Districts that have adopted mastery grading say it is changing the way teachers and parents talk about students—for the better. David Krenz, the school superintendent in Austin, Minnesota, which rolled out the system a few years ago, said conversations can now focus on what students need to learn. "Before we started this, a teacher might complain to parents that their child slumps in the back of the classroom and never brings a pencil," says Krenz. "Now the discussion is about the fact that she doesn't know how to calculate slope, and parents, teachers and administrators can put their heads together to figure out how to help."
A standards-based system also allows teachers to spot hidden talents that often go undiscovered, especially among kids who are unwilling or unable to fit into school culture and are bogged down by behavioral issues. "Before we switched to mastery grading, you could be a really smart kid who received a C because you had unexcused absences, or maybe an F because you were caught cheating," says Jeffrey Erickson, assistant principal at Minnetonka High School in suburban Minneapolis. These days, grades for the district's 4,000 middle- and high-schoolers are largely based on periodic assessments (there are four during a nine-week course). Quizzes and homework count for no more than 15%, and skipping a class or nonacademic factors like attitude and participation have no impact on report cards at all. But far from excusing bad habits, officials record every instance and respond accordingly. Flub a test? Teachers contact parents at home. Fail to turn in a take-home assignment? Students make it up by attending classes before or after school, during lunch or over spring break. Skip a class? Your B may remain intact, but an administrator will contact parents within 36 hours and impose immediate consequences.
Most controversially, grades are not affected even if a student is caught cheating on an exam. Instead, parents are called in for a conference and the student retakes the test—several times, if need be—until he passes. "The lesson we drive home is this: 'You cheated. That's wrong. And we are going to help you understand that it's wrong and get to the root cause of why it happened,'" says Erickson. The result, he adds, is that students rarely cheat twice.
The first year after Minnetonka implemented mastery grading, students got 7% fewer A's—what Erickson calls "a market correction." Since then, marks have been on an upward climb. And there are other signs that kids are learning more. In the last five years, ACT subject test scores at Minnetonka have risen, as has the number of kids who are named National Merit Scholars. The percentage of those who pursue the rigorous International Baccalaureate degree is also increasing. And underachievers are reaping benefits as well. In 2009, 147 students at Minnetonka High received F's; two years later, the number was 54. The program has become a model—nearly every week, school administrators from other districts and states call to find out how they did it. "I think we are really grading kids based on what they know, not on how well they 'do school,'" says Erickson. And that, he says, benefits everyone.