Mastery Progressions and Competency Determinations During COVID-19: A Local Lens

On March 30, 2020, the South Carolina Department of Education released their memorandum, “COVID-19 Grade Reporting Guidance.” The guidance, from my perspective, encourages districts and teachers to implement mastery learning by allowing students opportunities to revise and resubmit work to increase their grade.

Here is the key phrase I believe is central to the department’s implied expectation of formative practice.

  • Students should have an opportunity to demonstrate mastery to improve a course grade.

Here is the key phrase I believe that makes it important to think in progressions.

  • The semester grade should be composed of all third quarter grades, as well as those grades deemed appropriate by the district to assure competency or provide remediation.

In other words, districts and teachers are being asked to consider and have conversations centered in determining the most important and high leverage skills students will need to be successful in the next grade. The setting up of a structure to support these conversations includes

  1. a mindset that grades can encourage learning when they are changeable by a student who closes the learning gap from where they are now to where we want them to be. I write about that mindset here.
  2. deep conversations between adjacent grade level teams, within and across buildings. Does the competency requirement mean the student should have sufficient knowledge, skills, and abilities to be ready for success in the next grade or the students should have sufficient knowledge, skills, and abilities to access the expectations for the next grade?
  3. Developing a process to determine which grades are appropriate to assure the policy definition of competency.
  4. Ensuring everyone has a strong understanding of mastery learning concepts.

This structure and these conversations are not only critical in this moment and hour. These conversations will be essential to help teachers and students be successful when students return to their learning communities forever changed by this moment in history.

The equity of opportunities to learn right now are staggeringly different depending on life circumstances. The opportunity to learn depends on access to the internet, devices, and tools that give students access to instruction. The opportunity to learn depends on having significant supports at home. We have children’s parents working on the front lines in the health care industry and restocking our grocery stores, each with potentially limited time to support their child’s learning at home. Students will come back to their learning community (brick and mortar or virtual) next year with dramatic differences in readiness to learn their grade level content. I believe thinking about the structure for mastery and competency for this year and next year is essential to help us move forward. We need a plan of how to move forward as a learning community that supports all students. We need to recognize how hard teachers are working and how much they care. We need to work together.

Digging into the Work Ahead

Defining progressions of mastery and a determination of competency across a set of high leverage big ideas in the grade is critical. Now and next year we must prioritize what is being taught to allow kids the best chance to get back on track in their learning. We need to sequence not all standards but the most important, high leverage standards. We need to focus on the standards most related to proficiency. Here is an example of a teacher already engaged in progressions and showing what demonstrations of learning look like through student work.

Mastery is the successful demonstration of a learning target, that is, mastering a single stage of a progression. Thus, from the example progression of student work, a student has mastered stage one when you are able to match the evidence of student work to the progression example.  Proficiency is the stage of the progression in which the student has integrated multiple, important standards. In this example, proficiency would be stage 4. Competency on the major work of the grade is a policy determination regarding whether the student has shown sufficient, developmentally appropriate evidence of learning across multiple progressions (e.g., reading and writing) to be ready for the next grade.  Note, the critical importance of policy and content in this discussion. The student may not be proficient in all progressions or in any progression, but he or she may still be ready to move to the next grade with sufficient skills to access and catch up. Thus, competency in this context has a specific meaning to our current situation. The definition has to be set through informed educational policy.

How to we begin?

The following example is an adaption of text from Chapter 2 of my book with Robert Johnson. I will also provide links to other examples that were developed with support from NWEA and my colleagues there that help show examples of the work to be done. To begin, teachers might optimally come together and identify standards related to a high leverage learning goal called a big idea. While this can be done individually by teacher, it is better when teachers collaborate and confirm their thinking with each other in grade-level groups and with teachers in the next higher adjacent grade. In our current situation, I suggest having lead teachers work with district staff as a team or in grade-level teams within a school for the big idea and progression development. Then administrators can roll out a consistent process to guide everyone in applying and syncing their locally delivered assignments and assessments to the progressions. These progressions mean teachers still have control of their assignments and where they are in instruction. These progressions also mean we have a common definition applied equally across a district or school.

Here is an example big idea: Grade 3 students will use digital sources and multiple texts to gather information and write their own informational text on a personal choice topic.

Notice when looking at the bulleted standards below that gathering information encompasses clusters of related standards.

The use of listening and reading standards is purposeful. It is also critical when students may not have access to all their needed accommodations or adult supports in our new virtual learning environment. Listening to content on an informational topic before reading text about that topic can build readiness for students to decode more advanced vocabulary. It also allows students who are in earlier stages of reading development to acquire sufficient content knowledge to engage in the coming writing task which is the ultimate focus of this big idea. (I am working from the framework we have to get devices and internet to all kids some how as a lesson from COVID-19).

Students use the content information when writing. Teachers use the student’s abilities to write main ideas with supporting details and the student’s organization of ideas as evidence to draw a conclusion that the student is able to gather information and write an informational text. Thus, if we want to think about a progression we have to sequence standards that build to our proficiency goal for the big idea. Here is the example sequence for the Grade 3 big idea.

  • “Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.”
  • “Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea.”
  • “Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).”
  • “Compare and contrast the most important points and key details presented in two texts on the same topic.”
  • “Describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect”
  • “Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.”
    • Introduce a topic and group related information together; include illustrations when useful to aiding comprehension.
    • Develop the topic with facts, definitions, and details.
    • Use linking words and phrases (e.g., also, another, and, more, but) to connect ideas within categories of information.
    • Provide a concluding statement or section.
    • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

What does this help us see?

Notice when we sequence and connect the standards in this way, we also are illuminating key differences in expectations of student thinking in earlier and more advance stages of learning. You can begin to see a trajectory of instructional tasks that move students forward. You can see that students could choose topics of interest so the work is meaningful. You can see some standards are precursors to others.

In our example, the first three standards become precursor skills to comparing and contrasting. And these comparison skills are central to understanding and analyzing sequence and cause/effect in texts or about topics which influence the child’s ability to describe (and more importantly infer) relationships in a series of historical events, scientific ideas, or concepts. Finally, you can see a path which could include student choice on topics related to what student needs to learn in science and social studies.

As students are closer to being near the proficient stage on a progression, you can begin to see that they also have the readiness to integrate across content areas. As teachers, we can begin to see how we might become more efficient in compacting the curriculum that is the major work for the grade if we build strategic instructional and assessment tasks. The creation of progressions (also called pathways or trajectories by some) and associated rubrics that move students forward and allow students the opportunities to revise and resubmit is critical. But it also takes SIGNIFICANT time and planning. We need to work together, help each other, and figure out a reasonable, fair process for this year and next.

When I do this work with teachers, I see teachers being brilliant in different, but equally effective ways. Some groups of teachers like to copy and paste standards together electronically (I suggest working together in Google Docs which makes this easy to do in a virtual conference call). Some like to literally print out and cut up state standards and put them together like a jig saw puzzle.

  • What is critical is the organizing and documenting of the sequence that helps you think about how skills develop and accumulate across a year.
  • What is important is thinking about which standards (or sets of standards) may represent interpretations of proficiency. In each content area, identifying three to four big ideas and developing associated progression stages for them can cover many of the standards. Prioritize. We won’t hit everything.
  • What is essential is looking at assignments and student work from assignments, and matching them to the progression stages.  Why?

This is a way to determine which assignment grades are optimal and appropriate to assure competency or suggest remediation is needed.

The competency determination

The competency determination has two parts:

  1. First, decide which stage of each the progression students should reach to be ready for the next grade based on the district’s definition of competency.
  2. Second, look across the progressions and determining what is reasonable.

If a compensatory decision model is created, the stage at which a student is located for each progression could be combined in such a way that mastering a stage at a higher level for one progression could balance end of year mastery of a lower stage of a different progression. Such a decision model acknowledges that students may master progressions at different rates or focus on one progression more than another in the current learning environment. We need to consider some students will be working independently with little adult support. I hope the process I have described can be useful to you in refining and prioritizing what you really need students to know by the end of the year. You might also be thinking that having a worksheet outlining the process might be useful, and if so, I am happy to provide you some electronic documents.  This takes time but school does not end until June. This structure and process can be refined over the summer to facilitate and expedite helping students catch up in the fall.

And on behalf of myself and my family, thank you educators for all you are doing.

Note: While I was employed from 2002-06 by the SCDOE, I do not represent the department. These thoughts are my personal interpretations of the guidance and my personal, professional suggestions.






One response to “Mastery Progressions and Competency Determinations During COVID-19: A Local Lens”

  1. Jennifer McDonel Avatar
    Jennifer McDonel

    Thank you for this clear, compelling model. I had been thinking, “What do my college methods students absolutely need to be successful moving forward?” And, “How can I essentialize my content to give them what they need during this sudden switch to online learning?” This article reinforces the decisions I made on paring down assignments and giving multiple attempts to students to demonstrate competency in critical teaching skills!

    Liked by 1 person

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