Mastery Should Measure Success

By Charleen Earley

I still have my graded essay I wrote 38 years ago – not because of the letter grade I received on that paper – but because that grade was my final grade for the class.

The grade was an A and it represented my progression, not my overall, points-tallied performance for the class, which would have been a C-minus.

It was a course I took at Merritt College, located in the hills of Oakland, California. I was 16 years old at the time, but let me back up a little.

The year was 1980 and I was a junior at Fremont High School in Oakland. I was an A-B student with the occasional C or D if the subjects were geometry, chemistry or drafting – yeah drafting, because it sounded easier than chemistry – it wasn’t.

My counselor urged me to take the SAT exam my junior year to determine what subjects I would need to bone up on before my senior year of high school. Knowing my scores, he said, would also determine what college I should attend.

The pressure was real.

My parents were not able to help me with my difficult subjects and there was no budget for tutoring for our family of five.

Low and behold, my lackluster SAT test scores highlighted the fact that I needed help in all subjects, so my counselor suggested I take what was then called “bonehead English.” The course title was Reading & Comprehension 1A & B.

I registered for the evening course, and I was scared. Not one student was my age, only old people; people who had to be in their 30s and 40s. Funny how your perception of “old” changes with age.

Instructor Bascem Wallis handed back my first essay with a large F on top and lots of notes throughout, instructing me how to do better. Still, I was devastated and held back the tears until I was home and in bed.

My next paper was a D, but the pain stung less than the F.Wallis had more notes on how I could improve and gave me a wink and a thumbs up for encouragement.

By the end of the quarter, and after receiving every letter progressing upwards, my final paper, the one I’ve treasuredfor the last 38 years, had an A on it with his final note.

“This is your best essay. Congratulations,” he wrote. “Good examples and details here. Continue the good work. Best wishes, Bascem Wallis.”

The last day of class he informed all of us that our final graded paper determined the final grade in the class.

I was pleasantly shocked.

Up to this point in my life, none of my teachers – grades K through 11 – had ever administered this type of grading system. In adding up the grades on each of my essays in Wallis’ class, I should’ve received a C-minus.

This teacher had actually graded me on my progression and not my past. Sounds like a character lesson too!

It was the one and only time in my educational career that I’ve ever encountered this type of grading system, and it’s too bad too – not for me, since I recently received my Masters Degree in journalism and communications from San Jose State with a 3.933 GPA – but for all students out there who are graded on a summation of their total scores, rather than their final score.

Evaluating student growth based on the development of skills, rather than the tabulation of points or standardized test scores, should be mandatory.

Catlin Tucker is a teacher, international trainer, speaker and bestselling author. Her most recent books are “Blended Learning in Action” and “Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology”.

Writing in February 2018 for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Tuckeraddresses transitioning from an accumulated points system to a standards-based grading system. She highlights the benefits of subject mastery, rather than points, as the reward for students.

“This approach values the development of skills over the accumulation of points and seeks to measure mastery of those skills,” she says.

In making the switch, Tucker says she realized three things – students need different amounts of practice to master a skill, grades should be an accurate reflection of a student’s current ability and learning is ongoing.

The confidence I received from that first “bonehead English” course at a community college at age 16 was priceless. But, beyond the confidence, it taught me the value of my progression.

It’s time we deconstruct the grade book that’s tethered to accumulation of points rather than mastery of the subject.

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