Q&A with Mastery Experts from Champlain Valley Union High School

This article originally appeared on Springpoint's blog The Launch Pad as part of Mastery Assessment Week. See the original here.

Springpoint spoke with Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams, proficiency-based learning coordinators at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont. They provided a sense of their district's mastery-based approach to assessment.

Relevant Links:

What is the purpose of student assessment? How is assessment and measurement different in a mastery-based system?

In a proficiency-based classroom, the purpose of assessment is to determine where students are in relation to their learning targets. If you think of learning like a GPS system, this makes more sense (here’s a blog we wrote that explains this metaphor). The destination is the learning target, or what we want students to be able to do. Assessments allow us to determine where the blue dots are--where our learners are at any time in the learning in relation to that destination. Assessments, therefore, become necessary to our instructional choices; we assess in order to determine what we need to do next in order to move students closer to or beyond our learning targets. Assessments (and the scores or grades attached to them) should not be a way to reward or punish students for what they learned (or didn’t learn); instead, they should be diagnostic tools that we use to determine our next steps as teachers.

What does your school's grading and reporting system look like and how have you iterated on it over the years?

Our school’s grading and reporting system continues to improve as we shift our instruction and assessment practices. All teachers have learning targets for their courses which define important transferable skills for their discipline. We are beginning this year with common learning targets for all common courses, which is a huge step towards consistency and integrity for us. Teachers create 4 point learning scales for the targets, instructional rubrics that show the target within a continuum of complexity. Student work is scored using these scales, with the 3 representing proficiency. Students often work on the same learning targets throughout the course using different and often increasingly complex content, and the most recent summative learning replaces the old. For many reasons, our school chose to maintain a conversion to a letter grade at the end of the learning, so while the scores and feedback throughout the courses is disaggregated by target, scores are combined into a composite number at the end of the semester or year, which is converted to a letter grade. In this way, students’ transcripts still include letter grades for courses and a cumulative GPA. Most teachers do not feel good about the conversion, as it seems a step backwards; providing information about individual targets seems clear and accurate, and when forced to combine these disparate skills into a single letter, we lose that communication.

How can assessment in a mastery-based system help drive student ownership of learning?

When students are aware of where they are in relation to their learning targets, they can have much more control and ownership of the journey to those targets. Providing benchmarks and exemplars helps. We do not want our learning targets to be a mystery to students; they should clearly understand the expected learning, so the more we demonstrate what excellence may look like, the more they are likely to blow us away. When students know that assessments are feedback (for teachers and for students), and when they see shifts in instruction or practice based on those assessments, they stop thinking of them as judgements and start viewing them as guides to their next steps for learning.

In what ways do mastery-based forms of assessment accelerate equity?

Changing the purpose of assessments (diagnostic rather than judgmental) minimizes the distractions that often get in the way of accurate understanding of student learning. If we are trying to determine where a student is in relation to her target, the assessment has to be individual and in-class, which removes the inequity we often see when work is done at home. In addition, when all behaviors and habits are removed from the academic scores, student work is assessed based on the targeted skill, not things like neatness, use of color, lateness, or other habits. Students are not rewarded or punished academically for habits that are often well out of their and our control. Finally, when we “shrink the field” and target our assessments to specific skills, we prevent other skills from interfering with the accuracy of our evidence. For example, we used to assess one of our critical thinking skills through an essay, but once we determined what we really meant to assess, we realized that students’ writing skills were often masking their abilities to demonstrate high level thinking.

What do educators in a mastery-based school need in order to succeed in supporting their students?

It’s important to note that changing grading and reporting without changing what we do in the classroom does little to improve learning, and that’s our biggest focus now here at CVU. We have consistent, agreed-upon grading and reporting practices, but we are just at the beginning stages of making the types of instructional and assessment shifts that will lead to deeper and more transformational learning. Though often contentious and controversial, changing grading and reporting practices is pretty straight-forward; changing teaching and learning is not, and it requires time to practice, collaborate, and reflect. So it will come as no surprise to hear that time is the biggest need. There are so many competing needs for professional development in our public schools, so rarely do we have enough time to focus in a sustained way on changing these practices.