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  • Sara Needleman

Defining Mastery

How do we define a 4 in a 1-4 assessment system? What does pushing beyond the 3 really look like? And if our goal is to help students attain proficiency (as defined by a 3), should we even define the 4? Would it be better to let our students discover the 4 on their own?

These are some of the questions our JumpRope teachers have been asking lately, and they are among my favorites for a few reasons. First, they force me to really think about best practice and, more importantly, how my own practice matches up with (or falls short of) what seems to be best. They are also among the questions that remind me to consider the several audiences we speak to as teachers and how our transparency and explicitness with those audiences act to hone our practice. My next post will address how to define the 4 while today’s post will look at whether or not we should do so.

So: Should we let students discover the 4 on their own or should we define it for them?

Without hesitation, I say that in any case where a 4 can be identified, we should - in fact, we must - identify it. Once we buy into the basic tenets of a proficiency-based system, it’s easy to see that one of our primary tasks is to make our targets very clear for students. We talk a lot about making sure they understand the task or goal, how to accomplish it, and what it might look like once they have done so. Some of my favorite authors in the field write to this topic: Susan Brookhart, Jan Chappuis, and Rick Stiggins. If we agree that we need to be transparent with our targets (defining the 3), then the logical next step is being transparent with how to go beyond the target - defining the 4.

Of course there are some students who are intuitively “good at school.” They understand its structures, glean from our words and intonations what’s important, and have a strong desire to achieve at high levels. Our job is not to figure out who these students are and reward them. After all, that would be a throwback to the traditional system of sorting kids. Our job, rather, where the 4 is concerned, is exactly the same as our job where the 3 is concerned: To teach kids what high achievement looks like, how to strive for it, and ensure its attainment is accessible to all.

When we coach people to improve, we do exactly what my elder child’s pre-school teacher of long ago posted on the wall: “Tell me what I CAN do.” That simple reminder to the adults in the room (none of the children were yet reading themselves!) is akin to a lifeguard asking excited pool-goers to “walk, not run.” It’s what we see in the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model which encourages teachers to define the behaviors they’d like to see in students. It’s what Doug Lemov writes to in his book, Teach Like a Champion, which delineates for teachers techniques to employ in the classroom so that they can be effective. It makes perfect sense then for us to pull back the curtain on the 4, name its qualities, and steer those students who are ready or eager - or both - to it.

It’s also important for those of us who are transitioning from a traditional system of grading to a proficiency- or standards-based model to recognize and respect some of the components of that traditional system which served to motivate students. For example, in a traditional system some combination of As and Bs earned a student a spot on the honor role. In most cases I’ve been privy to, the path to achievement of those As and Bs was not nearly as transparent as the path we are suggesting for attainment of a 3 in a proficiency-based system, but somehow, we saw lots and lots of kids’ names listed on the honor role. Perhaps for some of them, the inclusion of their effort with their academic grade helped them achieve that recognition - yes? In any case, if our shift to a proficiency-based system distinguishes between habits of work (like effort) and academic achievement and if our new system demands high levels of academic achievement for recognition such as honor role, we need to communicate to our students how to get there.

I think one of our stumbling blocks in revealing the 4 has been our own limitations in knowing what a 4 really looks like. How can we coach students toward it if we ourselves don’t know what it looks like? Check in with us again here at the JumpRope blog, for another post aimed at defining the 4.

The cake image came from here.

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