CRE practice. Sarah notes that as she has made the shift to outcomes-based learning, her curriculum hasn’t changed so far, and for the most part her teaching hasn’t shifted yet, either. What has shifted already is that students now know what they’re learning, and they know how to monitor their own progress towards mastery.

* Note: This is Sarah’s unique nomenclature for learning goals based around knowledge and skills. Other practitioners use terms such as competencies, learning goals, outcomes, learning targets, attainments, and others.

Communicating progress through grading

To help students make sense of what they’re learning in class, Sarah strives for transparency. She labels all her notes, homework assignments, and quizzes with the learning target that it covers. Students can see the connection between what they’re doing in class and how they’re assessed. In her grade book, Sarah labels each entry with the learning target or skill outcome being assessed.  In their gradebook, students can easily see that they’ve been assessed on each learning target two or three times in various ways, for example, on a homework assignment, on classwork, and on a quiz.

Sarah has devised a hack for the class’s non-mastery-based digital gradebook: To communicate students’ mastery on a learning target: she enters a “mastery grade” for each target. Here’s how she explains it to students:

For each learning target ("meta") that we practice this semester, you will be given a corresponding "Mastery Assessment" grade to indicate your level of mastery of that skill. If your average on assignments related to this skill is between a 90-100, your grade will be "M" to indicate Mastery. If your average on assignments related to this skill is between a 80-89, your grade will be "D" to indicate Developing. If your average on assignments related to this skill is lower than an 80, your grade will be "E" for Emerging.

Sarah Mirabile, Spanish Teacher

Sarah Mirabile, Spanish Teacher

Reaping the rewards

Sarah appreciates understanding in detail what her students know. “It’s harder for them to do well by luck because there’s three or four assignments for each skill.” She reports that it’s made her more organized as a teacher, too.

Sarah is also pleased that her students are “starting to think about the skills instead of the assignment.” Plus, “they’re taking up the wok of revision more, and are definitely less stressed out because they know what they’re learning at any given moment.” Most importantly, she notes that the way her mastery system messages progress to students clearly feels more equitable, particularly to kids who might feel like they’re bad at Spanish. She says her system flips the script: “You’re not bad at Spanish; you might need more practice with a specific skill.”

Thanks, Sarah for sharing your transition system with us!

How did you start implementing mastery in your classroom? We’d love to hear! Write to us at team@masterycollaborative.org.




Ah-ha Mastery Moments at Origins High School

By Meg Stentz

Sometimes the “ah-ha” moment comes from finally understanding the why of competency shifts, and sometimes they happen from seeing the how in action. Today we share some of the how’s we saw in action at MC Active Member Origins High School in Brooklyn.

Creating a supportive environment

Clarifying strategies allow students to access text and work even when they have questions.

Clarifying strategies allow students to access text and work even when they have questions.

“We know kids space out. We want them to be able to space out. They are allowed to space out; we just need them to come back.” —Dan, 9th grade ELA teacher

Simple ways kids are supported in refocusing:

  • In every 9th grade classroom, lessons all share certain identical visual components. On every slide in the lesson slide deck, the learning aim is in the top left corner, the task is in the top right, and there’s a timer in the bottom corner. Instructions or context are in the center.

  • If the students are working with a certain resource, there’s a photo of the resource on the slide. So, even if you miss the teacher’s framing of an activity, you can glance up and easily identify all the materials you need.

  • By November, students are comfortable with the cognitive routines to use when they encounter something they don’t understand. (See picture: “Clarifying Strategies”)

Guiding students in building metacognition

At the end of the year, students participate in round table discussions about their learning journey for specific outcomes. The whole year supports students in gathering information that could support them in their roundtable experience.

  • Students track their own mastery across time. (See below.)

  • Rubrics at Origins are often used across disciplines to give students more perspective about how to apply a given skill—and teachers spend significant time working with student to unpack rubrics criteria. Students understand that “more of a 3 is not a 4,” but that instead, they’re being asked to engage in deeper thinking. When students receive feedback, they immediately set a goal and action plan with next steps to improve their mastery.

  • Before independent work time, students record on a google form what outcome they’ll spend their time working on. At the end of that work time, they’ll complete a google form exit ticket about how their work time went. When it comes time for roundtables, they’ll have a print-out that tracks how they spent their time.

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Engaging students with relevance & rigor

At Origins, these buzz words come alive as students engage in work that is related to their lives, tied to current events, and interesting to them.

Cross-curricular learning asks students to use background knowledge from History to demonstrate a skill they’re developing in ELA.

Cross-curricular learning asks students to use background knowledge from History to demonstrate a skill they’re developing in ELA.

  • Classrooms where the learning matters to students stand apart. At Origins, 9th grade history students are practicing research and writing with textual evidence by analyzing and reflecting on sources around race, gender, and immigration issues.

  • Cross-curricular outcomes allow students to hone their skills. In 9th grade ELA, Origins students are leveraging the same research outcomes as well as their understanding of pathos and logos to write speeches. Students self-select into topic groups based on how much background knowledge they have to tackle first amendment issues through the NFL’s stance on allowing players to kneel, the role of government in promoting gender equity, or checks and balances through the lens of immigration..

  • The Origins rubric asks students to synthesize multiple arguments. To support students in this complex task, students are asked write with “an open mind” and “a skeptical mind.” This explicit instruction supports students in working towards the highest level of mastery. (See below.)


Big thanks to Mohamad Awad and Dan Farrell, Social Studies and ELA teachers at Origins, for this enlightening glimpse into their classrooms!



Talking about Race & Mastery with Lonice

By Patrick Williamson

Every July, the Mastery Collaborative offers a Summer Institute to share strong practices with our community of practitioners and interested guests from the broader community of interested NYC public school educators. Participants dedicate a week of their summer to a deep dive into topics such as culturally responsive practices (CRE)—together with CRE and mastery-based curriculum design, facilitation moves, and grading policies. This year, we were honored to have Peer Collaborative Teacher Lonice Eversley from Careers in Sports High School sharing her CRE strategies and approaches. Here are some key takeaways:

CRE promoting critical consciousness


Students should see themselves as change-makers, which necessitates seeing themselves in the content. Period. Students being able to center themselves and their history in school leads to an increase in engagement and heightened metacognition about their journey as learners. It is essential to note that this is not just sharing a history of trauma, but a co-generative dialogue that positions students as change makers and resistors. Diving into courageous conversations is necessary for CRE. As educators, we have to do the heavy lifting, to truly embody CRE content and process. CRE happens when we leverage assets and let the students do the heavy lifting of identity development.

Media representations show up in the classroom and need to be addressed

Students will be engaging with media regardless, so instead of dismissing media as unscholarly, we, must engage and bring it into the content. Through what Lonice referred to as “symbolic annihilation”, students of color are constantly seeing themselves omitted, trivialized, or condemned in the media, only to feel further ostracized by our tendency to disregard media studies as inappropriate in the classroom. CRE is rigorous and requires overtly addressing, contextualizing, and analyzing current events. One activity that she has done in the past is to present images and articles published in the media, and analyze the contrast in language used to describe the situation from one news source to another. (Ex: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some news sources referred to white people’s actions as “finding” food or trying to survive, whereas other news sources characterized people of color—engaged in exactly the same activity— as “looters” and “thieves”.)

Addressing the “origins of invisibility”

Which leads us to the last highlight for this post: We need to analyze and push back on the stripping away of stories. Too often, our history is told by the dominant, without addressing the power dynamics at play. This lens leaves our students susceptible to an understanding history in which they are not active participants and change-makers. Depending on who is telling the story and how, people of color are robbed of subjecthood and become become objects in story, instead of leaders, visionaries, innovators, etc.

There has always been one most powerful strategy to respond to inequity: Teach it. As brilliantly stated by Lonice, “if [students] can problem solve, they can change the world.”

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A note from Patrick:

Dear MC community, as you may know I've recently transitioned to a new position with our friends at NYC Men Teach to continue the equity work we've all engaged in for the past few years. From anti-bias trainings, to presentations from rockstars like Lonice, to speed round chats at our events, I've learned so much from and with all of you. I will carry that learning with me as we continue to build community and advocate for our students, in the name of equity.

Respect and community always, PW




By Meg Stentz

Each fall and spring, MC schools host visits to spotlight strong mastery and CRE practices. You can register here for this year’s visits, which run November 19- December 5, starting at Frank McCourt HS where the staff will share how they make expectations clear from the outset and focus in on rubric design.

As we gear up for the learning and excitement of our fall visit season, we look back on some take-aways from last year’s spectacular set of visits.

MC community members chat with students about their work at the NYC iSchool.

MC community members chat with students about their work at the NYC iSchool.

1. Mastery supports positive learning identity.

In a mastery-based learning environment, expectations are clear from the start. Feedback is targeted to precisely what students know and can do--and provides key next steps to improve. This approach supports students in developing a can-do learning identity, and helps them to understand the learning process itself. These are practices that help students to experience success.

Flushing International High School science teacher Jordan explains it this way:

"I was talking to a student and he said, 'I'm really bad at math." So I said, let's look at what outcome that is, and the outcome was 'Writing with evidence,' so I asked: 'Are you really bad at math or did you not write with evidence?' And he said, 'Oh, I'm not bad at math.'"

2. Mastery-based grading increases transparency and includes students in the conversation about what their grades mean.

"We used to dread giving out report cards, because there were always kids who were totally surprised, no matter how many times you spoke to them throughout the semester. There were always tears or cheers, or whatever. But with outcomes, it's much more of a conversation. It's much more narrative. Instead of, 'It's a B,' there is written feedback that really describes what that grade represents."  -Grace, teacher at Flushing International High School

3. Mastery opens the door for students to demonstrate learning in multiple and varied ways.

At Pan American International High School at Monroe, the staff values how mastery learning allows them to see mastery in students who may come to school with gaps in language proficiency or past schooling, but who take on rigorous content nonetheless. The educator team at PAIHS-Monroe wants to be sure that language gaps do not act a barrier for students as they demonstrate progress and mastery of learning outcomes in disciplines such as math and science.

Principal Brigit Bye explains: "We think about all the ways they could demonstrate this outcome, and you start listing all these things, and any of that is fine."

Thanks to all the MC schools that host visits for the MC Community! You always do us proud, and we see you and appreciate you.

Have your own take-away to share? Drop us a line at team@masterycollaborative.org


Ask MC: Rubrics


Ask MC: Rubrics

Dear MC,

I am struggling with grading my students’ work. I have been creating rubrics for every assessment, and it is quite overwhelming. Making all these rubrics is too time consuming. I teach algebra — are there algebra 1 rubrics that I can peruse to adopt in my classroom?


Buried in rubrics

Dear Buried in rubrics,

Thanks for reaching out. There's definitely no need to design rubrics for each assessment. If you have mastery indicators for each of the outcomes in your course, it's actually best to use the same rubric for the same outcome each time you assess, so that you and students can see/track their growth over time.

Let’s say your assessment is measuring students on three outcomes. Your rubric could include three rows, one for each outcome, so you’re giving feedback about where each student is. Using rubrics based on outcomes, not individual projects/tests, allows you to use the same rubric for the same outcomes over time, and allows you all to see progress as students’ mastery grows.

Here are a few example rubrics to look at, each with a slightly different take on outcomes and rubric design. Much thanks to the marvelous MC Living Lab Schools, who share so many resources with the community.

  • Common Core Algebra 1 rubrics from member school UA Maker

    • Notice: There are rubrics for both content (e.g. quadratics, equations and inequalities) and skills (e.g. precision, modeling). It’s possible that a teacher would assess or give feedback for more than one outcome on a given assignment.

  • Spiraled rubrics grades 6-10 from member school TYWLS-Astoria

    • Content-specific outcomes are tied to broader schoolwide skills, such as “be precise,” or “investigate.”

  • Math outcomes and rubrics from member school  Flushing International HS

    • Notice: Rubrics at Flushing are additive, meaning each level of mastery requires demonstration of deeper thinking.

You may also want to check out an earlier post by Co-Director Joy Nolan on the single-point mastery rubric.

Feel free to share with colleagues whatever you find useful, and send further questions as you dig in to this work!