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Aurora Institute

Position and Power of Students in a Mastery-Based System

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Xochitl Garcia

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Activate Student Agency

This article originally appeared on Springpoint’s blog The Launch Pad as part of Mastery Assessment Week. (See the original here.) It was prepared as part of Mastery Assessment Week.

Assessment in a mastery-based system helps students know where they are on their journey toward graduation. A formative approach to assessment—which promotes transparency, feedback, agency, relevance, and, ultimately student success—builds a structure in which students are true partners in their own education, empowered to engage their learning facilitators in conversations about their learning targets and individual goals. Good mastery-based systems contain assessment practices that emphasize continual growth and development of skills. But great mastery-based systems contain opportunities for student voice to play a role in those assessment practices.

As a teacher in a mastery-based school, I worked alongside talented students and educators who developed and refined a system where students have a key role in assessment. Mastery-based learning—and assessment in particular—is an important embodiment of their positive youth development approach. (Read more about positive youth development and school design here). I was constantly excited by the ways in which my students pushed my thinking around the power dynamics present within our educational system and encouraged by the way they continuously rose to (and beyond) the high expectations I held of them and that they held of themselves. I knew I was succeeding as an educator when students were assessing their own mastery of competencies and providing insightful evidence from their own work to guide our discussion. Open dialogue about student progress was also a key opportunity for me to ask for feedback from students in order to strengthen my class and assessment approach.

At a recent event with our Engage New England partners, Brittney Sampson from Center for Collaborative Education and I started talking about the role of students in determining their own mastery. There was a mutual acknowledgment that the wider discussion on assessment still largely focuses on teachers and how they assess mastery, and very little about how we engage students in our systems of assessment. This short conversation surfaced three areas educators should consider when designing assessment in a mastery-based system:

Are students able to choose when and how they demonstrate competencies?

A hallmark of mastery-based learning is that students can move through coursework—and even some courses—at a flexible pace. But oftentimes, students have to wait until the end of a particular sequence to demonstrate a given competency. Generally, adults are the ones who develop the frameworks and processes that dictate when and how students can attempt a mastery demonstration. Therefore, even though students can accelerate or get more support if needed, they still have to work through a certain set of adult-mandated tasks to even have the opportunity to demonstrate a competency.

However, if learning facilitators—in partnership with students—create a structure where students can choose when they demonstrate competencies then students get to know themselves better as learners, can personalize their pace further, and are empowered to really take the reins in a new and more meaningful way. I have seen students grow frustrated or disinterested in a subject when they do not have space to carve out their own path or agency over their learning.

Do conferencing structures build students’ capacity to self-assess?

Mastery-based learning has the potential to pave the way for students to build metacognitive skills that are imperative for college and career success such as self-awareness, self-advocacy, and an inextinguishable love of learning. Conferencing during and around assessment lets students build these skills and mindsets, practice them, and apply them broadly to their lives.

Instilling the capacity to self-assess should include reimaging rubrics as discursive spaces where students guide conversations about how they are meeting competencies and progressing through their courses. Learning facilitators must push students, ask probing questions, encourage them to make a strong case for their work products, and plot out new goals. Above all, if students make a strong point—backed up by evidence and deeply rigorous—about their mastery learning facilitators are well-advised to acknowledge it and incorporate it. This allows students to gain a strong understanding of what they have mastered and where they haven’t demonstrated competency yet. Conferencing structures not only allow these conversations to happen but they help students build and iterate on skills.

Some best practices that students and learning facilitators might consider include:

  • Setting up both flexible and fixed conferences with students—flexible to align with assessment and fixed to ensure that each student is engaged in a reflective conversation around their progress on a particular competency. Students know they have a monthly touchpoint and can prepare appropriately.
  • Asking in depth, facilitative questions during these conversations (e.g., How did you know you met that competency? What were some roadblocks that you navigated in meeting it? What were things you easily were able to do that you could translate to other classes?)
  • Asking students what tasks they completed that were unnecessary. While this might feel like an uncomfortable cession of power, it can help educators iterate on tasks, individual assessments, and the support they offer to individual students and in the course in general.

Do students have a say in which competencies they are working on in courses?

One great way to build in opportunities for student contribution (also known as student voice and choice) is to empower students to pick which competencies they are working on. While most think about think about voice and choice in terms of topic selection or mode of competency demonstration, really giving students license to chart their own course can be a powerful way to help them own their own learning. It can also encourage them to think about which competencies are important for them and their future and goals, could give them the opportunity to co-design assessments. We cannot forget that, by and large, adults have decided what competencies students need to demonstrate to be set up for post-secondary success. Ideally, students are involved, but it is most typical for adults to create a full competency system without student voice.

Mastery-based assessment without student voice is simply a rebranding of the old transactional system of education: students produce a product and get a grade. Involving students in the determination of, conversation around, and mapping out of their journey, facilitates deeper learning and ownership that accelerates a broader definition of student success.

Xochitl Garcia is experienced in curriculum design, professional development, innovative school models, and STEMeducation. As Manager of School Design & Instruction, Xochitl works closely with Springpoint’s partners, particularly at the school level, to support the design and iteration of new school models that work for the actual students being served. Previously, Xochitl worked at Science Friday, supporting the work of teachers to bring engaging science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into the classroom. Xochitl served a Special Education and Science teacher for seven years in the Bronx in New York City. As as teacher, Xochitl researched student engagement, assistive technology, and culturally responsive curriculum with the Teachers’ College Inclusive Classrooms Project, led the development of blended-learning science units, and implemented Youth Positive Action Research (YPAR).