Mastery grading: Learn it now or later

Ohio Gov. John Kasich wants to pilot “competency-based education“– aka mastery grading or standards-based education — writes Jessica Poiner on Ohio Gadfly.

New Hampshire is the national leader in competency-based education. In Ohio, it’s being tried at Metro Early College School and MC²STEM high school, as well as the Pickerington school district.

Mastery grading assesses how well a student has learned specific skills and concepts. It doesn’t count homework completion, daily assignments, class participation or tests on multiple standards.

. . . Instead of interpreting what Tyrone’s B in algebra means, Tyrone and his parents know that he understands polynomials at 97 percent mastery and two-variable equations at 90 percent mastery; but he has trouble with inequalities and the quadratic equation, where his mastery hovers at 65 percent.

. . .  let’s imagine that Tyrone needs additional help to master the quadratic equation. This extra help can take multiple forms: Tyrone could log in to Khan Academy. He could receive one-on-one tutoring from his teacher during or outside of class. Or he could work in a group of similarly struggling students to complete a project on the real-life applications of quadratic equations. . . . After receiving remediation for the material he hasn’t mastered, Tyrone retakes the assessment. If he achieves mastery, he moves on (say, to exponents and factoring). If he doesn’t achieve mastery, he receives more support.

Providing all that support — and designing advanced work for fast-moving students will require more from administrators and teachers, writes Poiner. Teachers will need time to plan and share ideas and resources. They’ll need to use technology.

Teachers can leverage online resource-sharing hubs, including sites that boast lessons written by effective teachers. There are applications that make tracking mastery data easy, allowing teachers to focus on planning instead of tracking. The rise of blended learning and adaptive models makes effective, personalized remediation real without asking teachers to build a system from scratch on their own.

Some think master grading sets students up for failure by denying “points for showing up, points for being on time, points for homework completion, points for participation, points for extra credit.”

Diligence should be tracked separately, Poiner argues. The hard-working, well-behaved kid who hasn’t learned how to solve a quadratic equation, understand DNA or write a persuasive essay needs a chance to learn those skills — not a worthless diploma and a future of frustration.

Standards-based grading can give parents much more information, writes Matt Collette on Slate. He reports on a Brooklyn middle school. Via a “continuously updated online grade book . . . students are rated on more than 70 different skills, such as the ability to write persuasively, determine the main idea of a passage, or multiply fractions. . . . Students need to demonstrate proficiency three separate times—through homework, on a quiz, or through some other means—to be considered proficient.”

‘Learning styles’ belief wastes time

The belief in “learning styles” is “wasting valuable time and resources,” says Tesia Marshik, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse psychology professor, in a TED Talk.

What’s important is “critical self-reflection,” says Marshik I think we used to call this “thinking.”

Seeking black, Latino success, study ignores charters

Black and Latino boys do poorly in all Boston public schools, concluded a study that ignored charter schools. Boston has the top-performing charter schools in country, CREDO reports. At many, black and Latino boys do well, notes CommonWealth Magazine.

“I was surprised no one contacted us to see what we had learned,” said Owen Stearns, CEO of Excel Academy, which runs two charter schools in East Boston and one in Chelsea. “We’ve been one of the top middle schools in the state for seven years, and 75 percent of our students are Latino.”

At Excel’s East Boston middle school, 100 percent of Latino male 8th graders have scored proficient in English on the state exam for the last four years. In math, the proficiency rate has ranged from 87 to 100 percent.

Excel Academy student Omar Fromenta, college class of '21,  loves science "because it is full of surprises."

Excel Academy student Omar Fromenta, college class of ’21, loves science “because it is full of surprises.”

At the four highest-performing Boston Public Schools, where 40 to 60 percent of black and Latino boys scored proficient, researchers from Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform found teacher collaboration, individualized instruction and a “caring school culture.”

However, researchers criticized the schools’ “colorblind” approach and called for empowering minority students by using “critical race theory” and pedagogy. One example was ” having students reflect on a current inequitable practice (such as the standards and testing movement) to produce a performance or service that showcases their understanding of its harmful effects on students like them.”

At charters with black and Latino boys do well, “building culturally-relevant topics and readings into the school curriculum” is important, but not the priority, reports CommonWealth.

. . . Stearns said the key to high achievement among Excel students is “high expectations around behavior and academics” and “clear alignment among everyone in the building on the need for intellectual rigor and how we interact with students.”

Teacher quality is more important than “cultural competency,” says Stearns.

Ross Wilson, chief of staff for the Boston Public Schools, said the district will “work with our colleagues in charter schools to see what effective best practices are” in a variety of schools.

Learn from charter schools

Learn from urban charter schools’ success, argues Liz Riggs, who’s taught at both district and charter schools in Tennessee, in Education Post.

In Memphis, Nashville and other cities across the country, urban charters are showing strong gains in reading and math for disadvantaged students, according to the new Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study.

Value-added scores are high at KIPP Nashville, where 90+ percent of students come from low-income families.

Value-added scores are high at KIPP Nashville, where nearly all students come from low-income families.

In Nashville’s Davidson County, nearly 40 percent of “Rewards Schools (top five percent)  were high-poverty charter schools, she writes. In Memphis, 73 percent of charters outperformed traditional district-run schools.

When she switched from a district to a charter school, she “used many of my materials from teaching ninth graders specifically for my new eighth grade students.”

All the charter teachers and administrators believed “that students could achieve whatever they set their minds to,” Riggs writes. This sort of growth mindset may be held by individual teachers and teams in district schools, but is not a “schoolwide mantra.”

I worked with one English teacher at a district high school in Nashville whose students have already grown 1.3 years in reading in one semester, but that teacher will be leaving her district school for a charter next year. Presumably, she wants a place where she is not alone in achieving this growth and instilling these mindsets in students.

According to CREDO, charter schools in both cities enroll comparable numbers of English Learners, special ed and low-income students, Riggs writes. Ninety-one percent of Nashville charter students come from low-income families, compared to 72 percent of students at district schools.

Schools prep for Core tests

Students in 29 states are taking Common Core tests for the first time this spring. PBS NewsHour looks at Jefferson Middle School in Washington, D.C., which has raised scores on the district’s old test but now faces a harder exam.

High schools help alums get through college

Yes Prep students at Rhodes College, in Memphis.
YES Prep graduates at Rhodes College in Memphis support each other.

Only 10 percent of low-income, first-generation college students will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, writes Erin Einhorn on the Hechinger Report. Some college-prep charters are providing college counseling to their graduates to improve those odds.

These alumni advisors send reminders about scholarship deadlines, connect students with campus resources such as writing centers and help them understand quirks that may not be obvious to kids whose parents never went to college, including the importance of withdrawing from a class before the deadline to avoid a failing grade and a tuition bill.

“More and more high schools are feeling a responsibility beyond high school graduation,” said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Access Network. They can’t simply hand off their graduates to college and move on, the way runners in a relay race pass the baton, Cook said. “We’ve had some wake-up calls … that make us scratch our heads and think, hmm, maybe the baton pass wasn’t really working.”

YES Prep, a chain of Houston-based charters, sends its low-income, minority graduates to college, but realized that most never earned degrees. Now the chain has hired three full-time counselors to support graduates.

YES Prep also sends groups of alumni to college together to support each other. And the chain uses their feedback about how well-prepared they were to tweak its curriculum for juniors and seniors. Early returns have been promising, with the charter network now reporting that 72 percent of its alumni are still in college or have graduated.

Another large charter chain, KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, hires dozens of staffers around the country for its KIPP Through College campaign. They work with kids starting in the eighth grade and send groups of students to support each other at 60 colleges and universities — programs KIPP credits with boosting its six-year bachelor’s degree rate from 28 percent a few years ago to 45 percent today.

“To and through” is the motto of Downtown College Prep, the charter school I wrote about in Our School. Not only does the high school offer counseling to help graduates succeed in college, it’s added help in finding jobs once they earn their degrees.


Test boycotts spread

What Happens When Students Boycott a Standardized Test? asks Laura McKenna in The Atlantic.

Anti-testing politics are evolving in New Jersey, she writes. Resistance to new Core-aligned tests started with a small number of parents and grew as “teachers unions helped parents organize.”

. . .  weeks before the March segment of the PARCC, the NJEA, New Jersey’s largest teachers union, aired a series of widely viewed television commercials that denounced the exam. One ad features a middle-aged dad with a goatee telling a group of fellow parents that his first-grader cried when he came home from school, apparently too tired to go to karate practice. The goateed dad despairs, “What are we doing to our kids?”

. . . Some of the unions’ local branches even arranged parties to view the film Standardized (Lies, Money, & Civil Rights: How Testing Is Ruining Public Education) or set up websites informing parents how to complete the necessary paperwork to release their children from the testing.

Now students are asking their parents to exempt them from testing, McKenna writes. Her 15-year-old son “used every weapon in his teenage arsenal—eye rolls, deep sighs, guilt-tripping, and even logic—to pressure my husband and me to write a letter to the school opting him out of the test.” None of his friends were taking the PARCC exam, he claimed. (It didn’t work.)

Parents protest PARCC in Northampton, MA.

Parents protest PARCC in Northampton, MA.

In New Jersey, 5 percent of students “are estimated to have opted out of the first installment of the PARCC test, which was conducted in March; greater numbers are expected refuse to take the second one in May,” McKenna writes. Opt-outs are most common in affluent communities, which means students likely to do well are the most likely to sit out the exams.

Opting out has become a “movement of conscience” for parents and teachers, argues Carol Burris,  a principal who sees Common Core standards narrowing what’s taught. In her New York  district, 30 percent of students already have asked to sit out the tests.

“In the majority of classrooms, where opt-out appears likely to remain at low levels,” students “sitting out of standardized testing will have only a trivial impact on the ratings received by their teachers, writes Matthew Chingos at Brookings’ Chalkbeat.

My Little Pony vs. equality

My Little Pony is showing children the dangers of “enforced equality,” writes Brandon Morse on The Federalist.

In “The Cutie Map, Parts 1 and 2”, the main-character ponies visit a town where the smiling, ever-pleasant ponies bear a gray equal sign in place of the distinctive “cutie mark,” that shows a pony’s distinctive traits and powers.

. . . They have given up the things that make them unique, because uniqueness causes animosity between ponies, and thus discord. The main characters meet the leader of the town, Starlight Glimmer, who soon takes them all up to a cave that holds all the cutie marks of the village inhabitants.

Springing a trap, Starlight Glimmer steals the cutie marks from the main characters, replacing their marks with the black equal sign. The main characters are quickly thrown in jail until they have properly resocialized into the correct kind of thinking.

The hero ponies expose Starlight Glimmer as a phony who’s kept her own cutie mark.

After the leader has been exposed, the town revolts, reclaiming their cutie marks and thus their individuality. Using their reclaimed unique skills, they rescue the main characters’ marks and thus their powers, while chasing the villain into a mountain cave system, where they lose her. The show ends with the now-unique and fun-looking village having a party.

To children, this message is clear. It’s better to be yourself than to be the same as everyone else.

Morse sees the story as a blow at Marxism. It also could be seen as a stand in favor of diversity.

No passion? No problem

On the sidelines of her son’s soccer game, Lisa Heffernan chatted with the younger sibling of one of his teammates. “’I don’t really have a passion like my brother yet’,” he explained, glancing over at the field. “But my parents are helping me look for one’.”

The push for passion is harming kids by crowding out exploration, writes Heffernan in the New York Times‘ Motherlode blog. She blames college admissions.

Elite colleges brag about rejecting applicants with high grades and test scores. They don’t want well-rounded students. They want high-scoring “oblong” or “angular” students with a defining passion for . . . Is the oboe really esoteric enough? Is Klingon poetry too weird?

First-gen students unite

At elite colleges where most students come from affluent, educated families first-generation students are uniting to support each other, reports the New York Times.

Ana Barros grew up in a two-family house built by Habitat for Humanity, hard by the boarded-up buildings and vacant lots of Newark. Neither parent attended college, but she was a star student. With a 2200 on her SATs, she expected to fit in at Harvard.

Yet here she was at a lecture for a sociology course called, paradoxically, “Poverty in America,” as a classmate opened her laptop and planned a multicountry spring break trip to Europe. (Ms. Barros can’t afford textbooks; she borrows from the library.) On the sidewalks of Cambridge, students brush past her in their $700 Canada Goose parkas and $1,000 Moncler puffer jackets. (Ms. Barros saved up for two years for good boots.)

Barros decided to “come out” as poor.  She now leads the two-year-old Harvard College First Generation Student Union. Similar groups have formed at Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Brown and the University of Chicago. In February, Brown’s 1vyG hosted the first Inter-Ivy First Generation Student Network Conference. Students came from as far away as Stanford and Pomona College.

Nationwide, about 20 percent of full-time students at four-year colleges and universities are the first in their families to enroll. Numbers are lower at Ivy League schools.

Campuses have designated first-gen administrators, bolstered mentoring programs and added articles about socioeconomics to faculty readings on diversity. Some are careful in assigning roommates. “In a double, we would not put a student not on aid with a student on full aid,” said Thomas Dingman, dean of freshmen at Harvard.

A fund was set up four years ago at Georgetown to cover classroom clickers, winter coats and, when dining halls are closed, grocery money. Low-income freshmen get bedding as a welcome gift (not a handout), said Melissa Foy, director of the Georgetown Scholarship Program, which oversees the fund. “Messaging is everything.” The program crafted a “Survival Guide” (how to access financial aid refunds, cheapest days for air travel), a “Cheat Sheet” for parents (what is a midterm?), and airport pickup and move-in help for those arriving alone. During a special orientation, freshmen rehearse conversations with roommates about chipping in for dorm furnishings.

My first year at Stanford, I had a very wealthy roommate who moved out. She may have flunked out. She was replaced by a Native American girl who was very poor and an orphan. She was the hardest working person I’d ever met. It was educational, at least for me.

I realized she had no money to go out for pizza, but wanted to socialize. So I got a classmate with a car — he was the one who organized outings — to bring pizza back to the dorm and hide the full cost.

The Boston Globe has a similar story quoting many of the same people.