Author: Christy Kingham

But What About The Test?

November 25, 2019 by

This post originally appeared at the Mastery Collaborative on June 11, 2019.

Christy and Student With Laptop

Christy works with a student at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria, NYC.

How can high-stakes testing “live” in a setting that also uses mastery-based grading? Project-based learning? Culturally responsive practices and content? Too often, innovative school design is thought of as difficult or impossible to implement amidst heavy testing requirements. But success on standardized exams is not incompatible with mastery-based grading and project-based learning. In fact, I have seen in my fifteen years in education how these two innovative approaches facilitate a wide range of success at schools.

I often hear from and read about practitioners who worry about tests, especially high-stakes tests. It is not their fault. As practitioners, we receive mixed messages with one message usually the loudest: the test is the most important, the test is the data, the test defines your teaching, the test, the test, the test.

There is a lot of valuable research and data that underscores the lack of authenticity and inequity inherent in high-stakes standardized testing. But, I hope to provide a perspective of an educator doing innovation work “on the ground” while addressing the reality of standardized tests. To be clear, this piece is not advocating for standardized tests, rather it’s a demonstration that high-stakes testing does not erase the feasibility of innovative practices like mastery-based learning.

While we wait for large-scale change in states where high-stakes testing is prevalent, replicable innovations are happening in small pockets across the country. It is possible to destigmatize “teaching to the test” when it becomes teaching skills that are prevalent on the test.

I am a teacher and instructional coach at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria (TYWLS), a grade 6-12 public school in the New York City Department of Education. Our school is just one example of a “testing” school that also uses innovative practices, including a whole-school, mastery-based grading system. Our students find success on the multiple New York State exams and AP exams they take each year. We have been able to find a successful balance between the tension of innovation and standardized testing.

As a Living Lab site for the NYC DOE’s Mastery Collaborative, we often host visitors and present at conferences about our whole-school mastery-based grading system. At every session, there are folks who quickly reveal a seemingly fixed mindset about the importance of “the test” as well as the challenges testing presents. We try to make the connection for practitioners in traditional settings that they likely do this type of work already by analyzing what’s on the test and teaching and reteaching skills and content. What is different about planning mastery-based curriculum using a project-based methodology that includes a high-stakes test is that we prepare for, but go well beyond, the test. (more…)

Put Us In the Room Where It Happens: Teacher-Driven Shifts To Mastery

February 13, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education blog on January 4, 2017. 

I wanna be in the room where it happens.

This line from the Broadway hit Hamilton is one I refer to often when thinking about how we can effectively bring students and teachers in to create honest and equitable systems of assessment.

Our little school in Queens, New York, has worked tirelessly to create and maintain a teacher-created system of mastery-based grading. I’m thirteen years into my middle and high school English teaching career, but the school I have had the privilege of being a part of for the past six years is The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria. Our school is grades 6-12, public, all-girls, and Title I.  On average, 98% of our graduates are accepted to and attend college, and we have been a mastery-based school for the past seven years.

CK1

Christy conducting a coaching session.

Our mastery work began when our founding principal shared a paper with her then-staff, “Removing Structural Barriers to Academic Achievement in High Schools: An Innovative Model” by Camille A. Farrington and Margaret H. Small.  The gist of the paper addressed the dropout rate as a “structural problem” connected to traditional systems of determining final grades and course credit. It was a call to action honoring “differential learning rates”. For our founding teachers, this was an issue of social justice-being able to provide multiple opportunities for students to achieve mastery of skills over time was simply more equitable. Our through line was, and remains, educational equity.

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