Some WA schools opt for ‘show what you know’ system over letter grades

Misael Olivaras was late for his English class almost every day last year. He was often too engrossed in his hands-on airplane-making lessons to follow one of his least favorite subjects.

Future high school senior Elma – stuck between Aberdeen and Olympia – excels in math and applied manufacturing skills, including measuring, drilling and using a caliper. His grade in English, on the other hand, “has been a constant C throughout my school life.”

But this summer, Olivaras doesn’t have to sweat a bad grade in English. He participates in a proficiency-based learning and will obtain his remaining English credits, among other things, through on-plane learning.

Mastery-Based Learning focuses on acquiring and demonstrating mastery of a subject, rather than receiving a grade and moving on. Often, students use innovative assessments like presentations, group projects, cultural activities, tests or – like Olivaras – work experience. There are no letter grades or test scores.

The practice will be different in every school and community. This summer, students in the Enumclaw School District took to the water in traditional cedar canoes as part of a “canoe healing” class.

A handful of Washington districts have introduced mastery-based learning in their schools for years. With the support of a recent grant from the State Board of Education, more are joining us this year.

In these classrooms, there are key landmarks: students guide their work plan, fulfilling state requirements through the lens of their skills, interests, or culture. Learning can take place inside or outside the classroom, and educators are encouraged to link subjects like math, science, history or English.

Students use portfolios, projects, demonstrations or tests to show what they know; feedback and help are provided by the instructors. Students can review a concept in a variety of assignments before it meets state standards, or they can complete it all at once.

For Olivaras, a big part of working in an aircraft repair shop “is reading a bunch of paperwork, going through all the steps, taking detailed notes.” Those English skills are more useful for his career goals than essay writing, he said. To obtain English credits, they will be assessed on their technical writing skills and their ability to follow the instructions in the technical manual.

“[It] is really about examining students and recognizing the assets they bring from their unique cultures and communities,” said Alissa Muller of the State Board of Education, who is leading a new collaboration for the 14 participating districts. “So when you start connecting student learning and a school building to their real world, their communities, their cultures, that bridges the gaps in opportunity and achievement.”

put into practice

At Enumclaw, middle and high school students spent time this summer on the local Boise Falls trail exploring biodiversity through the lens of the culture of the Muckleshoot tribal community. They paddled traditional canoes and learned that boats were originally made of ancient cedars. Each ring of a cedar, like those that trace canoes, represents a year of its life, so these trees shared air and breath with Muckleshoot ancestors dating back many generations.

“What’s cool to me is getting them to understand that science doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” said Sui-Lan Ho’okano, director of cultural programs for Enumclaw School District and a Native Hawaiian.

Over the past school year, students at the Northshore School District’s Innovation Lab have been researching missing and murdered Indigenous women in the state, writing biographies and creating artwork to honor them, and writing reports on potential interventions.

Mastery over time

Although the concept of replacing traditional grading with mastery is new to many, it was first described in the 1960s by school psychologist Benjamin Bloom. During classroom visits, he observed that students had the same amount of time and instruction to learn a subject, even if some students needed extra support, leading to wide variation in results.

These are often referred to as success gaps. In Washington, 83% of students graduated on time in the last school year, even though less than half of students met standards in English, math and science, as measured by standardized tests. But a range of student outcomes simply indicates who a traditional teaching model is best suited to, rather than student ability, Bloom’s research suggests. Focusing on skills rather than scores or time spent in a seat might help.

Indigenous communities have long embraced competency-based learning.

“Hands-on, immersion-style learning has been practiced in Indigenous and Indigenous communities since time immemorial,” Ho’okano said.

Interest in master’s degrees grew in the United States about a decade ago. Yet it remained a niche practice. New York Schools were among the first to implement and formed a collaboration in 2015; Idaho and Arizona also offer mastery-based learning today.

When the Washington Legislature expanded graduation pathways in 2019, it opened the door to a master’s-based education. He tasked the State Board of Education with researching the model as well as barriers to local implementation. Since then, national interest has grown amid learning challenges related to the pandemic.

Earlier this year, the first round of state grants went to school districts in Auburn, Enumclaw, Franklin Pierce, Highline and Northshore, among others.

Measure the impact

There is no conclusive data yet on how mastery-based learning works. A 2020 review of results from the previous two decades found mixed results, although this was likely due to the research being conducted too early in the programs, the researchers said.

Proponents say it shows potential. A recent study of New York high school graduates with master’s degree transcripts who were admitted to the City University of New York indicated that these students were more likely than their peers to complete courses. They also achieved higher grades in their first university terms.

Under the Washington grant program, the state hired experts to evaluate its program. Muller said the funding period is too short to assess the impacts on students, but private funding or a program extension could make it possible.

While some schools in Washington are still figuring out how grading and transcripts work, Muller said there are organizations like the Mastery Transcript Consortium that can help. In May, admissions directors at Washington’s public four-year colleges and universities assured applicants with master’s transcripts that they would not be at an admissions disadvantage.

“A lot of people in the state see this as the promise of closing the achievement gap,” Muller said. “It’s not a silver bullet; it is not the only way. But it’s a really promising avenue that research is starting to support more and more.

Change the process

The proficiency trend isn’t just geared toward struggling students. The approach can also challenge students who excel and have free time in class.

Muller said educational platforms and technology being used during the pandemic allow educators to pre-record lessons so students can move freely, allowing them time to provide one-on-one support and projects as needed.

“It’s actually more of a real work experience,” said Peter Schurke, who was hired by the Northshore School District to develop its High School Innovation Lab, which focuses on mastery learning. “It’s understanding that I’m not necessarily going to do this all at once. I’m going to have to go through multiple iterations to get the high quality product that I’m trying to produce, and that changes the whole thought process.

While Schurke said he heard criticism that students wouldn’t try it the first time if they knew they could try again, he said they quickly learned that this approach was not beneficial to them because people rarely want to repeat the same work.

Elma School District Superintendent Chris Nesmith imagines a pilot-in-training when he thinks of this approach. If they had an overall grade of B, but received a D on landing, he hoped the student would continue to work on landing skills until they improved.

At Enumclaw, the district has partnered with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe to provide culturally relevant opportunities for students that can be aligned with state learning standards. In years past, this has helped students get missed credits.

A student from a long line of Muckleshoot elders, or prominent community leaders, has fulfilled a historic standard by writing about his ancestors’ role in the Fish Wars, a series of protests in the 1960s and 70s in during which Indigenous communities in Puget Sound fought for the US government to recognize treaty-protected fishing rights.

Through his own history and culture, the student was able to show off his knowledge, Ho’okano said, “and he told it so well.” New state funding allows them to incorporate this style of teaching into lesson plans.

“Mastery-based learning is not compartmentalized,” she said. “It’s holistic learning.”