Misael Olivaras was late for his English class almost every day last school year. He was often too absorbed in his hands-on aircraft manufacturing coursework to attend one of his least favorite subjects. 

The soon-to-be senior at Elma High School — wedged between Aberdeen and Olympia — excels in math and applied manufacturing skills including measuring, drilling and using a dial caliper. His grade in English, on the other hand, “has been a steady C my entire school life.”

But this summer, Olivaras doesn’t have to sweat a low English grade. He’s participating in mastery-based learning and will earn his remaining English credits, among others, through an apprenticeship working on aircraft. 

Mastery-based learning focuses on gaining and showing command of a topic, rather than receiving a grade and moving on. Often, students use innovative evaluations like presentations, group projects, cultural activities, tests or — like Olivaras — work experience. There are no letter grades or test scores. 

The practice will look different in each school and community. This summer, Enumclaw School District students took to the water in traditional cedar canoes as part of a “Healing of the Canoe” course.

A handful of districts in Washington have been introducing mastery-based learning to their schools for years. With the support of a recent grant from the State Board of Education, more are jumping on board this year. 

Advertising

In these classrooms, there are some key landmarks: Students guide their work plan, completing state requirements through the lens of their skills, interests or culture. Learning can take place inside or outside the classroom, and educators are encouraged to connect subjects like math, science, history or English. 

Students use portfolios, projects, demonstrations or tests to show what they know; feedback and help is provided by instructors. Students might revisit a concept in a variety of assignments before they meet state standards, or they might accomplish it in one go. 

For Olivaras, a big part of working at an aviation repair shop “is reading a bunch of documents, following all the steps, taking detailed notes.” These English skills are more helpful to his career goals than essay writing, he said. To earn English credits, he’ll be assessed on technical writing skills and his ability to follow technical manual instructions.

“[It] is really focused on looking at students and recognizing the assets they bring from their unique cultures and communities,” said the State Board of Education’s Alissa Muller, who directs a new collaborative for the 14 participating districts. “So when you start connecting students’ learning and a school building to their real world, their communities, their cultures, that closes opportunity and achievement gaps.”

Putting it to practice

In Enumclaw, middle and high school students spent time this summer on the local Boise Falls Trail exploring biodiversity through the lens of the Muckleshoot tribal community culture. They paddled traditional canoes and learned the boats were originally made of old-growth cedars. Each ring of a cedar tree, like those tracing the canoes, represents a year of its life, so these trees shared air and breath with Muckleshoot ancestors dating back generations. 

“The cool thing for me is getting them to understand that science doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” said Sui-Lan Ho’okano, the director of cultural programs for the Enumclaw School District and a Native Hawaiian.

Advertising

This past school year, students at Northshore School District’s Innovation Lab researched missing and murdered Indigenous women in the state, writing biographies and creating artworks to honor them, and writing reports about potential interventions. 

Mastery through time

While the concept of replacing traditional grading with mastery is novel to many, it was first outlined in the 1960s by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom. During classroom visits, he observed students had equal time and instruction to learn a topic, even though some students needed extra support, which led to large variation in outcomes. 

Those are often called achievement gaps. In Washington, 83% of students graduated on time this past school year, even though fewer than half of students met standards in English, math and science, as measured by standardized tests. But a range in student outcomes merely indicate whom a traditional teaching model best suited, rather than student’s capacity, Bloom’s research suggests. A focus on competency rather than scores or time in a seat could help.

Indigenous communities have long embraced competency-based learning.

“Hands-on, immersion style learning has always been in practice in Native and Indigenous communities since time immemorial,” Ho’okano said. 

Interest in mastery heightened in the U.S. about a decade ago. Still, it remained a niche practice. Schools throughout New York City were among the early implementers and formed a collaborative in 2015; Idaho and Arizona also offer mastery-based learning today.

Advertising

When the Washington Legislature expanded graduation pathways in 2019, it opened the door to mastery-based education. It tasked the State Board of Education with researching the model as well as barriers to local implementation. Since then, national interest has swelled amid pandemic-related learning challenges. 

Earlier this year, the state’s first round of grant funds went to the Auburn, Enumclaw, Franklin Pierce, Highline and Northshore school districts, among others. 

Measuring impact

There’s no conclusive data yet on whether mastery-based learning works. A 2020 review of the previous two decades of findings found mixed results, although that was likely because research was conducted too early on in the programs, researchers said.

Advocates say it shows potential. A recent study of New York high school graduates with mastery transcripts who were admitted to the City University of New York indicated these students were more likely than their peers to complete courses. They also received higher grades in their first college terms. 

As part of Washington’s grant program, the state hired experts to evaluate its program. Muller said the funding period is too short to assess student impacts, but private funding or an extension of the program could allow for that. 

While some Washington schools are still determining how grading and transcripts will work, Muller said there are organizations like the Mastery Transcript Consortium which can help. In May, directors of admissions at Washington’s public four-year colleges and universities assured applicants with mastery transcripts they would not be disadvantaged for admissions. 

Sponsored

“A lot of folks in the state see it as having the promise of eliminating the achievement gap,” Muller said. “It’s not a silver bullet; it’s not the only way. But it’s a really promising way that research is starting to support more and more.”

Changing the process

The mastery trend is not just geared toward struggling students. The approach can also challenge students who excel and have idle time in class.

Muller said education platforms and technology used during the pandemic allow educators to prerecord lessons for students to move through freely, allowing them time to provide one-on-one support and projects as needed. 

“It’s actually more of a real work experience,” said Peter Schurke, who was hired by the Northshore School District to develop its Innovation Lab High School, which is focused on mastery learning. “It’s understanding that I’m not necessarily going to do this in one shot. I’m going to have to go through multiple iterations to get this to the high-quality product that I’m trying to produce, and it changes the entire thought process.”

While Schurke said he has heard criticism that students won’t try hard on the first attempt if they know they can try again, he said they quickly learn this approach doesn’t benefit them, since people rarely want to repeat the same work. 

Elma School District Superintendent Chris Nesmith imagines a pilot in training when he thinks of this approach. If they had an overall grade of a B, but received a D in landing, he would hope the student would continue working on landing skills until they improved.

Advertising

In Enumclaw, the district has partnered with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe to provide cultural opportunities relevant to students’ lives that can be aligned with state learning standards. In past years, this helped students earn missed credits.

One student from a long line of Muckleshoot elders, or important community leaders, fulfilled a history standard by writing about his ancestors’ role in the Fish Wars, a series of protests in the ’60s and ’70s in which Puget Sound Native communities fought for the U.S. government to recognize treaty-protected fishing rights.  

Through his own history and culture, the student was able to show his knowledge, Ho’okano said, “and he narrated that so beautifully.” The new state funding allows them to incorporate this style of schooling into lesson plans.

“Mastery based learning is not compartmentalized,” she said. “It’s a holistic learning.”