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Making the Grade Up

Tom James stood at the head of his algebra classroom his back to a poster that urged students to “question everything.” For my benefit, he asked his students if they knew the basics of their school’s new philosophy. Why had High School in the Community decided to eliminate grades in favor of a mastery-based evaluation system? Fifteen first-year students stared back at him in brief, confused silence.

“So we can get ready for college and stuff,” one girl offered after a few seconds.

The magnet school’s new system replaces grades with numbers, one through four, to indicate how well students understand a certain concept, with a three indicating a satisfactory passing score. Although they still have homework and tests, in most classes that have implemented the system, students may choose to test out of a unit when they feel most prepared. The school hopes this change will create an environment of exploration and understanding, rather than rigid, systematic instruction.

But many students are confused, which springs from the fact that they are barely acquainted with the new system. It has been in place only since the end of August. Administrators would like for them to eventually have a measure of control over their own education and for the current uncertainty to give way to clarity, awareness, and self-determination.

In the cafeteria one Friday morning, throngs of students crowded around small tables for their lunch break, laughing and talking. Shawnece Jackson sat alone at a small round table, texting. Like the students in James’ class, she offered only a hesitant explanation for the change.

“It’s helpful…because they want us to graduate and [the mastery system] is making it easier,” she faltered. All courses for freshmen or “foundation level” students will apply the new mastery-based system, and so will some upper-level courses. The partial implementation leaves some upperclassmen feeling particularly confused.

High School in the Community doesn’t have a principal. Instead, it has a Building Leader, an elected position currently occupied by Erik Good, a former English teacher at the school. An affable, easygoing man, he rarely sits in his office, instead spending much of his time making rounds and visiting the school’s thirty-four teachers and more than two hundred fifty students. He maintains a decisive calm that suggests that his two years of experience at High School have made him comfortable with his position’s requirements.

Good said the school’s courses are designed to instill an element of “character education.” He believes the magnet school’s major goal is to allow space for its students’ individual self-expression within a larger community both inside and outside of the explicitly educational experience. “How do we function as a group, as a country, and still maintain our individuality?” he asked. This emphasis on civic values, formalized in the curriculum as a “Law and Social Justice” theme , hearkens back to the school’s roots in the liberal 1970s, when a collective of teachers founded High School in the Community as a magnet school.

Because the school transitioned to the mastery-based system so recently, teachers and administrators have not yet decided how to apply it practically. One difficulty lies in determining the bare minimum students must know in order to “master” a subject. How can teachers determine the exact limit of comprehension while ensuring that students graduate in a timely fashion? Academic Coordinator Chris Kafoglis, who oversees curriculum and teaching at the school, stresses the commitment of the school’s employees to laying down a concrete framework for the mastery system, something they hope to develop over the next three years.

The goal, Kafoglis asserts, is that the overall system emphasizes continuous, necessarily self-motivated learning.

“There are lots of kids who have been told in middle school, if you don’t do this you’re going to be held back, and over and over and over again they’re not held back,” Kafoglis stressed. “The difficulty [with mastery-based learning] is that when kids have been getting by with a sixty, they have to learn to make progress now.”

To ease his students into the new system, James encourages them to think of each assignment as another “draft” until they reach the acceptable mastery levels of three or four. Students should only request to test out of a unit when they feel prepared. James said students who initially attempted to use the system as an opportunity to avoid all tests became self-motivated once they fell behind classmates who progressed independently through topics.

“Every week that goes by, I see more students start to understand what the point is,” he said. Good said that he hopes they will by the end of the year.
More radical plans have yet to be implemented. Eventually, teachers and administrators say classes may be eliminated entirely, with students working at their own pace and receiving occasional guidance from instructors. But both student understanding and the mastery system itself have many stages of development ahead. Administrators must communicate their big ideas for the future first and foremost with students to ensure both develop in tandem with one another.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of High School in the Community’s principal. His name is Erik, not Eric.

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