What is Mastery Grading?

A Review of Mastery Grading

By: Leela Hudnall, Reporter, Manager of ASCTE Media

The mastery grading system is an innovative new system for grading school students, used to create less focus on number grades, points, and averages, and more focus on education and a strong conceptual understanding of a subject. 

Although plenty of colleges and schools have used this grading system, many have yet to implement it due to disagreement or potential misunderstanding of the concept, or potentially the comfort level with the historically more familiar numeral grading system. 

What is mastery grading? Why is it used?  Mastery grading, for those not familiar with educational trends, can be confusing. However, it’s not as perplexing as it seems, only unfamiliar. Mastery grading is formatted as follows:

  • 0.0– Insufficient Evidence
  • 1.0– Beginning 
  • 2.5– Emerging 
  • 3.5– Proficient 
  • 4.5– Mastery

There is a school in Huntsville, Alabama employing mastery grading. That school, the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering’s (ASCTE) outlines their plan for mastery grading on their website (ascte.org) in the student hand book, or education guide, and they define mastery grading as this:

Insufficient Evidence (I) is an extremely rare occurrence, and is a grade only assigned when assignments are fully incomplete and there is not substantial evidence of work ethic and the student has not displayed enough completion of work to even be evaluated for grades. Again, this is very rare. 

Beginning (B) is considered a failing grade. Any student who receives a 1.0 is not displaying the ability to complete assignments at the expected rate, or only completes them with substantial assistance. This student cannot display the ability to retain an understanding of the topic, and cannot fluently discuss terminology or just does not demonstrate a solid ability to skillfully complete the work to an extent that they would be considered proficient. 

Emerging (E) is assigned when a student requires a noticeable amount of guidance to successfully complete assignments, but can, to some extent, discuss the topic and concepts. The student “demonstrates limited understanding and needs additional development to obtain proficiency.” That statement was in bold on the ASCTE website, and it seems to imply that the emerging student is generally someone who can raise their grade to a passing score (3.0) successfully, and just needs more help and must put forth a little more effort than they are at the time. 

Proficient (P) is when a student “meets basic expectations of proficiency”, which is basically just a good understanding of the topic. Students need minimal guidance and can coherently discuss most ideas. This grade is still a great grade, but the reason a student will get a proficient grade instead of mastery is because they “could still use more development in applying and enhancing their knowledge or skill.” Meaning that proficiency is a great grade, but at this school, ASCTE is promoting complete expertise in a subject. Meaning mastery could be reworded to just say an above standards, or overachievement.

Mastery (M) is successfully performing without any assistance, having a strong or excellent understanding of the subject, demonstrating thorough knowledge and being able to collaborate or assist peers. Mastery is the best grade a student can get, and is a “perfect” score for the pupil. 

Grading in schools is a necessary thing. While many believe that grading should be abolished (for various reasons), studies have shown that when removal is attempted, many people (especially parents) revolt at such a long standing tradition being done away with, even at an elementary education level. However, oftentimes traditional grading does not fully capture a student’s capabilities(O’Connor, How to grade for learning, 2018 pp. 162-164).  Students can make all passing grades and then receive a zero and fail the entire class, even though they were not failing to comprehend what the class was about. In most school systems the zero grade is given for missed or incomplete assignments, or failing to take a test. When a student receives a zero, it can tank their grade and cause them to fail, when in all other cases (exemplified by grades), they understood what they were being taught. Mastery grading eliminates the unproportional gap between a 0-60, compared to 60-70, 70-80, 80-90, and 90-100. Instead, it uses more proportional numbers, spanning from 0-4.5. 

Since most students, parents, and teachers in our country are more accustomed to the standard grading system, this may seem unusual, but many  recent researchers are finding mastery grading to be more conducive to subject retention.

“Mastery grading is a new concept to [him]” according to Mr. Matt Bohon, Cyber 101 and Pre- AP Calculus teacher at ASCTE, who has been in education for more than three decades. Bohon said that while it has been a slow process to learn all the ins and outs of mastery grading, he truly appreciates the fact that it “reflects student learning much better than traditional grades.” He went on to explain it’s “not just throwing points together and averaging them,” as we may think of as traditional grading, but instead, with mastery grading, Bohon said that “your grade is more what you have done and how much progress you have demonstrated.”

ASCTE President Matt Massey and Sharona Krinsky, administrator and instructor from California State University (CSU), met via Zoom in preparation for a conference on mastery grading aimed at encouraging new schools to adopt mastery grading and raise awareness about the benefits of this approach. During this meeting, both Massey and Krinsky shared personal stories on successes and challenges related to the mastery grading system. But, both agree this is a more advantageous approach than the traditional numerical system.

According to Massey, the optimal circumstances for implementing the mastery grading system is a small school with innovative teachers. He said most failures he knew of related to mastery grading took place in schools where only one person, most often the assistant principal, was championing the change, noting that they struggled to enforce the new system across the board, leading to some teachers implementing the approach while others resisted the change.

Many curriculum experts believe mastery grading is the future of educational success, but teachers, who are the lynchpin to translating this new method into reality with students, need to be educated on benefits and persuaded to be change champions. 

Krinsky shared an example of this, saying that at CSU has been using mastery grading for three years, and despite some shaky implementation levels, they were successful in getting teachers to champion the curriculum development and implementation and help cultivate the new learning environment. 

According to Krinksy, “The only kind of innovation that sticks is disruptive innovation,” and she made sure that was what happened. Completely new learning styles, new grading, and new curriculum led to improvements in grade point averages and in retention rates.

This example of success is what Massey intends to implement at ASCTE, and he freely shared that employing this new system had somewhat of a shaky start, but with real-time lessons learned from implementation followed by some slight adjustments, ASCTE has begun to see some distinguished differences in the mastery grading system and how it helps students interact with material, enjoy learning, and retain material. 

One of the main concerns Massey and Krinksy discussed during the meeting was the challenge associated with writing a curriculum adhered to state learning targets. State standards are not course learning targets, and are meant to be read and understood by teachers instead of students. This approach is not always compatible with mastery grading, as learning targets need to be read and understood by students so they can comprehend the proficient and mastery requirements for each unit. According to Krinsky, these needed to be “Clear, accessible, and measurable student-facing learning targets, with a goldilocks amount of detail.”

“Students should be able to understand whether they are proficient,” Krinsky said,”just by judging whether they can fully describe and understand the [learning target] standard.” Progress can seem slow with mastery grading, but it is steadily affecting students positively, and teachers are also slowly adjusting to the difference as well.

What are the tangible benefits for students and teachers with the mastery grading system? According to Krinsky, the effect that mastery grading had in the classroom was monumental. “[Mastery grading] is accessible for any type of teacher,” she said,”You can do this and no matter what, you can create a dramatic impact,” said Krinsky.

“As a teacher I want to have a conversation with the student about the content. What is it about the content that is preventing the student from getting [a good grade]?  Before mastery grading, instead of talking about the subject and the concepts they needed to learn, they were just talking about how many points they need to pass.” Krinksy says, “Now, math students are having actual math conversations with me, and amongst each other!” 

Krinksy’s students went from comparing the points they were earning, to talking about math and the education they were getting. There was no more competition between the A students and the B students, or shaming the kids who were getting “bad grades,” students were learning the knowledge and concepts and not competing for a higher grade point average. 

Krinsky said this system has allowed her to be more rigorous in her curriculum and still see overall success among students. She knows they are capable, and that they are succeeding, because she is focused on assessing the real content. 

Massey agreed strongly with this type of grading, saying he is invested in how the students learn and not on a number grade, but rather based on a good understanding on the topic. “Quit chasing a number and go chase the learning,” said Massey. 

The mastery grading system eliminates the risk of a student failing based off of a single mistake or a single test grade.  If a student develops an understanding of a concept but receives a bad grade early on, they have increased opportunities to not only raise the grade but heighten their understanding of the subject matter. Rather than accumulating points for a numerical grade point average, students are individually assessed on their depth and knowledge of the material.

“Mastery grading is an effective system, and the way it is implemented at my school, ASCTE, is well improved upon across other schools [in my area],” said Joshua Ledlow, a 15 year old sophomore from the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering. He credits ASCTE’s success to their constant dedication, saying that “All of the teachers are fully embracing it, and the education is built around [mastery grading] and not vice versa.” Ledlow believed that the recurrent cause of problems in mastery grading is attempting to build the grading system to work around the curriculum, instead of creating a curriculum that works smoothly with mastery grading. According to Jaelyn Longino, another sophomore using the mastery grading system, “It is a pretty fair grading system over all, and gives students more room for improving.” Longino went on to say that she enjoyed the learning focused environment, and that the system “emphasizes more on application than on memorization.”  

Students, Teachers and Admin all have something to say about Mastery Grading, a new way to inspire learning in the school system. But will it take hold?  Is mastery grading the future? Jaelyn Longino, Matt Massey, Matt Bohon, and Joshua Ledlow all say yes, and according to Sharona Krinsky, “[when you use mastery grading] the grades get better because the students are getting better.” 

  • Academics / Academic Guide. (n.d.). Retrieved April 07, 2021, from https://www.ascte.org/Page/1111 
  • O’Connor, K. (2018). How to grade for learning: Crunching Numbers: The Use of Zeros. In How to Grade for Learning (Third ed., K-12, pp. 162-164). Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, a SAGE Company.

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