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11148393093?profile=originalI just finished watching a TED TALK by Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy. Sal was talking about mastery learning and the importance of building strong learning foundations before layering on additional information.

As I watched the video, I was thinking about why a stubborn 25% of most students in the upper elementary, middle, and high schools are reading two or more years below grade level.

Sal cites the example of a child who scores an average grade of 75% on a unit test. Most educators would accept 75% as an average score, and in fact most diagnostic assessments would accept 75—80% as mastery level; however, Sal points out the not knowing 25% of the test components is problematic. From the student's perspective: "I didn't know 25% of the foundational thing, and now I'm being pushed to the more advanced thing."

When students try to learn something new that builds upon these shaky foundations, "they hit a wall... and "become disengaged."

Sal likens the lack of mastery learning to shoddy home construction. What potential homeowner would be happy to buy a new home that has only 75% of its foundation completed (a C), or even 95% (an A)?

Of course, Sal is a math guy and math lends itself to sequential mastery learning more so than does my field of English-language arts and reading intervention. My content area tends to have a mix of sequential and cyclical teaching learning, as reflected in the structure of the Common Core State Standards. The author of the School Improvement Network site puts it nicely:

Many teachers view their work from a lens that acknowledges the cyclical nature of teaching and learning.  This teaching and learning cycle guides the definition of learning targets, the design of instructional delivery, the creation and administration of assessments and the selection of targeted interventions in response to individual student needs.

At this point, our article begins to beg the question: What if a shaky foundation is what we're dealing with now? We can't do anything about the past. Teachers can start playing the blame game and complain that we're stuck teaching reading to students who missed key foundational components, such as phonics. All-too-often, response to intervention teachers are ignoring shaky foundations and are trying to layer on survival skills without fixing the real problems.

Instead, teachers should re-build the foundation. Teachers can figure out what is missing in the individual student skill-sets and fill the gaps... this time with mastery learning.

Mark Pennington, MA Reading Specialist, is the author of the comprehensive reading intervention curriculum, Teaching Reading StrategiesA key component of the program is our 13 diagnostic reading assessments. These comprehensive and prescriptive assessments will help response to intervention reading teachers find out specifically which reading and spelling deficits have created a shaky foundation for each of your students. I gladly share these FREE Reading Assessments with teachers and welcome your comments and questions.

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Which do you care about more - Learning or Grading?

Educators always answer that question with Learning.  And if you've spent much time on The Assessment Network, you know that our focus is to help educators use assessment FOR the purpose of learning - rather than to help ecucators figure out new grading systems.  

So while our goal is to explore best practices related to assessment so we can increase learning, the reality is that in order to do so we must spend some amount of time examining our grading practices.  It's not that grading practices are the focus, but many traditional grading practices have a negative impact on our ability to provide the type of feedback that leads to learning and on our ability to get students to focus on learning - rather than on "earning" a grade.

One traditional grading practice that has such an impact is an overreliance on creating mathematical formulas to determine a student's grade on a particular assignment.  Based on our stated priority - Learning - we should instead be developing methods for providing descriptive feedback that helps students learn.  Instead, our profession tends to try to develop just the right formula to "calculate a grade," thereby practicing assessment for GRADING rather than assessment for LEARNING

For example, take a look a the scored rubric below.  Pretend this rubric was used in your class.  The student had an assignment that covered 4 standards or topics - 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, and 1.4.  You've scored the assignment as evidenced by the Xs in the boxes. 

Based on this rubric, what letter grade ( A, B, C, D, or F) would you think the student should receive for this assignment?


If you said B, then you answered the same as almost every single educator who has seen this rubric.

When educators are shown this rubric, they tend to think the student should receive a B.  After all, in 3 of the 4 standards the student was marked as being in the 2nd best (out of 5) category.  Perhaps because in one standard the student was marked in the middle category, the student might receive a B minus, if "shades of B-ness" must be used.  But most teachers would use their professional expertise to classify this student as roughly a B student on this assignment.

But, unfortunately, in an attempt to be objective, educators often find the need to "hide" behind mathematical formulas.  They choose to let fractions, rather than professional expertise, make grading decisions and choose to provide grade information rather than learning-focused feedback. 

Here's what that same rubric might look like when a formula is applied to it:


In this scenario the student would receive a total of 15 points (4+4+3+4) out of a possible 20.  This fraction would then be converted to a percentage and the student would receive a 75%.  Depending on the school system, this 75% would either be a C or a D.

But when we first analyzed the rubric, our professional expertise and instinct told us this student was in the B range on this assignment.  Why then would we allow a mathematical formula to tell us the student should receive a C or a D?  Why would we remove our expertise from the decision?  More importantly, though, why would we get ourselves caught up in a "grading game"?  Why would we employ practices that lead to students arguing about a grade or scrambling to earn more points when, instead, we could employ practices that provided feedback useful for learning?

Here's another way to use that same rubric:


By using this rubric, we prevent ourselves from getting caught up in a numbers game.  We're not arguing between 75 or 76 or 77.  It's very easy to see that, by and large, this student should be rated in the B range.  We don't need 100 different points of rating to determine that this student falls into the B range - and frankly, does it really matter where in the B range the student falls?  Because we're most interested in learning, right?  Therefore, we don't really care about the B or the 75 or whatever the grade is.  We care about providing feedback that will help a student learn, correct?

A numerical score of 75 leads to 1 of 2 things.  It leads either to:

  1. A debate about the grading system, or
  2. A request by the student to earn more points

But if we provide feedback in the form of a letter grade that is not necessarily the result of a mathematical formula, we have the potential to get students to ask questions about how they can improve their learning, especially if the letter grade feedback is attached to descriptive feedback.

What if you used a descriptive chart like the one below that was created by Math teachers at Salem High School in Salem, Virginia?


A chart like this one attaches a descriptive meaning to the letter grades.  The B no longer means that the student received 80-89% or 87-93% of the possible points.  Instead, we now know that:

  • In 3 of the 4 standards the student has a strong understanding but a fair number of mistakes are still being made;
  • To improve to the A level in these standards, the student needs to check his/her work and strive to reach a point of complete understanding as evidenced by little to no mistakes and the ability to lead someone else; and
  • In 1 of the standards assessed the student shows a basic understanding of the concepts but needs a lot more practice as evidenced by his/her ability to start but then the tendency to get stuck..  

The descriptions in the chart above might not be the perfect ones for your class or your grade or your school, but they are examples of feedback that is much more learning-focused than typical fraction-based grading practices.  If our goal was just sorting and selecting students, then perhaps a focus on an assessment OF learning based on fractions would suffice.  But we are in the business of unlocking human potential to help all students learn and grow.  Therefore, we need to focus on assessment FOR learning and descriptive feedback.

Please don't fall into the trap of thinking a mathematical formula is more objective than your expertise.  You know much more about learning and about your students and about their growth than a formula does.  Use your expertise to provide descriptive feedback.  Tell your students where they are and what they need to do - not so they can earn enough numerator points to raise their grade but so they can master the important content and skills you teach.

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