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