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Is Mastery a 3 or a 4 or Something Far Beyond That?

December 17, 2013 by
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Grant Wiggins

We hear the critique of competency education occasionally as a linear, rigid, boring process of students learning and testing, learning and testing. We also hear the concern about classroom instruction and software products that declare students proficient because they have done recall or basic skills. Certainly, we know that schools across the country are challenged by the higher expectations of the Common Core to upgrade instruction and assessments so that students can actually engage in learning at higher levels of learning (or some would say deeper).

In the EL essay How Good is Good Enough, Grant Wiggins takes on these issues, calling for us to “recalibrate” our understanding of mastery so that we can ensure students can apply the whole concept and not just the “bits.”

In the essay, Grant Wiggins proposes this definition of mastery: Mastery is the effective transfer of learning into an authentic and worthy performance. Students have mastered a subject when they are fluent, even creative, in using their knowledge, skills, and understanding in key performance challenges and contexts at the heart of that subject, as measured against valid and high standards.

But of course standards can vary. Wiggins argues that we must recalibrate our schools to external standards. He goes as far as to say that schools that don’t are not standards-based. That’s a big challenge to schools around the country saying that they are doing standards-referenced or standards-based grading.So what do we think? Can we all stand by that definition?  Can we all agree to use external standards, Common Core State Standards, or those approved by your state? In the other subjects, can we all agree to use national standards or even international standards?

Although it all sounds good, I still have questions.

Thomas R. Guskey and Eric M. Anderman in their piece In Search of a Definition of Mastery in EL guide us in a reflection on mastery, reminding us that the roots are in in the process of developing skilled trades from apprentice, journeyman to master. Kim Carter recommended that the phrase mastery should be used for true mastery – the 1,000 hours or more it takes to become “a master.” These are lifelong journeys and in most cases those we consider masters will always attest to still learning, still discovering. I wonder, are we inflating terms the same way we inflated grades when we say to an 8 year old, “You’ve mastered counting!”?  Or is proficiency good enough?

Guskey also raises the question of how we might define mastery in a system — is it a certain percent accurate? Do some skills require being able to reach perfection? Fluency?  These are the questions that educators must clarify for themselves and understand why they are using one method to determine mastery (or proficiency) in one case and why a different expectation is needed in others.

For districts and schools that have converted to standards-based grading using 4 point scoring are you setting mastery as defined by Wiggins as a 3 or a 4? Are all students expected to reach mastery on every bit-by-bit standard? Or can students advance to the next level when they demonstrate application or a form of analysis using the standards? Or do we expect mastery of the whole topic, not the micro-standards that lead up to it, as done in Diploma Plus schools? Students are expected to apply and transfer their knowledge at least once per course, not for every standard throughout the course.

Finally, let’s talk about time.  If we set mastery as the floor of what we expect for students, is there even enough time/funding for us to try to have transfer of knowledge to new contexts for every standard?  Perhaps over time we will have such an incredible set of performance tasks that this will become standard practice. For now, I think, pragmatically, at this stage of our development as our schools embrace the Common Core and its higher expectations, it might make  sense to have students apply the big ideas to new settings once in a course rather than make it an expectation that students reach Level 4 (using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to indicate higher learning) on every standard, every time. Thus, a 3 or application and analysis becomes the standard bearer for allowing students to advance. It’s still a lot better than recall and basic skills. But perhaps my expectations are too low. I know many of my colleagues would say that holding the highest expectations firm is how we will inspire new models and innovations.

Perhaps this is discipline and age specific. Might what we expect in chemistry before a student advances to the next unit vary from how we establish expectations in English Language Arts? Should our expectations for transferring knowledge be managed differently at academic level 4 or 2nd grade than it is once students enter high school?

We aren’t going to see us all of us gather in a room and make sense of this. We are going to explore, experiment, toss out what doesn’t work and try again. As you work through these issues in your school and district, we hope that you will share with us what worked, what didn’t work, and why. If we can help each other become proficient in understanding the ins and outs of mastery, our students will benefit.

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  1. Comment by Susan Patrick 3:59 pm, December 17, 2013

    Rethinking the numbers . . . 3 = advanced proficiency; 4 = honors level

    In a recent discussion regarding Maine’s work in proficiency-based pathways, moving along the learning progressions allowed all students to advance upon demonstrated mastery. What do the numbers mean? The proficiency level “3” rating on the rubrics for what a student must know and do (on a scale from 1-4, with 4 being highest) of proficiency was advanced mastery demonstrated, however, a “4” was “honors level”. This means every single student has the opportunity to do honors level work at every stage of learning throughout K-12 education. …Enabling access to honors for each and every student.

  2. Comment by Rose Colby 7:12 pm, December 17, 2013

    We are starting to center the whole discussion about grading, assessment, and mastery exactly where it belongs: what does the learning look like and what is the student showing us he/she can transfer in a learning opportunity.
    The key piece in all of this is that if we want students to demonstrate this level of transfer, we have to give them the opportunity to do so. To merely teach to the standards, check them off, then hope that kids can demonstrate learning on a high stakes test is not what this is all about. It speaks to a new era of instructional design where students access and use content, gain skills in formative fashion and are given well designed learning and embedded assessment opportunities to show us the mastery inherent in the application of content and skills.
    Karin Hess’ Rigor Matrix (based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge) really clarifies a great deal about what a ‘4’ should look like: students demonstrate transfer and application ACROSS disciplines, extending their conceptual understanding. This also lines up nicely with Bransford’s description of expertise. This has been incredibly helpful to us in designing rubrics for performance tasks based on Common Core Competencies. The ‘3’ level (Competent) reflects the demand inherent in a cluster of standards and the
    ‘4’ represents how the student goes more deeply in extending their thinking. I hesitate to add to the mix whether something represents honors or not. That is a whole other issue we have to think through relative to how schools ‘level’ their courses and their expectations–more to think about in competency education design!

  3. Comment by Joe Makley 7:37 pm, December 27, 2013

    I think one of the mistakes we’ve made in 17 years or so of working with the 4-point rubric scoring is trying to define the 4 level as “exceeds the standard,” or in some other way limiting access to that level. If we are to be understood (and supported) by parents, we need to provide a path to the 4, whether we call it “distinguished performance,” “honors challenge,” etc.
    We also haven’t had much luck explaining that the standards scores are “different than grades,” particularly at the secondary level. It seems to me we will go further, faster if we continue to offer letter grades calculated (similar to college GPAs) using 4 part standards scores. When parents and students see a 4, they are going to see an A+ regardless of how many times we tell them there is more to it than that. If we attach those grades to performances of well defined skills and knowledge, rather than disparate combinations of tasks, expectations and behavior unique to the whims of the teacher, we will have come very far, even if we allow an imperfect calculation for course completion.
    Maine learned from its 17 year effort that perfection is a substantial enemy to the design of standards-based assessments and tasks. Wiggins standard of “application” is unassailable, but proper assessment of higher order thinking on these standards will continue to involve teacher judgment, so it’s still about deep implementation of new practice, wherein teachers get more familiar with performance levels, essential questions, engagement, specificity of feedback, etc. I think we have the best chance to gain time and support for this period of trial and error and nuts and bolts, by providing scoring and grades that are at least compatible with the existing models.

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