What is Mastery Based Grading?

by | Jun 12, 2018 | Teaching Strategies | 0 comments

Please also make sure to check out the rest of the “Mastery Based Grading” series

  1. What is Mastery Based Grading
  2. How to Grade for Mastery in Standards Based Learning
  3. Facilitated vs Directed Learning
  4. Differentiated Instruction with Mastery Grading

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Grading for mastery is slowly gaining momentum in education, also called standards-based grading or proficiency grading. What exactly is mastery-based learning (or mastery-based grading)? How is it determined and structured? What is the difference between compliance activities and mastery activities? By the end of this post, you will be able to answer all of these questions.

What exactly is grading for mastery?

The focus of Mastery Based Grading is a student’s mastery of standards, skills, or objectives. A student’s overall grade is based on his or her mastery of those elements.

Mastery-Based Grading promotes more efficient use of teacher time while increasing student engagement in the assessment process. Standards-Based grading only grades summative assessments and some formative assessments – those in which a student’s level of mastery (or proficiency) may realistically be measured.

How are grades determined in Mastery Based Grading?

Standards-based grading can be broken into its two basic parts: compliance and mastery. Compliance is what teachers need from students during the learning process: attention to lessons, participation in practice activities, completion of this practice in a timely manner. Mastery is the formative or summative assessment that measures the level of proficiency a student has achieved.

Compliance Activities

In Mastery Based Grading, compliance activities are never graded. They are the practice students need to complete in order to develop the stated learning objective.

Compliance activities should be checked (how to score for mastery) for completion and reviewed with the class. The students are responsible for correcting their own work and asking questions about errors (metacognition development). The teacher uses class time to focus on specific student needs instead of reviewing the entire practice activity.

By receiving immediate feedback, students are better able to correct their misunderstandings. In addition, the class will have more time to spend on the next lesson’s objectives because less time will be needed to manage student behavior – because more students will be on-task.

Mastery Assessments

As student’s level of proficiency is demonstrated with Mastery assessments (activities). These assessments should be limited in time and number. Teachers use these assessments to determine whether or not the class has demonstrated enough mastery to move on to the next objective or if it needs to be retaught.

Mastery assessments should not have the option to be retaken or corrected for a higher grade. Students should understand that these activities demonstrate their comprehension of the learning objectives. In order to have all students take assessments seriously, there needs to be a certain amount of pressure on students to be successful. In addition, as students participate in more review, retakes should become unnecessary as teachers can review concepts that continue to confuse students.

How does compliance encourage student engagement?

Compliance Assessment (or “Scoring” – How to score for mastery) occurs during the formative aspects of a lesson or unit. The single most important element of student success is engagement. Students who are engaged in the learning process earn higher levels of achievement on summative assessments. Scoring is a critical to increasing student engagement.

Assignments and activities students must complete to develop new skills are too often graded instead of scored. For example, a math teacher might present a lesson and have students attempt a few problems as classwork, then assign a larger number of problems to be completed as homework. The next day this homework is collected and graded by the teacher. Some students receive failing grades because they had not yet mastered the learning objective.

This practice creates student disengagement. If a student might earn an F for attempting the practice, a struggling student will simply opt not to do the practice at all. Why complete the homework if they might fail anyway?

Mastery Based Scoring and Assessing

Scoring for completion eliminates this disengagement. Instead of receiving a grade on formative assessments, the student now receives points for simply attempting it. This practice work will not be weighted very heavily – perhaps only a 2/2 for all problems complete or 1/2 for the practice partially done. However, scoring for compliance rewards students for attempting a new skill instead of punishing them for misunderstanding it.

During review, the teacher is responsible for providing students with an answer key for self-assessment at the beginning of the next class period (or after in-class work time). The teacher also needs to give students feedback on the questions they have about the work. The goal for practice work is student self-assessment and peer review, both of which encourage student engagement and reduce students’ fear of failure during the learning process.

These formative activities should be limited to a few practice problems that are focused on the learning objectives. This allows the class to quickly review them in 10 – 15 minutes and focus on specific student questions.

The more engagement a teacher encourages, the higher the rate of compliance in completing work and behavior will be in his or her classroom. Scoring formative assessments instead of grading it will increase students’ engagement.



How can teachers assess student learning with mastery based grading?

Mastery Based Grading is critical for both the teacher’s evaluation of his or her practices and also for the students to see their own progress.

Grading must occur on assessments that measure the outcome of a lesson or unit. These summative assessments should only be given one time. Students who know they may retake or correct a summative assessment are not pressured to produce their best work on their first attempt.

Limiting the number of attempts on graded assessments also teaches consequences for student choices. Those students who engage in the compliance portion of a unit tend to have better results on the mastery portion of the assessments – because they have engaged in the practice.


Mastery Based Grading focuses on the level of proficiency achieved rather than the accumulation of points to determine a student’s achievement. Compliance activities are part of the learning process and should be scored instead of graded. This allows students to learn self-corrective (metacognitive) skills. Mastery assessments should be administered one time in order to gain an accurate evaluation of student proficiency levels.

Neither compliance nor mastery assessment alone will create the classroom environment necessary to promote student growth and achievement. Only a balance between the two can effectively create an emphasis on the metacognitive learning necessary for students to participate in lifelong learning practices.

Please also make sure to check out the rest of the “Mastery Based Grading” series.

  1. What is Mastery Based Grading
  2. How to Grade for Mastery in Standards Based Learning
  3. Facilitated vs Directed Learning
  4. Differentiated Instruction with Mastery Grading

Over twenty plus years, my educational career has spanned four continents and two states, as well as eight grade levels!

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