Before this spring semester, the concept of a mastery-based course was completely unknown to me. Most American students are only familiar with the traditional educational model: the class moves from topic to topic, regardless of how each student performs. This is why reading through the syllabus of my mastery-based College Algebra course left me so confused and uneasy. What do you mean I’d be working at my own pace? Is it really okay to make mistakes? Don’t I still have to learn everything to succeed in this class?
The mastery-based course structure seeks to eliminate these concerns and contest the current flaws of the education system: it has stunted students’ abilities to realize their true potential by discouraging them from making mistakes. Through the rigid structures of the grading system and assignment deadlines, students who fall behind begin to think less of themselves, their intelligence and their chance of succeeding in school. In a 2002 study, Jennifer Crocker and Riia K. Luhtanen detected that more than eighty percent of 642 college freshmen said their self-perceptions were primarily influenced by their academic performance.
Education has been reduced to a formulaic process that ignores the various learning patterns of each student, causing it to fail millions of learners. The Brown Center Chalkboard for the Brookings Institution compiled data collected by ACT from 2010 to 2019 that found that about 60% of high school graduates have consistently displayed a lack of college readiness. The 2020 ACT National Profile Report also concluded that only 26% of its 1.67 million test-takers met all four ACT College Readiness Benchmark Scores.
The mastery-based approach presents an alternative allows students to work at their speed to master the topics necessary to pass that class. Students do not feel rushed to learn new material nor judged for the pace they are working at. Everyone is progressing through the course at their discretion. Grades are not affected by the number of mistakes made by the student, reassuring them that they can make errors without suffering. This makes learning feel more organic as students feel emboldened to explore their potential.
“That willingness to try and try again until a skill is mastered is something to celebrate, not penalize with points off for multiple efforts,” said the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board.
Across the United States, schools have been adopting the mastery-based structure, and accordingly, witnessing a rapid improvement in the academic performances of students. In New York City, its more than 40 mastery-based schools have reported proficiency increases in reading, English and mathematics since implementing the program. In a district as large and diverse as New York City, the mastery-based approach ensures that students of special circumstances can also succeed. It helps fill the achievement gap between the city’s academically thriving affluent, white students and underperforming, low-income POC students by steering the grading process away from a generalized assessment that assumes every student is capable of succeeding in the same way.
Schools in Idaho exploring the mastery-based program have also seen remarkable academic improvements, such as increased scores on the SAT and statewide assessments and more middle schoolers working in high school-level classes. Participating schools also documented improvements in behavior and student engagement.
“Students are showing a higher level of motivation, and are actively engaged in pursuing more from their school experience,” said the Three Creek School District for the 2018 IMEN Progress Report.
The success of the mastery-based approach in Idaho captures how this method benefits all kinds of students, not just POC students: most schools that are part of the Idaho Mastery Education Network (IMEN) serve a majority-white student population. Therefore, schools could witness similar levels of improvement regardless of the demographics they serve.
However, some states have been struggling to see positive results from establishing mastery-based approaches in their schools.
In 2013, the Vermont Board of Education implemented the Education Quality Standards that stated all students must graduate from schools with proficiency-based education systems by 2020. However, these vague requirements led to differing results throughout the state.
“Just saying that we’re supposed to be in a proficiency system doesn’t tell you what that should look like,” said U-32 High School principal Steven Dellinger-Pate to Vermont Public Radio. “If we just had clear criteria around what implementation looks like…then we would be able to say, ‘Ok, where are we as a school, like, how far are we into the implementation?'”
In a 2019 survey of 1,000 members of the Vermont-National Education Association, more than half said they did not receive the adequate resources to transition to a proficiency-based learning system. Without these resources, issues involving GPA recalculations, class restructuring, and lengthy transcripts emerged. This led the Vermont State Board of Education to hold a seven-hour meeting with students, parents and educators on proficiency-based learning in January 2020.
Some Vermont schools that have been working hard to perfect the mastery-based system for years continue to stress the importance of the system, as long as the school districts pursue detailed planning and proactive collaboration.
“It’s so important that we work together as a state to maintain fidelity to the simplicity of the foundational principles, while navigating the complexities of implementation,” said Stan Williams and Emily Rinkema at the meeting in January 2020 with the State Board of Education, as shared by Seven Days.
Maine was also an early adopter of the proficiency-based learning system when, in 2012, the state decided that students had to show mastery in eight subjects to earn their high school diplomas. However, the requirement was repealed by 2018. Maine echoed the same concerns plaguing Vermont: schools were on their own in deciding how to implement proficiency-based education.
“It is a lesson on the perils of putting a mandate in place and not having organized for the necessary clarity and guidance for the field,” said Charlie Toulmin, the policy director of the Nellie Mae Foundation, to Chalkbeat.
Regardless of its name (mastery-based, competency-based, proficiency-based learning), the advantages of this form of learning, when its framework is fully developed through collaborative effort and meticulous organization, are evident. Like most projects, we cannot expect flawless outcomes if the work is completed overnight. Time needs to be put into this project to witness positive results. That is how Middle School 442 in Brooklyn saw a jump in English proficiency from 7% to 29% and math proficiency from 5% 26% percent in just two years. Through comprehensive evaluations of the New York State curriculum guidelines and Common Core standards to develop an intricate rubric capturing all the skills needed for students to move to the next grade, M.S. 442 has tapped into the academic potential of their diverse student population.
My personal experience with a mastery-based course has been overwhelmingly positive. For all my life, I always felt I was at a disadvantage in my math courses because I could not learn the information as fast as my peers. I struggled in every math course and found myself wishing that I had more time to perfect my understanding of the concepts. My grades would suffer in consequence. However, in my mastery-based College Algebra course, I can work on the concepts I do not understand for as long as I need. Mistakes do not dissuade me from the material but encourage me to keep learning to improve. If other classes adopted a similar learning method, I would more confident in those subjects as well.
Even so, the current format of our education system requires urgent revision. While tradition provides safety and familiarity, we cannot continue to ignore how the system fails countless students every year. States must pursue slow but steady change by revisiting educational guidelines to actualize progress over time. Maybe then, more American high school graduates will show college readiness.