Pencil and ruler.

Molly Nealeigh August 28, 2018

What “Mastery-Based” Can Look Like in the Classroom

Molly Nealeigh

Fourth Grade Math Teacher

In Molly Nealeigh’s fourth-grade math classroom at Piney Grove Elementary School in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, students spend most of the time studying at their own pace on skills they identify that they need to improve.

Every 12 weeks during the school year, students here take assessments to gauge their progress toward mastering all of the standards in the fourth-grade curriculum. While all students take these tests, Nealeigh’s pay more attention to the results than average. For her fourth graders, the test results offer a picture of their strengths and weaknesses, revealing specific skills they need to sharpen.

Nealeigh helps them glean this understanding. She makes a chart, listing each test question under the standard it relates to (like “use place value understanding to round multi-digit whole numbers to any place”). Students calculate a percentage for each standard based on how many related questions they got right or wrong. When students get 80 to 100 percent of questions related to a given standard correct, Nealeigh considers that mastery, and the students don’t have to do any review. Less than that and students either have to work on the skills by themselves or, if they got fewer than 60 percent of the questions correct, with a teacher.

“The mindset is ‘Give students their own data and let them choose what to work on themselves,’” Nealeigh said.

Nealeigh’s classroom uses mastery-based learning, where student skill acquisition is the priority. More traditional classrooms proceed through a curriculum based on class time. One day is spent teaching one skill to the entire class, for example, and the next day, the teacher moves on. Students who miss something do poorly on the next test, and everyone charges ahead. In Nealeigh’s classroom, students keep going back to a given topic if they don’t quite understand it, proceeding only once they’ve mastered the related skills.

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This story about youth leadership training was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.