Classroom Strategies

My Journey to Mastery-Based Grading

There are many grading methodologies out there, and I’m sharing what is working for myself and my group of students. Remember, we are all working to do what is best for our students!

The problem:

A few years ago, I switched from a traditional points-based grading scale to standards-based grading. Our district had recently adopted the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and a couple of us realized we needed to adapt our grading practices to better meet our students’ learning needs. Standards-based grading went just fine because students were accustomed to the 4-3-2-1 grading scale from elementary school. What was factored into their final grades was only standards-aligned assessments.

I wasn’t entirely comfortable with standards-based grading. Our online gradebook worked off a traditional platform, and I still needed to report a letter grade on progress reports and report cards.

An even greater issue was that my students would turn in anything in order to make their missing assignments disappear. They would turn in half-finished work just to get their parents and teachers off their backs for the red “missing” next to an assignment. (Honestly, the parents were conditioned to coerce their student to do anything to get rid of “missing assignments” too!)

Science 7 students building molecules and writing chemical formulas as part of a Mastery Task.

With standards-based grading, I’d give my students thorough feedback, ask them to resubmit their work, and even provided time in class for revisions. But, hardly any students took advantage of this! They saw a grade, and stopped there.

I knew I had to make a change.

Trying out Mastery-Based Grading:

I got hooked on the idea of mastery-based grading after playing around with Badge List, and online badging platform that allows me to issue microcredentials for mastery of a subject or skill. I decided to try it out with my students last year. At first there was some confusion for how to submit work, but students quickly got over that, and learned to read through their feedback, then resubmit.

This year, I ultimately decided to switch to Google Classroom to stay consistent with other teachers at my school.

Benefits to my students:

Almost immediately, I noticed a fundamental shift in how my students approached both classwork and “Mastery Tasks.” When students didn’t earn a “Mastery” grade on a Mastery Task, they willingly went back to work to make revisions and resubmit their work.

They adopted a growth mindset without much external encouragement!

And, I saw some of my struggling students working even harder, knowing that it wasn’t too late to prove that they had mastered our science content. By the end of the semester, I saw my students believing in themselves and their academic abilities!

Additionally, I found it much easier to make accommodations for students. It was easy to hand a student some extra sentence frames or a cloze paragraph template or allow students to pick a different way to show mastery. Some of my students with IEPs rose to the top because finally they were being assessed against their current abilities, rather than one set standard for the whole class.

As for the students who would submit anything just to have that “missing” disappear. They quickly learned that an “In Progress” grade showed up in red too!

About 2/3 of the way through the spring 2017 semester, I received multiple emails from an angry parent wondering why her son was not passing science. “He turned in all his work!” she kept saying–it took both myself and our Community Relations Facilitator to show her that her son was turning in work far below his ability level, receiving detailed feedback (each time with the date of feedback), and making only minimal changes with each revision. Suddenly, her son began turning in work at his ability level, and I didn’t hear any more from her!

How Mastery-Based Grading is implemented in my classroom:

I use Google Classroom to push out Mastery Tasks to my students. They are all enrolled in the “Mastery Tasks” class and then each class period is in their own “Science 7” class. The only thing posted in the Mastery Tasks class is Mastery Tasks. The Science 7 class is used for announcements, period-specific assignments, and classwork.

Science 7 students working on a lab in preparation to write a CER on chemical reactions for their Mastery Task.

Just as with standards-based grading, each Mastery Task addresses one standard. Some larger standards are separated into multiple assessments.

Additionally, we have a heavy focus on skills (Claim-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) writing, analyzing graphs, and organization)

The general workflow is as follows:

  1. Classwork, including direct instruction, station work, activities, and labs.
  2. Students work on and submit their Mastery Task in class. Mastery-Tasks can include CER paragraphs, videos, pictures of work in their interactive notebook, Socratic Seminar discussions, Slides presentations, etc.
  3. I review students’ work and provide detailed feedback. On Google Classroom, a Mastery = 1 point, and an In Progress = 0 points. Please note, this is not a point value, but rather a binary on/off for mastery.
    1. If students earn a “Mastery (M)” grade, they don’t need to do anything else.
    2. If students earn an “In Progress (IP)” grade, they use the feedback to revise and resubmit their work. Sometimes this takes multiple cycles before they finally achieve mastery.


Mastery Workflow
My Mastery-Based Grading workflow.

In the gradebook, I report M for Mastery, IP for In Progress, and / for Missing. These are set to “info only” rather than point values.

Students are able to calculate their current grade with the following formula: A = 0 In Progress or missing | B = 1 In Progress or missing | C = 2 In Progress or missing | F = 3+ In Progress or missing.

As the semester goes on and we end up with 18-20 Mastery Tasks, I expand the B and C ranges to be 2-3 and 4-5 respectively.

Next steps:

As a teacher, I’m always learning! My students recognize this, and respond back with loads of empathy as I try new things. They readily give me feedback to help us improve our class.

As I grow with Mastery-Based Grading, here are two of my goals:

  1. Use more effective and regular student self-feedback and peer feedback before students turn in a Mastery Task. (Got an example? I’d love to see it!)
  2. Try out Single-Point Rubrics. I’ve used 4-3-2-1 to be consistent with department and district rubrics, and switched over other assignments to a simple Mastery/In Progress rubric. Single-Point Rubrics seem to be everything I am trying to do. Thanks Ben Kovacs for the nudge!

How do your grading practices seek out the best in your students? I’d love to get some new ideas to push me further!

Love this post, here’s how I track data & create Mastery-Tasks (coming soon!).

23 thoughts on “My Journey to Mastery-Based Grading”

  1. Interesting! I used to do standards based, loved it, but now we have to grade the same… I may be able to sell this, though. Are you saying you have two google classrooms for each class? Why is this more efficient than 1? Just curious. Also, you just use google classroom for feedback now, right? Assignments /assessments are graded 0 or 1?


    1. I find 2 is more efficient because one is ONLY Mastery Tasks, so students can narrow down to exactly what they are being assessed on. I could do this with topics, but I think the separation is helpful for them. All feedback is on Classroom.


  2. How do you use classwork and other formative assessments? Are they graded, and/or do students have to achieve a specific level before submitting the mastery assessment? If they are not graded, how do you encourage students to complete the work? Thanks for sharing your experience.


  3. How do you incorporate classwork and formative assessments; Are they graded? Do you require a certain level of performance on them before attempting the mastery task? If they are not graded, how do you motivate students to complete them?


    1. Motivation is always tricky! I do a lot of “you need a stamp on this notebook classwork” or “you need to have this classwork submitted to Science 7 Classroom” before you can leave for nutrition break / lunch. Students quickly see that classwork is prep for Mastery Tasks, and skipping or not doing their best reflects on not getting mastery on the first try.


  4. So timely for me to find your explanation of how you are implementing mastery in your 7th grade science classes! I have had 1.5 snow days this week and have been wrestling with looking at English LA examples of how to do this and envisioning it in the science class. I was not very enthusiastic. I tried to envision how to have students working while I conference with individuals and how to make the % based gradebook I am confined to work for me. I resorted to putting in missing or incomplete marks but the things that were turned in weren’t necessarily all as explicit in their responses as I wish to see. I also have wondered how to divide up content objectives and standards.I set up a Jumprope account for my classes but I don’t know how to choose which standards are the most pressing ones to assess. In the unit we are teaching there are over 20 possible to look at and the assessment gets quite overwhelming if I include them all. We are using an online curriculum that keeps students pretty much lock step and I have to be quite creative to give those who already have got mastery something more challenging. I’m so glad to have found the Live binder compiled by Joy Kirr too but wow, so much to wade through! My department and school are still not much in to going gradeless or even doing standards based grading so I am on my own.


  5. Thanks so much for sharing. I’d love to hear (or see) more about how your mastery assignment grading is set up within Google Classroom. Is it a four point scale , as in out of 4? Or something else? My assessment in GC seems much more cluttered than it ought to be.


  6. I do Standards based grading and the students continue working on the standard until they reach mastery. So, what I see is the difference is just the grade value. Is that correct?


    1. To me, it’s about the mindset rather than the method of grading. If you’re emphasizing growth and mastery, then I don’t see a difference.


  7. Do your prep assignments carry the same weight as the mastery assignment? And how does your A/4/Mastery translate to number grades?


    1. There are no point values in my class. Prep assignments are just that, prep for Mastery Tasks, and therefore are not evaluated. Students and/or I may give informal feedback.


  8. This is so interesting Mari. I’m going to share it with my Science and History teachers – I think this could work well in both classes. I have two questions – do the mastery tasks take the place of “tests”? And are final grades based solely on the completion of mastery tasks? Thanks for your help!


  9. Thank you Mari for this info! I was wondering how long your planning process took before implementing this new grading system into your classroom?


    1. I switched to standards-based grading about two years before going full-mastery. I piloted mastery grading for a semester–I switched mid-year, and my students transitioned really well! In terms of planning, this was something in my head for quite a while, so I can’t give you an exact timeline. However, I definitely jump into things with a rough outline/framework and plan details as I go, with input and feedback from my kids.


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