Survey: students dislike new mastery grading even as policy evolves


Meher Hans

Seniors Kevin Kuo and Matt Wilhide redo an assignment for Advanced Placement Economics in room 107 in mid-October. Wilhide called the redo experience helpful. “It gives kids more of a drive to go back to material they missed,” he said, adding that they do more than merely bolster grades.

Julie Chotivatanapong and Amanda Musolf

Junior Alex Ozbolt wasn’t surprised that the Griffin’s anonymous survey in English classes found 66 percent of students here find their classes harder thanks to Baltimore County Public Schools’ new mastery grading system.
“On paper, the theory that students would be able to master their scores seemed pretty good,” Ozbolt said. “But it’s not showing up in the grades.”
On the other hand, senior Taelon Um, praised mastery grading.
“The policy removes the ‘fluffer’ grades,” Um said. “It forces me to study and prepare more, especially for the tests worth more points.”

Among the October pen-and-paper survey’s key findings: 80 percent of students say they favor the previous grading policy that weighted classwork most heavily and permitted completion grades and participation points; 93 percent said they took at least one redo in the first quarter and 55 percent said that failing made them anxious.
A common complaint among students? No consistent schoolwide redo policy.
“Sometimes I don’t get to redo quizzes I should be able to,” sophomore William Chen said.   “Supposedly, you can redo all quizzes that aren’t major, but a lot of my teachers don’t let me redo anything.”
Earlier iterations of mastery grading labeled assessments (tests) as the only scores that counted toward measuring student learning and grades. BCPS has walked that back with an addendum issued earlier this month, but major summative assessments still stymie students like senior Megan Van Emden.
“I am an awful test-taker because I have horrible test anxiety,” Van Emden said. “You can retake every quiz, but no unit tests, and that really hurts my grades.”
That major tests can’t be done sways junior Ju Kim against the new policy.
“I understand why they’re doing it,” she said. “It’s to get people to learn, but I feel like getting rid of the chance to redo a big test defeats the whole purpose because you might bomb it.”
The evolving clarifications of the BCPS mastery grading policy have junior Maddie Howard confused.
“It went from just summative assessments being graded and then from classwork and tests being graded, and now I think homework counts as well,” she said.
In fact, this month’s clarifications of mastery grading explain that “minor graded assessments” should count for two-thirds of students’ grades. These, the county’s document sent to stakeholders said, may include daily classwork, homework assigned after instruction, practice, discussions, learning checks, brief constructed responses and exit tickets. The document aligns these “summative minor assignments” with what used to be called classwork and homework. It also shows tests – now “summative major assessments” – should count for a third of students’ grades.
Such changes are positive signs, according to sophomore Johnny Carroll.
“Overall my grades are a little bit down from last year,” he said, adding, “I don’t agree with the grading policy. But, they’ve made changes to make it better and more suitable for students ’needs, so they’re heading in the right direction with whatever they’re trying to do.”
The school system’s sudden implementation of the change—rank and file teachers got their first look at mastery grading during academic department meetings their first day back at school, Aug. 17 – distresses junior Jack Tarantino.
“They’re using these first couple of months as an experimental phase, and I am 100 percent against that,” Tarantino said. “This is my junior year, and using it as a time to experiment with the new policy is just ridiculous.”
Debate continues among students and teachers over the policy’s elimination of a zero for work not submitted. The new policy instead uses a lowest score of 50 percent, a move that has spread among American school systems in recent years after educational leaders noted that zeroes pose near-insurmountable hits to grade-point averages.
Also debated? Whether students will complete formative assignments that don’t count toward their grade-point average and are designed purely to assist with learning.
After a full quarter, junior Mark Bonner, remains torn on mastery grading, he said, because it still seems to emphasize tests and quizzes. But he noted a plus.
“It is helpful when you have a borderline grade at the end of a quarter, and you can retake a bad quiz or a test to bump your grade back up.”


Associate editor Matilde Cascella and staff writers Mykayla Milchling, Will Behm, Nick Enoch, Bryce Frederick and Emily Levitt contributed to this report.