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Mastery-Based Learning

Educators, parents, and students alike have all voiced criticisms of the shortcomings of traditional grading systems. Our Mastery-Based System is an attempt to correct those problems and bring educational assessment into the modern day. Traditional grading systems force students to collect points, and complete quantities of work for those points, in hopes of gathering enough points to earn a grade. The focus in that system is on a grade, not on the learning. At Pilgrim School, we believe that the grade should be a reflection of the learning that has happened, not the reason for learning itself.


In our mastery-based system, students, parents, and faculty have detailed information about students' individual learning. Mastery education begins with making sure students have a foundational understanding of a topic so that they can better engage with complex concepts. This process creates a flexible and dynamic education that centers around each student. 

We believe that grades or levels of achievement should simply be a reflection of what students know and can do in relation to the learning targets, not the goal of learning itself. While high school students receive letter grades on transcripts, they will be backed by the in-depth and forward-thinking educational practices that inform our programs. 

Explicitly defined learning targets are used with Elementary and Middle School students. This grounding ensures that our grade-based High School students resist the pitfalls that traditionally accompany this type of assessment. Teachers compile records of student achievement relative to the various learning targets in each subject or course and determine the current level of achievement for each target using a predetermined rubric. As we reflected on our Principles of Learning, it became clear that traditional methods of grading did not align. 


All students are assessed on learning targets for a particular course or subject area — this includes Early Education through high school students. Each learning target is assessed using common achievement levels across grades and subjects with a consistent definition of achievement at each level.  Teachers use these levels in designing rubrics for specific learning targets, and students are evaluated on their level of achievement using these rubrics.


Grades 6-8 do not receive letter grades for their courses, while Grades 9-12 will receive letter grades in addition to achievement levels on individual learning targets. Letter grades are only assigned at the progress reports and the end of the course and are not used for individual assignments or assessments.

Each learning target will be assessed using common achievement levels across grades and subjects with a consistent definition of achievement at each level. Teachers use these levels in designing rubrics for specific learning targets, and students are evaluated on their level of achievement using these rubrics.  These levels are used only for specific learning targets, not for an entire assignment or assessment. All learning targets are year-long (unless a course is only a semester).  


The letter grade translation for course grades is based on the percentage of learning targets that are proficient on a scale ranging from 1.0 to 3.0. For each learning target, a level will be assigned based on the rubrics designed by faculty using the most recent and relevant assessment of learning. In calculating the letter grade for a course from these levels, each level will then be converted to a numeric value.

The scores for all learning targets assessed during the course will be averaged and converted to a letter grade using a custom developed translation system. 

More About Mastery-Based Learning

Problems with Traditional Grading Systems

Grades tell students who they are. The letter grade system creates labels that students often internalize. Earning an F can make students feel that they themselves are failures, a student who consistently earns Bs can still feel they’re not succeeding. An assessment system that doesn’t center growth and learning from one’s past can discourage a student’s investment in their own education.

Students have no voice in their assessment. A traditional grading system does not take into account individual students’ needs or interests. Students are denied a voice in how they’re assessed, which can deter students from feeling involvement in—let alone ownership over—their education.

Student’s knowledge is siloed. In a traditional grade system, students are evaluated on their knowledge of a subject in a vacuum. Students who do well in one subject are not encouraged by this system to extend their understanding of one subject into another. Education should not discourage interdisciplinary thought in a world that is increasingly interconnected.

Grades don’t give students information. Without additional input from teachers, a report card of grades alone doesn’t tell students or parents much about a student’s actual experience or intellectual development.

How Our Mastery-Based System Solves These Problems

Mastery assessment is a conversation, not a pronouncement. Because assessment is focused on development, students are never made to feel that their identity comes from their performance. We build each educational plan to move students forward, so that they can feel excited about their own learning journey instead of just chasing a grade.

Gives students agency in their educational plan. Mastery-based learning allows students to create their own meaning and knowledge. Learning targets are given to students early and upfront, which allows them to focus on the ways they want to reach these targets instead of focusing on the accumulation of points.

Facilitates interdisciplinary learning. Because Mastery-based learning is focused on the whole student, our assessment process can more easily incorporate lessons that span multiple subjects. Allowing students to link what they’re learning in multiple classes to meet their learning targets means that students are able to indulge their curiosity about the world around them more, which creates lifelong learners.

Provides information that empowers families. At the most basic, mastery-based learning is a way for all stakeholders (students and their parents/guardians, teachers, and administrators) to understand exactly what a student is expected to learn, what their progress toward this goal is, and what improvement is needed to meet their goal. Mastery learning is collaborative—parents/guardians, students, and school staff work together to define a student’s goal and the path needed to meet it.

How Else Will Students Benefit From this Mastery-Based System?

As we continue to improve our collective assessment literacy, and provide a student-involved assessment process based on the understanding of clearly articulated learning targets, our students will benefit in the following ways:

  • Through experiencing healthier assessment practices, students will experience and demonstrate a learning orientation rather than a grading orientation.
  • Students will be able to articulate their learning targets and identify their own strengths and areas for growth related to those targets.
  • Students will understand the connection between the learning targets and assessments, and how the assessments help them reach those targets.
  • Student performance will improve through regular, effective feedback, including forms of peer and self-assessment.
  • Students will develop enhanced communication and advocacy skills, allowing them to track their own learning and identify next steps.

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