Report Cards At High School In The Community Uses 'Mastery-Based Learning,' Nixes Letter Grades

This piece comes to us courtesy of New Haven Independent.

When students showed up for report card night at High School in the Community, they didn't get the usual B, C, or D. Instead, they got a 1.5 in "thesis construction" or a 2 in "plot"--and a mandate to show up for after-school help.

The new report cards, discussed with parents and students last week, come as High School in the Community (HSC) launches a bold experiment in "mastery-based learning."

Following similar efforts in Maine and New Hampshire, teachers are restructuring their classes, report cards and even graduation requirements so that students advance only when they've mastered a specified set of skills.

HSC is the first school in the district--and the first the state--to embrace this new way of learning, which aims to end the "factory assembly-line" of social promotion and ensure kids graduation with skills they need to succeed. The new system is based not on seat time but on how much kids learn. Students learn at their own pace--which means they might not finish high school in four years. HSC is serving as a "flagship school" in trying out the new method for it is spread New Haven's schools, according to Assistant Superintendent Imma Canelli.

"A B and a smile is not what we're doing anymore," said social studies teacher Sarah Marchesi. Instead, she found herself explaining a "daunting report card" which grades students on specific skills on a scale of 1 to 4.

Parents heard her explanation as they showed up to the parent night on Tuesday last week at HSC to collect report cards from the first marking period see how their students are faring in the second quarter. The school is amid a transition to mastery-based learning, beginning with the freshman class and certain other classes, at teachers' discretion. Seniors are still getting A-F grades. The evening gave a glimpse of how the new mastery-based system is working--and what it may mean for students who continue to struggle in school.

Sophomore David Rogers showed up to the school with his aunt, Bridget Anderson, who's raising him. Around 6:30 p.m., they walked into the classroom of English teacher Liz Johnston.

"You start," offered Johnston. The school is gravitating towards student-led report card conferences.

"I think I'm doing better," David began. "I'm paying attention in class."

David, who's 15, is part of a class of 16 sophomores who failed freshman-year English. They're now doubling up on English class to try to catch up with their peers. David spends 80 minutes a day with Johnston, who taught at Wilbur Cross High School for 10 years before joining HSC when it became a "turnaround" school in the fall.


Johnston guided Anderson through David's first-quarter report card. Instead of a general letter grade, it showed a dizzying rubric of nine different numbers and an extensive comments section. Students got graded on two sets of skills: narrative writing and expository writing. The card showed concrete feedback on how he had mastered specific skills, including plot, characterization, use of evidence, and ability to make claims. Those skills are based on the new Common Core State Standards, a national curriculum set to take effect in 2015.

Next to each skill, students get a grade from 1 to 4. To show mastery--and advance to the next course--students have to score a 3 or 4.

David's report card showed a number of 1.5s and 2s. While he could discuss the material with sophistication, he struggled on writing assignments. A lot of his homework had been incomplete.

Johnston went over the numbers. Then she broke some difficult news to Anderson: Her nephew may not finish the class on time. For this particular class, students are supposed to master the skills by the end of the second quarter, putting them on track to begin double-periods of sophomore English next year, catching up with their peers by the end of the year.

Rather than let kids scrape by with Ds, HSC teachers now aim to give an honest appraisal of kids' progress. In this class, Johnston said, only two of 16 students appear on-track to show mastery by the end of the second quarter. The first-semester grades served as a warning to get focused--or possibly stay in 9th grade English in the new year.

Johnston agreed with David that he's doing a lot better in class. "My biggest concern was his behavior gets in the way," Johnston said. But lately, "he's emerged as a leader in the room in terms of what you want to act like."

"That's good to hear," Aunt Anderson replied.

David said he decided to step it up after a couple of his friends got suspended for poor behavior.

"Not a club you want to be part of?" Johnston asked.

"No," he said.


David took a break to entertain his 4-year-old cousin, Anaiya, with a book about football while his aunt continued to talk to his teacher.

Johnston enlisted Anderson's help on the homework beat.

"I'm on him every day," Anderson replied.

Johnston told Anderson that David and his peers may have a chance to catch up over the summer, if HSC launches its own summer school, as it has proposed doing.

"Between Eagle Time and summer school, hopefully get him caught up," she said.

"Eagle Time" refers to a new mandatory after-school help session for kids who are falling behind in school. It's key to the new mastery-based program, which lets kids move forward in class at their own pace. Students are supposed to stay after school for an hour on Tuesday and Thursday until they're earning 3s or 4s in every category on their work.

Attendance has been spotty, however. David said he was going to Eagle Time at the beginning of the year, then stopped. "I got bored with it." Other kids said the consequences for skipping it weren't enforced. HSC seized the opportunity at parent night to make another push for mandatory attendance. The school issued notices to over 100 kids informing them they must show up for Eagle Time.

David got his notice from Erik Good, the "building leader," aka principal.

"He needs to stay every Tuesday and Thursday," Good told Anderson.


She took that in stride as she headed down the stairs to Sarah Marchesi's social studies class. There, Matt Presser (pictured at the top of this story) and Marchesi were busy explaining the new system to puzzled parents.

"So, it's not A, B, D anymore?" asked one grandparent.

"Es diferente de A, B, C, D," Presser explained to a set of parents.

Meanwhile, David led his aunt through a portfolio of his work, which is all collected in a big binder. All assignments are graded based on the 1 to 4 system.

The report card for Marchesi's U.S. History class graded kids on their understanding of the "main idea" and their "use of evidence."

"This report card is overwhelming," Marchesi told Anderson. "There's a lot of writing on it." But she said she hopes it's a better form of feedback than the typical letter grades.

"We want to make sure he can do things, and he knows things, not just that he's a good kid," she continued. "We want kids to walk out really feeling empowered."

The report card came with a warning about scores lagging under 3. "We need to move those scores to the two-and-a-half level for you to finish this course in one year," she said.

She asked David to place his name on a large "mastery mountain" taped onto the hallway. The mountain showed a 1 at the bottom and 4, mastery, at the top.

David placed his name on the wall. He said he likes the new grading system, which aims to use no-fault language.

"It's better than seeing Fs all over the place," he said.

Anderson pronounced the new report cards "wonderful."

"You get a true understanding of what's going on," she said. "You actually get to see what your child is doing."

The new system, which is very much a work in progress, has raised several concerns, acknowledged Marchesi. She and Presser introduced the idea to a group of teachers at a recent teacher-to-teacher training session held by EPIC (Educators for Progress, Innovation and Collaboration). She said a mom and dad came into school concerned about the independent-pacing will mean for their daughter.

Will she be in high school for six years?

Marchesi said that's possible. However, she argued it's better than one other option: The family scrapes together $5,000 to send their child to college. The kid struggles in remedial classes and comes home, $5,000 later, with no skills to show for it.


And what about the dropout rate? asked Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School teacher Brad Magrey. Sophomore year "is the year they all start dropping like flies." Will kids, frustrated with their pace of progress, stop coming to school?

"It is frustrating," Presser conceded. But kids will get extra opportunities, after school and in the summer, to catch up.

Magrey raised another question: In the new system, kids are not supposed to advance from a given course unless they earn 3s and 4s in all categories. But if a kid scores 3s in every category except plot, for example, "where do you put the body come September?"

Marchesi said the new system is much more flexible--instead of having to repeat the entire course next year, that kid can work after-hours with a teacher to master that one skill.

She acknowledged a significant challenge to the system: Will the school really hold all the kids back who don't earn 3s by the end of the year?

"Can we put our money where our mouth is?" she asked. "That's going to be tough," she said, especially with the extra scrutiny that comes with being a turnaround school. The state invested $3 million in HSC this year and placed it in a new "Commissioner's Network" of turnaround schools.

"It's going to be tough to tell 40 percent of our kids that they aren't ready to move on," she said.

Assistant Superintendent Imma Canelli said the rest of the district will watch HSC's progress this year with the new mastery-based system. Next year, four high schools--Sound School, Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, New Haven Academy and Metropolitan Business Academy--will roll out the system, with the help of a grant from The Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

"We're using HSC as our model," she said. Originally, HSC proposed starting the mastery-based system with first-year students only (they're not called "freshmen" anymore). But teachers were so eager to try it out that every teacher is now using the method in at least one class.

"They have really far surpassed any expectation of how far they're moving," Canelli said. Eventually, the city and state will need to adjust diploma requirements to adapt to the new system, she noted.

"It's a totally new mindshift in education," Canelli said. "We're really excited HSC is doing this."