Educators care about the content they teach. In the era of high stakes standardized testing, these same educators find themselves “teaching to the test” as a necessity.

There are two different types of testing.

Formative assessments: test what students know before any teaching occurs. These tests allow teachers to get a baseline understanding of where your students are. You can use them to develop and refine lesson plans, emphasizing new material and reinforcing what students already know. Formative assessments are not usually part of the student’s overall grade.

Summative assessments: measure what students know after the unit is presented. These quizzes and exams allow students to demonstrate mastery of the presented material. Usually, these assessments make up a significant part of a student’s grade.

Most states use both pre-tests and end-of-the-year exams in their standardized testing program. Many times, teachers are evaluated on how much their classes improve between the two testing periods.

Because both students and teachers are evaluated based on how well students perform on these standardized tests, many teachers end up “teaching to the test.”  This means they only teach concepts and skills that are highly likely to be tested at the end of the year.

Many elementary schools, for instance, have reduced or eliminated “peripheral” subjects such as art, music, and physical education. Even “core” subjects are not immune — social studies have received a short shrift because it is not part of the standardized tests.

Shifting to Mastery-Based Evaluations

One shift teachers can make is to employ formative assessments throughout the year. For instance, when a math teacher opens a unit or chapter, she can do a pre-test. If the students have a handle on the concepts that will be tested at the end of the year, she can use the subject to teach higher order thinking skills. On the other hand, if the students are struggling with the basic concepts, she can spend more time on drills which will strengthen the end of the year scores.

Teachers employing this method should then pay careful attention to the summative assessments that occur throughout the year. If the majority of students show on these end of unit exams that they have mastered the concepts, they are ready to move on to the next unit. However, if they score low across the board, then re-teaching is in order.

One strategy that some teachers have begun using is “mastery-based evaluations.”  This means that the student’s grade is not based on how many points they accumulate over the course of a semester, but on how well they master the concepts.

This requires a massive shift in how both teachers and students think about grades. In the traditional method of evaluation, some students will get high grades — not because they have learned the material, but because they’ve learned how to collect points.

Mastery-Based Education in the Classroom

Let’s take two hypothetical students. Jane is a “good student” who gets A’s and B’s. She doesn’t think of herself as particularly strong in math, but she turns in all of her homework. Her homework points make up for lower test scores and she gets a grade that she is satisfied with.

John, on the other hand, is a “poor” student – largely because he is bored. He rarely turns in his homework but does well on exams. His grade does not reflect how well he masters the material but rather the fact that he doesn’t do the day to day work of the class.

If the teacher switches to mastery-based evaluations, Jane’s grade may go down while John’s will probably go up. But at the end of the day, Jane will be pushed into actually learning the material instead of collecting points.

Popular new educational strategies such as Khan Academy have popularized this mastery-based system.

In a mastery system of teaching, educators use formative tests to see where their students are starting. They use summative tests to see what the students have learned. Then, they allow their students to keep testing until they can demonstrate that they have learned the material. There is no more “one and done.”

In this way, teachers can ensure that every student is proficient while still allowing for the higher-order skills that they know the students need. Once the “John’s” of the class demonstrate mastery, they can be given supplemental enrichment work or move on to the next topic. The “Jane’s” also benefit because they actually become proficient.

Mastery-based evaluations will allow teachers to help all of their students learn their lessons.

Outside of testing, what alternative means do teachers have to assess their students’ capabilities within the classroom? Read How to Measure Student Success to learn more.

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