What happens when you replace grades with a set of requirements?

This weekend the NYT had a story about an alternative assessment model called mastery-based learning: “A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry.” Here’s how the article describes it:

At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready. In these schools, there is no such thing as a C or a D for a lazily written term paper. There is no failing. The only goal is to learn the material, sooner or later. For struggling students, there is ample time to practice until they get it. For those who grasp concepts quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. The strategy looks different from classroom to classroom, as does the material that students must master. But in general, students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire. Mastery-based learning, also known as proficiency-based or competency-based learning, is taking hold across the country.

This is a joke about contracts and fine print.This approach sounds like it’s related to (though certainly different from) contract grading or specifications grading (more here and here). When I first read about specifications grading I was so excited about it that I tried it out immediately. At the time, I had just started teaching and I ran into a couple problems I’d need to resolve if I use it again. The biggest issue was that it was very time-consuming to have even a few students re-do each thing until it’s right. Maybe the questions or assignments were too hard or just not properly scaffolded? While most students were able to get the right answers on their own or though their group work, invariably each week at least one person would need to re-do something over and over again until we both got tired of it and I found myself all but just telling them the answer they needed to write down so we could both move on. Clearly I needed different questions and/or more patience and stamina.

In the end, around half of the students that semester really liked my specifications grading system, but the other half disliked it or were ambivalent, so I haven’t used it since. The most common specific complaint at the end of the semester surprised me: a significant number of students disliked that they could only choose an A, B, C or D — there were no plus or minus letter grades. I think a number of them initially planned to do the work needed for an A, but didn’t manage to complete all the requirements and ended up with a B that they thought should have been an A- or a B+. Reflecting on it now, a simple fix might have been to provide those basic A-D guidelines but also allow students to write a justification at the end of the semester for a minus or a plus letter grade that I could approve if I agreed with their rationale.

Have you ever tried anything like specifications grading? How did it work out? What books or resources on this kind of grading do you find useful?

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About Amy.Hasinoff

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