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.

We All Need Grace: The Case Against Zero’s

If you ever want a lively educational debate, ask a teacher or administrator about his or her grading system for missing or late work.  What is your policy? Based on survey data, teachers and principals frequently believe it is ethical and appropriate to give zeros for missing or late work (Green, Johnson, Kim, & Pope, 2007; Johnson, Green, Kim, & Pope, 2008). Often we believe by applying such a penalty, we are teaching students to be responsible citizens.

I understand; there are times that deadlines REALLY matter. In my world, applying for a conference presentation, applying for grant funding, and getting test scores back to teachers on time are all examples of non-negotiable deadlines! But what if applying a penalty in the classroom creates more problems than it solves?

The Penalty Problem for the Teacher

Johnson, Green, Kim, and Pope (2008) argued that educators who modify grades based on late or missing work do not accurately measure or communicate the student’s level of mastery of learning targets. In such a situation we conflate a behavior (or executive function deficit) with achievement. Giving the student a zero for late or missing work makes it impossible for the teacher to determine what the student independently knows because there is no evidence of student performance on a learning target. When a zero is averaged into the class mean or the student’s mean to make instructional adaption decisions, the data we use for decision making is flawed. Flawed data hinders robust instructional decision making. Flawed data does not tell us how well the student is learning the state standards.

While we should not center our focus solely on our own teacher effectiveness measure, we might consider that student achievement measures are a component of Student Learning Objective (SLO) systems. SLOs are centered in teachers providing opportunities for student growth in achievement. Allowing students to miss an assignment and take a zero consequently means we are allowing a student to miss mastering foundational precursor content and skills that need to be leveraged in upcoming units. If this is not true, then why require the work? Allowing students to miss an assignment does not help students grow.

The Penalty Problem for the Student

In talking with a group of fifth-grade teachers recently, I asked them why they had moved away from giving students zeros for missing assignments.  Here is what they said,

“We want students to learn.”

“Some kids care about their grades and others don’t. They need to do the assignments.”

Research evidence supports both these teachers’ observations and their practice. High performing students tend to focus on grades because they don’t want to fail. Often their grade confirms their own self-image of “smart.” However, grades can have the opposite effect for students who struggle.

The use of penalty grading (which includes zeros for late or missing work) may contribute to students falling behind. Assessment is a learning opportunity as well as a measure of learning. Assessment helps students move information into their long-term memory for transfer. Students in earlier stages of learning, who are already frustrated and struggling, have almost no way to recover from a zero. It makes it easier to give up. These students (and all students) need models of perseverance. When we set high expectations and insist that students must submit their assignments and learn we show all students are valued. So, what should we do with missing or late work? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Have a documented policy on the treatment of missing and late work to support clarity of expectations.
  2. Separate the behavior from the assessment of learning. Place a zero in the gradebook for the missing work, initially. Accept and grade the assignment until the non-negotiable deadline (e.g., grades are due) has been reached. Find a behavior modification tool that works for you and the student. For example, if your school uses lunch detention, consider giving lunch detention for missing your deadline. If the student has a parent who will withhold the “all powerful video game console,” send an email.
  3.  Develop a checklist of all assignments to be graded at the beginning of the nine weeks. Make sure students have it in their binder. Hold a learning conference with students as needed to review what is missing and to support the student in getting it turned in.
  4.  Allow students to resubmit assignments during a make-up window. Ask that each resubmission also include a reflection on what mistakes were made originally and how those mistakes have been corrected. If you feel students are abusing the make up policy, you can always constrain this to students who do not have a B or higher (because B’s or higher are essential to moving on).

It is Not Always Just Kids

No one is more focused on grades than teachers and administrators in their own graduate school courses, especially in a classroom assessment class! And guess what? Teachers and administrators turn in assignments late too. At the end of the day, we all need grace. You, me, and our students.


Green, S., Johnson, R., Kim, D, & Pope, N. (2007).  Ethics in classroom assessment practices: Issues and attitudes. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23(7), 999-1011.

Johnson, R., Green, S., Kim, D., & Pope, N. (2008).  Educational leaders’ perceptions about ethical assessment practices.  The American Journal of Evaluation, 29(4), 520-530.

Rubric Descriptors that Support Student Growth: Focus on Feedback and Action

Rubrics, a common classroom and high stakes tool to measure student learning, tend to describe desired performance qualities of student work on the right and deficits on the left. Oftentimes, rubric developers attempt to quantify student errors by counting or using descriptors such as “numerous,” “frequent,” or “many.” Often such descriptors target the lowest scoring students on the rubric. We often think about rubrics describing the low performers on the left-hand side and the high-achievers on the right-hand side. What if we flipped our perspective?

Students who we often classify as low achieving are typically in earlier stages of content understanding than their peers. The tools these students use to respond to grade level content are often less sophisticated because they have not yet mastered earlier essential skills. If we recognize that there are common performance characteristics of students in earlier stages of learning verses more advanced stages of learning on a topic, we have an opportunity to recognize what students are doing correctly, support their growth through additional practice opportunities that give them credit for rework, and activate them as learners rather than implicitly labeling them as lacking.

The potential for adverse impact

My proposition is that the rubric language we use centered in what students cannot do harms both students and teachers. It harms our students in more novice learning stages by messaging, “You can do almost nothing that is of value to me (the teacher).” This language likely unintentionally shames and shuts down students in their learning. Often students in earlier stages of learning need support in persevering so they can master the content. They need more guided practice, and they need more success. Moving from “many” errors to “some errors” does not provide the student feedback on what to do next, other than fail less. What if we described what succeeding more looks like?

Rubric language centered in a deficit model harms teachers. It misdirects our own cognitive task. When we look at student work, our first question always needs to be, “What does this work show the student CAN do correctly?” We need to compare the context of when a child is successful in the skill verses not. For example, when does the child use a period and when does she not? Often students in third grade are still in early stages of writing development. They may place periods after simple sentences, but when they write a compound or complex sentence, their sentence boundaries become undefined. This often happens as students begin to share more complex ideas. If we don’t look at when students are successful, we miss the why. We miss the next instructional steps: (a) encourage the complexity and (b) handle the sentence boundaries and other such issues at a later revision step.

Building an Actionable Pathway to Mastery

Rubrics should be an actionable feedback pathway from the teacher to the student towards a clearly defined learning goal. Such an approach describes where a student is in their learning and likely next actions the student should take to improve. If rubrics are used as an actionable pathway to mastery, they can become powerful tools of instruction. Describing a pathway to mastery centered in CAN, with an expectation of revision, creates opportunities for students to be successful in moving towards the learning target. We honor where the student is in his learning. We honor that students learn at different rates. We foster a student’s agency in her education by allowing her an opportunity to revise and advance.

Most students (novice and advanced students alike) need opportunities to practice the habits and characteristics of work at the mastery level and beyond in order to internalize and automate those desired skills. Too often we frame and evaluate opportunities to learn from a classroom summative context, forgetting that practicing those harder skills is what fosters growth. Allowing students to revise for mastery supports removing shame from unsuccessful attempts, inspires perseverance, and fosters a culture in which making mistakes is part of learning. It also allows learning not to be a race at the pace set by the teacher. When we create a rubric based on a feedback model of what the student can do and likely next steps to move up on the pathway, we do several things. First, the process of using such rubrics and examples of student work allows us to model the success criteria. Second, we help students become experts in their own learning. They may self-assess and observe the successive learning targets they must meet to get to mastery. Finally, we demonstrate for students how to be successful. Not only is this good formative assessment practice, it is also a hallmark of high-quality instruction.

Creation Steps

Consider this target: “Grade 6 band students will improvise an 8-measure duple rhythm pattern in the same tempo as the prompt on their instrument.” This is often done in a call and response context. What evidence do you need to hear to draw a conclusion that a student can do this?

1: Document the specific qualities of performance you want to hear. Avoid words such “bad” or “good” to describe student work and avoid counting based descriptors such as “many, frequent, and sometimes.” In my example, the goal is to elicit a student-improvised, eight-beat rhythm pattern that is different from the prompt while maintaining the prompt context —the same tempo, meter, and types of rhythm patterns. I expect to hear students respond to the prompt on their instrument using any combination of sixteenth notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, half notes, and corresponding rests because this has been the focus of instruction. I expect students to begin their response on the downbeat following the 8-measure prompt and to be a complete musical thought with a beginning, middle, and an end.

2. Brainstorm the types of performances that you expect to hear of students in earlier stages of learning.

When developing my pathway, I consider what students in earlier stages of rhythm development might do. They might:

• repeat the teacher-delivered phrase with consistent tempo, and some will do so with inconsistent tempo.

• perform a pattern with a tempo and meter that changes so rapidly, the I cannot establish a context for the performance to give back a response.

• not feel the phrase as a beginning, middle, and end and will therefore play less than or more than eight beats which does not lead to a sense of finality.

• perform a phrase as a beginning, middle, and end with an established tempo in the beginning but rush near the end.

3. Brainstorm the types of performances that you expect to hear of students in more advanced stages of learning.

A more advanced student might perform a different eight-beat pattern at the same consistent tempo and meter as the prompt, have a clear beginning, middle, and end, and incorporate rhythms that are traditionally more difficult such as a dotted eighth-sixteenth note.

4. Sequence what you have brainstormed regarding what students CAN do from earlier stages of learning to more advanced.

As I sort and sequence my brainstorming, I often notice gaps in my descriptions. I develop other levels of performance, I edit, I iterate. I also investigate theories of how students learn a particular concept and corresponding research evidence. This type of practice informs how to sequence features of student growth. You want your pathway to mastery to include important waypoints along the continuum (scale) of learning, and you want to write the rubric to the students.

5. Informally try out your pathway to mastery rubric with your students during instruction using a different instructional prompt that has similar characteristics as your assessment prompt. With music you want to record student improvisations so your class can co-develop and refine the rubric with you. In writing or in mathematics, for example, these responses can be captured digitally or on paper. Sharing student work (without students knowing who) during this rubric refinement time allows students to analyze what they did correctly. It allows you to provide feedback to the class for each stage. For example, if some students are rushing the last few beats would working with a metronome support the student? Do they rush or slow down on sixteenth notes because they are working to coordinate their tonguing with what they hear in their heads? Would practicing tonguing sixteenth-note and eight-note patterns support them? Should more advanced students be introduced to learning a more advanced rhythm? As you listen to performances together, explicitly match the stage of learning to your pathway. Brainstorm with students what the next action might be. This reinforces the notion that everyone in the class has more to learn. Ensure you add the feedback in your rubric.

Here is an example descriptor based on the stage where I identified the student might not feel the phrase as having a beginning, middle, and end and will therefore play less than or more than eight beats which does not lead to a sense of finality.

Descriptor: You performed a different pattern than the prompt using a combination of sixteenth notes, eighth notes, quarter notes, and half notes. Your pattern had a beginning and a middle, but because you used fewer than or more than 8 beats, you want to listen to your recording and count how many beats your improvisation had. Practice having the rhythmic motion of your response leading to a sense of closure at the end of the eight-beats. Listen to call and response sample performances.

The connection to the literature on feedback

The pathway to mastery rubric that I am describing commingles the purposes of a rubric to measure student learning with practices of effective feedback. This approach provides students information on how to move towards mastering the learning target (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). It reinforces the criteria for success by documenting what students did correctly and provides suggested follow-up actions.

When you are ready to administer your assessment prompt record the student response. Match the performance to the pathway. Return both the pathway to mastery rubric and the recording to the student. The students can connect the criteria and the processes to their own work, they can work to refine, and they can return to try again. You, in the meantime, have the opportunity to move on in instruction, if you would like. In my own classroom, I allowed additional attempt opportunities before school, after school, and on preset Fridays during the month. Using such an approach fosters a culture that privileges self-regulation. Students can choose to bank their grade or work to master the learning target. The key is to be open to changing students grades as they move up the pathway to mastery rubric (and with an improvisation, you want their rhythm pattern to be different and improved upon follow up).

Flipping our perspective and creation of rubrics from a deficit model of assessment to formative model of assessment helps us recognize students who are in earlier stages of content understanding. This in turn helps us understand why students need more opportunities to revise, and what students likely need to learn next. If we want students to grow in their knowledge and skills we have to honor what they know and can do. We have to give them multiple opportunities to meet the success criteria and recognize there is continuum of readiness for tasks in our class. That continuum effects how long it may take a student to master the learning target. We may assess less under this model by focusing on big ideas, and we might instruct more because we are flipping assessment tasks into instructional opportunities. This process also means we need high quality, engaging tasks for students. We also need to reconceptualize ourselves as coach. This is a transition from more traditional grading practices (which I will address in my next blog), that allow students to be left behind, to more modern ones that move students forward. I know. This is easier said than done, but isn’t the outcome worth it?

Mastery verses Proficiency: Connecting the Two to Serve Students

Do you ever wonder if mastery of standards is the same thing as proficiency in state standards? This is the question I have been thinking about today. Defining similar words that have distinct connotations is important.  I often collaborate with teachers in different states to help define what “proficient” or “college-and-career ready” standards-based thinking looks like (I will use the term proficiency here). In this context, proficiency has a strong summative meaning about the expectation for what students cumulatively should know and be able to do by the end of the year. During these conversations, I often hear teachers and instructional leaders discuss mastery of each standard.  While the two are related, they may not be interchangeable. Here is why.


Guskey (2010) writes that mastery learning (sometimes called standards-based or competency-based grading these days) is centered in the belief that students earn a grade based on achieving mastery. He writes students who need multiple opportunities to master the learning target deserve the same grade as those who mastered the learning target faster (yes!). To be related to proficiency, mastering a standard should mean that a student is successful in answering the less complex to more complex parts of the standard correctly.

Many standards have multiple parts. Thinking about how those separate pieces increase in sophistication is important. If the mastery expectation is set too low, a mastery approach in the classroom may not help move students to proficiency.

This Common Core standard is a great example:

“Solve real world and mathematical problems involving perimeters of polygons, including finding the perimeter given the side lengths, finding an unknown side length, and exhibiting rectangles with the same perimeter and different areas or with the same area and different perimeters.”

Questions to ask:

How might the learning targets inside this standard be sequenced to discover what mastery of the standard represents?

Are solving real world problems more or less difficult than mathematical ones? Should we use mathematical problems as a mastery demonstration of the standard or is this a precursor learning target to real world problem solving?

Is finding the perimeter given the side lengths the mastery point? Is it finding an unknown side length? How about exhibiting rectangles with the same perimeter and different areas in a word problem?

How does this standard fuse in and support the idea of mastery?

“Use multiplication and division within 100 to solve word problems in situations involving equal groups, arrays, and measurement quantities, e.g., by using drawings and equations with a symbol for the unknown number to represent the problem.”

Should students be exhibiting rectangles with the same perimeter and different areas using easier math facts or more difficult math facts?

How might this mathematical practice be fused in and support the idea of mastery?

“Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.”

Should students be proving two different rectangles with same area can have different perimeters?

If you are tracking standard by standard, you might have conversations with other teachers about the level of rigor you expect regarding what students can do for mastery, and you might consider investigating what students are answering correctly: is it the less complex or more complex parts of the standard, with or without an associated mathematical practice?

Wiggins (2013/2014) is critical of dividing the parts of the whole for fear we will not present students with cognitively challenging opportunities to transfer what was learned to novel contexts. We might “dumb down” what mastery should represent. He defined mastery this way:

“Mastery is effective transfer of learning in authentic and worthy performance. Students have mastered a subject when they are fluent, even creative, in using their knowledge, skills, and understanding in key performance challenges and contexts at the heart of that subject, as measured against valid and high standards. “

Wiggins (2013/14) defined mastery in much the same way teachers define proficiency on state assessments. He is also alluding to the need for performance tasks, from my perspective. The key concept here is that “that you can draw on a repertoire of skills and knowledge effectively.”

Enter Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, (2015) who have been investigating how to support students in retaining previously learned skills as well as show transfer of them.  If you are a mathematics teacher, you may find this article useful!

Following the ideas of Rohrer, Dedrick, and Stershic, mastery of a standard may mean a student can choose a correct strategy for a problem and respond correctly when it is not obvious which strategy is needed. This may preclude a unit test from being the point at which mastery is measured.


Proficiency means children are independent thinkers, problem solvers, and managers of complexity in the content or course we are teaching by the end of the year. Because they are thinkers and problem solvers, they are INDEPENDENTLY transferring their learning to new situations we have not necessarily explicitly taught. While students may have mastered content for a specific unit, when they are tested on a unit (e.g., multiplication) they do not have to problem solve which procedure to use. It is for this reason that is critical to model thinking and problem solving for students where they have to make decisions on how to enter a problem (which operation should I use?).  

As part of high-quality instruction, we have to give students opportunities to generalize and use skills outside of the unit of instruction to see if they retain what they have learned across time and use those skills as precursor skills for more difficult standards. Studying different models of cognition (higher order thinking skills) is critical to recognizing where students are in their learning as well as fostering their growth and development. Mastering a standard at a particular depth of complexity is different from integrating across standards to think through authentic problems. This is why it is so important to purposefully find places in your curriculum where you are layering in more complex tasks that require students to extend their thinking. I argue performance tasks are often the best tools for these purposeful increases in complexity that grow across the year.

In conclusion, mastery of content and skills in isolation may be an important precursor to proficiency, but it is likely different than being proficient in the state standards. The more standards that are mastered makes it more likely a child will be proficient, but this depends on when you are measuring mastery and how you are conceptualizing it. Standards really do not function in isolation, they are parts of a whole. Being proficient means students are handing easier and more difficult content from multiple standards and using higher order thinking skills at the same time. It does not mean students are perfect. But it does mean there is strong evidence that they are synthesizing information and authentically thinking in the discipline being measured.

I hope that you engage in these conversations with your fellow teachers, because they are critical for helping us make our classroom assessments actionable!

Guskey. T. (2010). Lessons of Mastery Learning.  Educational Leadership, 68(2), 52-57 Retrieved from

Rohrer, Dedrick, & Stershic, (2015). Interleaved practice improves mathematics learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 900–908.

Wiggins. G. (2013/14). How Good is Good Enough? Educational Leadership, 74(4), pp. 10-16. Retrieved from

Let’s Rethink the Purpose of Student Learning Objectives

The true purpose of SLOs are to develop and dynamically adjust individualized learning plans for each student!

It is the beginning of a new school year. For many teachers, a new school year is like a second, “New Year’s Eve.” We make resolutions to try new technology, practice new mindsets, or implement ideas we learned from summer professional development. And we plan. It is always exciting! A new school year also means many teachers are developing or refreshing their SLO objective for the year. And while SLOs are often considered a teacher effectiveness measure, I think we need to reframe their purpose.

SLOs are about student learning. SLOs are a process to help us recognize students who are in different stages of learning. SLO templates are a tool to help us plan how we support differentiated instructional actions. SLO procedures require that we interpret student work in our classroom. The SLO process is a living process. It asks us to use different types of evidence to help us analyze student thinking in the content area and to adjust learning plans for each student!

Eight teachers are sitting in school desks with cups of coffee and computers having a planning discussion.
Teachers planning” by All4Ed is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Individualized student learning plans mean that throughout the year we understand where students are at any point and what students need next. This also means we may have to be prepared for students who enter the classroom who are not ready for the curriculum for the grade or students who may have already mastered much of what we plan to teach. The SLO process can help us think about what student growth throughout the year means for each student.

What is your plan for supporting each student on their upcoming journey?

Here are some ideas for getting started:

  1. Sequence and connect the standards you will teach throughout the year. Map where your curriculum reviews content from previous grades and touches below grade standards. Where does your curriculum intersect with standards from the above adjacent grade? Some standards are precursors to others. When you can see a map of the standards sequenced on your curriculum, you can then place students along that map at the beginning of the year using evidence. This can be a way to help you identify where and what in your curriculum your students are ready to learn!
  2. Engage students in authentic demonstrations of their thinking and learning as often as possible. Authentic demonstrations provide the best evidence of the student’s present level of performance, and they allow you to witness student thinking in action. This likely means use fewer multiple-choice items and more constructed-response items. Constructed-response items provide much richer information about what students are thinking and why. They are better assessment tools to use for interpreting student work and placing the student on your standards and curriculum map.
  3. Focus on interpreting student work rather than grading it. Interpreting student work means asking, “What knowledge and skills is this student demonstrating?” Rather than counting the number of items a student answered correctly, annotate what you infer a student CAN do based on what she or he answered correctly. When you focus on what students can do, you find the beginning of their instructional path. Knowing where a student is now allows you to ask the question, “What does this student need next?” It also allows you to map the student onto your standards and curriculum map!
  4. Take a small step forward in adapting to students. Students have different learning rates, and homework can be a place to dip your toe into how to adjust to student needs. Homework can be a place to provide some students with more practice and to provide other students some additional sources of challenge.

The true purpose of SLOs are to develop and dynamically adjust individualized learning plans for each student!

When we treat SLOs as a formative assessment process, we support and empower teachers in determining where each student is currently, what each student needs next, and we have begun the journey of moving to personalized learning. When we identify the needs of each student, instructional teams can have conversations about the tools they need in the classroom. Let’s stop considering SLOs as a teacher effectiveness measure. Let’s implement SLOs to support the teaching and learning of all students.