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.

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