Think back to your old gradebook. What did the numbers mean? What were they used for? If you're anything like me, grades were essentially an ongoing way to motivate and penalize students. They sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't, but one thing was very clear: grades depended heavily on what students had done, and less heavily on what students had shown that they knew.
I know that I don't speak for all teachers in this, but I certainly speak for part of my teaching career (and know many others who would similarly confess): The message and feedback to students in most grading systems comes down to something very much like the following:
- Homework? Turn it in mostly correct, and you get credit - even if you copied it from your friend, I really just care that you got some practice.
- Classwork? Your grade has more to do with behavior, collaboration, and time-on-task than anything else.
- Tests? Mostly about what you know, but only at a specific point and it will rarely include any information on which specific standards you did or did not master.
- Products, Papers, and Projects with Rubrics? Great feedback that was never really captured in a grading system that had any accountability or long-term usefulness.
Agreement? Perhaps at least some? If so, I'll trudge on (at this point, feel free to envision me passionately pounding my fists on the table in appeal to the norm).
The primary goal of a mastery-based grading system is to gather reliable information on what students know. Our history of trickery in grades to balance carrot and stick may have worked some of the time, but I think we're all bothering to read this right now because we know that it doesn't work most of the time. Typically, in fact, it works only for those in the top-tier and sends a very problematic message to those who struggle with grades: you are out of range of an A, but you can at least try to pass! Ever said that to a student? I'm guilty, in not quite-so-many words. But this leaves a good portion of students in a place where they receive consistently-negative feedback and never truly feel capable of reaching the higher levels of mastery that all good teachers hope to see.
So let's let go of our tired notion of forever tuning our gradebooks in hopes of motivating students into real learning, and embrace a new idea: if we are honest, transparent, and timely with feedback about their progress that matches up with their own observations and comes often enough to be associated with their hard work (or lack thereof), students begin to connect work with learning instead of work with grades. Students who are used to failing (or nearly so) begin to see areas or strength and weakness that are honest and manageable. Students who are used to excelling can identify areas that they can still improve in. Teachers can see which things are well taught, which are well learned, and what any student or group requires help with.
More work? A little. Hard to explain? At first. More useful to the teacher, student, school, and family? Absolutely. Going to transform education? Well... it's worth a try, right?