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High School Connections Blog by Head of High School Steve Soden

Using Assessment to Encourage Skill Mastery

I often hear teachers lament grades, as grades inevitably become the focus for students. Truth be told, the college admissions process incentivizes a grade-focused approach: every college representative with whom I have spoken says that demonstrated success in a highly rigorous course of study is the single biggest indicator for college admission.

As teachers, we strive to develop intrinsically motivated students who value learning for the sake of learning and trust the value of intellectual risk-taking in the long term. Though it can, at times, feel Sisyphean in nature, I feel strongly that this remains a necessary pursuit for us as educators: when students truly value and care about what they are doing in the classroom, they are more likely to be engaged in and benefit from the learning process. We need to never give that up.

I am also a realist, however, when it comes to student motivation and recognize that even the most intrinsically motivated students recognize the role grades play in their college admissions process. With this in mind, there are a number of organizations seeking to change the transcript process for high schools. One of the most well-known, the Mastery Transcript Consortium, is proposing an entire overhaul of how a transcript is produced, seeking to design a transcript that encourages skill and content mastery rather than just course completion. This movement has gained a great deal of momentum, though some hurdles remain before it is widely adopted by high schools and accepted by colleges. Still, their goal is admirable: use the transcript to help rather than hinder the development of an authentic learning process based on mastery rather than recall.

The goal of the Mastery Transcript is, in essence, what we seek to accomplish at MCDS. Rather than focusing on the transcript aspect however, we have looked more closely at what happens in the classroom and how we can use assessment to encourage the learning we want students to engage in.

The most fundamental evolution happening in our classrooms is in the balance between skills and content, with the understanding that an education consisting of purely content-based assessments will hamper our students’ ability to thrive beyond high school. You may have heard people at MCDS mention that we aim to teach students “how to think, not what to think,” and so in the high school, we place an emphasis on a student’s thought process. Two of the most prominent examples happen in IB classrooms: in Theory of Knowledge, students seek to answer the fundamental question of “How do we know what we know?”, and in history class, students are taught the OPVL method of analyzing sources, rather than just the content those sources provide.

So, how do we strike the balance between skills and content? One way is to intentionally separate them and use the grading process to help students achieve mastery. This approach has been adopted this year in a number of our high school math classes, where students are regularly given skills assessments separate from graded problem sets. Since the ultimate goal is mastery, students are able to re-take these skills assessments as many times as they want in order to ensure that they are fully prepared to tackle the problem sets that will then ask students to apply the skills they have mastered.

Another example of what our teachers are doing is found in the English classroom. Ninth and tenth grade English teacher Evelyn Lasky is clear that her goal is not for students to write a good essay, but is instead for students to become good writers. As we all know, good writers have developed a successful approach to writing, and so Ms. Lasky’s rubrics focus almost entirely on that approach. Her students submit final portfolios rather than sitting for traditional exams and are given the opportunity to demonstrate that they have learned an effective writing process. Her method speaks for itself: by any metric, MCDS students are exceptional readers, writers, and thinkers.

By no means have we arrived at MCDS. We also seek to model ongoing learning and growth by being willing to ask questions and evolve as educators in order to serve our students. Through divisional meetings, departmental meetings, and faculty consultancies, we have built-in times for our teachers to learn from each other and think intentionally about how to use assessment practices to encourage authentic learning. While we may not be able to change the fact that students care about grades, we can absolutely dictate what those grades constitute, and so we have made a commitment to being intentional in that process.

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