Quality Design Principle #16: Advance Upon Demonstrated Mastery

“Mastery is about knowing something like the back of your hand. You can use it again and again.”

– Student, Cleveland School District


When students advance upon demonstrated mastery instead of seat time, educators direct their efforts to where students require the most help and make sure they learn the skills needed for more advanced studies. Consistency in determining proficiency ensures that students are not passed along with gaps in knowledge. Key features of mastery-based advancement are consistent with research on motivation, engagement and learning. Students are more engaged and motivated when grading provides feedback that helps them focus on where they need to focus their attention. With feedback and opportunities for practice, students spend more time working in areas that are most difficult for them. They may even advance beyond grade level in some academic domains, while taking more time in those that are more challenging. Policies and processes organized around student advancement based on demonstration of mastery include: investing in the building blocks of learning that enable students to manage their learning, targeted and timely instruction, coaching that supports students as they strive for the next level of mastery, transparent feedback and grading practices, multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning and monitoring pace and progress.

Key Characteristics

  • Transparency and pace. Teachers and students are both aware of learning targets, milestones and the pace that students are and should be making toward mastery based on their learner path.
  • Timely differentiated support. Students receive “just in time supports” to help them keep on pace to achieve mastery. As they become self-directed learners, students will begin to independently identify and seek the supports they need.
  • Assessment for learning. Assessment practices promote learning. Diagnostic assessments identify and anticipate knowledge and skill gaps before learning commences. Formative and summative assessments (i.e., demonstrations, products, tests) are authentic: they support application and transfer of key ideas to drive deeper learning. Students have choice about how they demonstrate mastery.
  • Multiple opportunities. Students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery. There is no penalty for unsuccessful attempts at demonstrating mastery; these attempts generate feedback that support reflection, revision and improvement. Students continue learning until they are successful, but they do not simply “redo” or “retake” the same content or assessment. Rather, they use feedback to adjust strategies and target necessary supports with each iteration.
  • Flexibility. Resources including time, learning supports and staff are all flexibly deployed to help students on their path to mastery.
  • Consistency in credentialing proficiency. There are clear and calibrated expectations for demonstrations of mastery. These are transparent to students, their families and to teachers, and teachers work collaboratively to “tune” their calibration. Consistency is vital to ensure mastery is meaningful.

How Is Advancing Upon Demonstrated Mastery Related to Quality?

Advancement upon mastery is a catalytic notion in that it challenges many of the habits, policies and practices of the traditional system. It demands that student readiness is taken into consideration across the academic domains even if it means working at different grade levels in different domains. Thus, a 10-year-old student may be doing fourth-grade math but reading at the eighth grade level. A high school student may be taking algebra while completing advanced online courses in college-level literature and history, earning dual-enrollment credits. Thus, advancement upon mastery means organizing around stage not age.

Students advancing upon demonstrated mastery is the ultimate goal of competency-based education. It is a culmination of all the other design principles. When the other 15 design principles are in place, a robust personalized competency-based system can enable every student to master knowledge and skills so that they are fully prepared to make the transition to college, careers and life. As aspirational as this may seem, districts and schools are already implementing many of these principles. They are seeing positive school cultures blossom, attendance increasing, discipline issues reducing, and in those districts strengthening their instruction achievement is improving. Thus, creating a competency-based system in which students advance upon mastery is developmental. Rather than seeking to determine if a district or school is competency-based or not, it is more helpful to ask in what way is your district or school competency-based (and in what ways isn’t it)? What are the next steps toward creating a high-quality competency-based approach?

In creating a system that advances students upon demonstrated mastery, districts and schools draw upon all the other design principles. Mastery-based advancement ensures that:

  • Each and every student is expected to reach proficiency with gaps in knowledge repaired;
  • Students receive targeted instructional support that is provided until students reach proficiency;
  • Knowledge and skills are transferred to new contexts so that students demonstrate their competency; and
  • There is consistency in credentialing learning.

A system organized around mastery begins with a foundation based upon the science of learning. In order for students to take ownership of their learning they will need to be coached in the building blocks of learning including growth mindset, metacognition, self-regulation and the habits of success. This set of skills and mindsets are all tightly linked to academic mastery. A strong culture of learning and inclusivity creates the safety and sense of purpose for students to take risks. Strong relationships and opportunity to discover interests will motivate students to put forward their best effort forward.

A balanced system of assessment includes including applied learning opportunities and performance-based assessments to ensure students have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning. Transparency and consistency in determining proficiency are important as they build a shared understanding of what it means to be proficient among teachers and students thereby enabling student ownership of their learning and building trust. No longer will students be passed on with lower expectations.

Responsiveness is essential to designing instructional strategies that meet students where they are and ensuring they receive timely and differentiated supports. Schools are agile in responding to student needs. Finally, everyone is learning in a competency-based school. Schools and teachers use data on student learning to inform professional learning and improvement.  Advancement upon mastery requires transparency of growth in student learning with districts and schools monitoring pace closely. Too often, it is misinterpreted as referring to self-paced which understandably brings fear of students being left further and further behind. When all the other design principles are in place, however, districts, schools and teachers will be able to fully engage students in mastering the building blocks for learning such as perseverance and self-regulation, inspire students to apply their best effort to learning and provide targeted instructional support as needed. Thus, when districts and schools have all the design principles in place failure is no longer an option. When a high-quality personalized, competency-based system is in place, failure is only a step in the journey of learning. Success is the only option.

Finally, advancing upon mastery is the linchpin in ensuring that personalization results in equity and not greater inequity. Using the architectural metaphor once again, advancing students without mastery is the same as building a weak foundation that one knows is not going to hold the house up. Or if one wants to return to the metaphor of the factory with which the traditional system is often compared, it is the same as producing a product that you know will be flawed in some way. As Salman Khan has pointed out, advancing without demonstrating mastery harms even the highest achieving students that may have received an “A” because of strong memorization skills but may not actually know how to apply trigonometry to building their own house. Thus, advancing upon demonstrated mastery is a core aspect of quality and equity.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • Mechanisms or processes within schools and across schools ensure consistency in determining proficiency such as moderation and calibration.
  • Clear expectations for teachers to address gaps in skills, working with other staff as needed, so that students are not advancing with accumulated gaps in knowledge and skills.
  • Schools are designed to meet students where they are using multiple instructional strategies to do this depending on where students are in their learning, the presence and size of their skills gap, the needs of other students in the class, the domain and the knowledge-based and instructional skills of the teacher. Districts and schools organize resources and schedules for organizational agility to respond to the needs and progress of students.
  • Schools are designed and offer schedules to ensure students are able to receive additional support and time as needed to reach proficiency.
  • Students know where they are in terms of performance levels on a learner continua and are able to work on learning objectives below or above grade level.
  • Students have access to just-in-time assessments and have multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency.
  • Leaders of instruction have up-to-date information about progressions of students, and regular (at least weekly) conversations with their teachers (as a group and individually) about optimizing progress, on all dimensions.
  • Educators support students in learning the building blocks of learning and habits of work, as well as taking into account motivational strategies for students to put forward their best effort in pursuit of mastery.

Examples of Red Flags

Schools retain students that do not complete all the standards in their grade level. This red flag could be highlighting one or more issues. First, there is a difference between standards-driven and learner-centered. It is possible for a student to be growing at a rate of one performance level per year but still not be proficient at grade level. Second, when students don’t master something it should result in more instruction, practice and learning based on what they specifically need, not retention that may result in repeating what they already know. Why retain a student that needs more help in reading but may be showing growth or is at grade-level proficiency in other domains? Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to repeat the same curriculum if it didn’t work the first time. Instead, using the strategies of meeting students where they are, educators would seek to understand what skills students have, where they need help and provide target instruction and opportunity to practice until proficiency and fluency would be reached. This could happen during the summer or in the beginning of the next school year.

Students are not allowed to move forward at a faster rate of learning than their classmates. Meeting students where they are means helping students at lower levels or with gaps to fully build the foundation of their learning for more advanced courses and allowing students to advance beyond grade level. When districts and schools fail to put the structures in place to allow students to access higher level studies they limit the ability to discover their potential. Furthermore, they undermine the shared understanding that students will advance based on demonstrated mastery.

Schools are using standards-based grading but passing students on without fully meeting all standards. Although most districts will use the term standards-based grading, they have actually implemented standards-referenced grading which creates transparency using standards as learning targets but passes students on without additional time and supports when they did not master the standards. This is often the case when students have significant gaps or may be performing at much lower skill levels. Schools are asking students to complete several performance levels within a year without providing instructional strategies to meet them where they are and accelerate their learning. Standards-based grading requires the commitment to equity and a highly responsive system so that all students are successfully learning and progressing.

Teachers are complaining about the time it takes for re-assessment. District and school leaders should pay close attention to the language and procedures used to describe what happens when a student doesn’t reach proficiency at an expected point. Schools use a variety of terms including re-teaching, re-assessment, re-do and competency recovery, while others see it as a continued cycle of instruction that doesn’t end until the student reaches proficiency. Some of the differences in terminology are based on whether teachers are giving scheduled assessments, such as a test to the entire class all at the same time (thus some students may need to continue to work and demonstrate mastery on the learning objectives that they haven’t yet reached), or if the classroom is more personalized with just-in-time assessment when students have shown evidence that they have reached proficiency.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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