Mastery Grading at Sequoyah
As most Sequoyah students know, we recently received the results of the Challenge Success survey that the majority of the student body took a few months ago. These results were largely positive and something to be celebrated. However, some questions were raised about changes that could be made at Sequoyah, igniting a discussion that will continue into the future. One change that is currently underway regards mastery grading.
This concept of mastery grading is one that has been frequently thrown around in casual discussions at Sequoyah over the past few school years, but is somewhat mischaracterized or misunderstood by many. So what is it, really?
Described by Daniel Yu of the Humanities Department as “a way of assessing a student’s mastery by simply looking at [the] mastery they’ve demonstrated over the course of the semester,” mastery grading is a system of grading that ditches the core concept of cumulative grading, where all of a student’s work is factored into their final grade. Instead, a student’s final grade is a reflection of the level of consistent mastery they’ve shown by the end of the course. Keep in mind, consistency doesn’t mean that everything has to be at the highest level to achieve a perfect grade, more so that a student can’t achieve a perfect grade from one, single impressive piece of work.
Sean Hamidi – also a teacher in the Humanities Department – explains mastery grading as a system grounded in two core concepts, one being an emphasis on skills, and the other an emphasis on improvement. In regards to the first concept, he shares that “Mastery based grading really zooms in and focuses specifically on those skills that the teacher wants to cultivate.”
As for the second concept, the emphasis on improvement, Hamidi outlines it as “Ideally, a teacher who’s taking a mastery-based approach would not penalize a student for not understanding something at the beginning of the semester, because they haven’t had much experience in that class at that point. So why would their later performance in a class be averaged or counted down because of something they didn’t understand? Beginning instead [with] an emphasis on mastery-based assessment recognizes the student’s ability and potential to continually improve in their mastery of those skills throughout the course of the semester. And the focus is on improvement over time rather than specific points or averages or punishing students for making mistakes, because ultimately mistakes are how we learn.”
Mastery-based grading has many benefits over the cumulative-based grading system currently used in the majority of classes at Sequoyah, as it highlights the core skills taught in the class, while giving students the ability to narrow their focus on those core skills. Hamidi says it’s more thoughtful and respectful too, saying that when a course starts, there should be no assumption that the student knows how to perfectly do the work. “At the beginning of the year, I think as educators, all we can ask is that students continually try to do better and that they learn from their mistakes, and so mastery-based grading gives students that opportunity.”
It’s also a potentially simpler and more sensible system. There are no elements like weighted percentages and no questions about the worth of any given assignment. Instead, teachers have the opportunity to tighten their focus on which assignments should be used to assess which learning outcomes.
It’s possibly a more equitable system as well. Yu emphasizes this, saying, “There are a lot of reasons why a student might bomb an assignment at some point in the semester. Things going on at home, things going on wherever, and with a points-based system that will hurt the student, whereas with mastery-based grading, the student is allowed to fail every once in a while, and failing is a part of learning, right?”
While these benefits may sound quite promising, a concern often voiced towards mastery grading is that it’s overly permissive, and may even encourage poor academic behavior and low effort. Joe Antos ’25 says that mastery grading could possibly promote only putting in full effort for a few, select assignments. While he says the system can help some students, he also feels as though “[for some] people it becomes a widespread thing where people can cheat the system. Then people will take advantage of that because as high school students, we want to have [the best] grades possible” with the least amount of effort and that “makes people inefficient workers.”
However, some students have different points of view on these issues. Of the idea that under mastery grading a student might not have their grade affected by an individual bombed assignment, Tingri Monahan ’24 says “I think that’s okay. I mean, I think there every now and then people should be allowed to slack off, you know, life’s hard. I think it should be okay to not have to do the best on every single [assignment].” She also notes that your final grade isn’t solely decided by an individual stellar project, and that “I think that if you’re slacking off in general in the class that will reflect in your grade.”
Yu and Hamidi also have viewpoints on the potential permissiveness of mastery grading. “I think to an extent, mastery grading does allow for that kind of behavior,” Hamidi says. However, he also explains that he designs his courses in such a way where in-class activities, readings, and homework all prepare students for whatever work comes after, therefore by slacking off until late moments to demonstrate mastery, that student wouldn’t have had the opportunities to build the skills being assessed, nor an opportunity to receive feedback relevant to their true level of skill is in the course. Yu shares about a student’s final grade under the mastery grading system, saying “It’s a reflection of the skills that you’ve developed and everything that you’ve built up over the semester.”
Hamidi also mentions that as a teacher, he’s looking for consistency. “What we’re looking for is consistent mastery. So what does that look like? I think it means you can’t bomb all semester and then turn in a dope final project and expect me to believe that that is your level of mastery because there’s no consistency there. You haven’t been able to do it more than once. Is it possible that somebody doesn’t do anything and then for the last three weeks, they turn in impeccable work? Theoretically possible. I’ve never seen it. And if somebody does do that, there’s probably a really interesting story behind it that’s worth learning more about.”
While there are many differing viewpoints on mastery grading, there is still a question of what solutions could address peoples’ concerns. Hamidi has two thoughts on this, one being a possible middle ground, and the other being a more philosophical question about education. He says a middle ground could look something like implementing concepts such as threshold assignments, an idea first proposed by fellow Humanities teacher Hannah Karmin. These threshold assignments could function by placing down core requirements to receive a certain grade. For example, if a student doesn’t turn in one out of three threshold assignments, the maximum possible grade they could receive in that class would drop by one grade point, from a four to a three. If they then miss another one of these assignments, that number would lower to two. This could serve as a way to implement basic standards to excel in a course, while still allowing the course to operate on mastery principles. Hamidi also hopes to emphasize firmness with this concept and “[create] some boundaries, while also allowing for students to have a rough week or a missing assignment here and there without feeling like their semester is irreparably harmed.”
For Hamidi’s philosophical point, he raises a question. Should we design our systems of education around “edge cases [and] around these kinds of negative behaviors that we think will happen regardless of the systems we put in place?… Just because I think some students who can afford to buy lunch might abuse a free lunch system, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a free lunch system, right? And so I think just because some students might potentially abuse the permissiveness of a system, it doesn’t mean that the permissiveness itself is wrong. Essentially, students’ brains are still developing, so there’s always going to be issues with procrastination, and so we shouldn’t design a whole system – a whole philosophy of learning – around that dilemma…There are more positive, inspiring, motivating principles that should inform how we design our system of education and assessment.”
Hamidi makes a final point, giving some food for thought by saying, “I think there is an important tension in the way that we are thinking about mastery-based grading, compassion and enabling. And I’m really torn about this as an educator. It’s tough. I think it’s something we’re working through as a school…We want to be compassionate and we want students to have opportunities to make mistakes and do better, but we also know that students, like adults, like everybody, need boundaries in order to feel safe and supported. So it’s something that I think we need to think through and that we need to develop a culture and a better policy around how we approach that.”