Mastery vs performance: Defining a grade


Abigail Barrett

Mr. Samuel Hanley

Suppose there are two students taking the same class at the same school only with different teachers at the helm. Both struggle at the beginning of the first semester, but bring it together in the end and pass the final exam each with a 95 percent. One student receives an A- for the course and the other gets a C+.  How did this happen and why?

This difference in final scores was the result of the difference in opinion on what a grade should truly represent. The teachers of these two students belong to two opposing schools of thought when it comes to how a grade should accurately be developed.

One of these philosophies might be considered the traditional approach to grading in which a student’s entire performance in a given time period is measured and equally considered. The other suggests that a grade should be a representation of what a student is capable of doing at the end of the time period. These two differing views, coined student performance and student mastery respectively, show what a grade might encompass under different lenses.


Principal Ms. Barbara Brouwer leans more towards the student mastery system as opposed to its performance counterpart. She says she made this decision in part because of her having been a math teacher before becoming an administrator and having developed the preference based on her experience in that field.  

However, she acknowledges that the differences in grading systems from teacher to teacher and subject to subject can make grading somewhat complicated and difficult.

“I want the grade to represent content mastery at the end of the semester,” Brouwer said. “What that looks like and how you put that in the gradebook is difficult. When I graded, the chapter one test was the same as the chapter five test. I don’t feel that way anymore. My thinking of grading has evolved in that, in math, chapter five may be dependant on what you learned in chapter one. So if you didn’t get it then and you get it now, okay. However, that might be different than U.S. history or other classes.”


Chemistry teacher Mr. Mark Duncan calls for a sort of pseudo-student performance that pertains to his specific field of teaching and study.

“ Especially in science, because you have different types of units, a grade represents a student’s mastery of the individual concepts and the overall average of the mastery over the course of the year,” Duncan said.

In other words, this system splits a semester into units of mastery but then takes a combined average of the mastery of those separate units to formulate a final semester grade.

While it’s evident that student mastery is a contributor to Duncan’s system, ultimately an average is taken at the end of the semester and everything is weighed the same way. For example, unit one’s work will be looked at the same as unit five’s work. So while individual mastery of the separate units is looked at, that ultimately doesn’t contribute that much to the final semester grade.

However, Duncan does mention that a teacher can slightly alter a student’s final grade to account for improvements in understanding from the beginning to the end of a semester.

“…I think the teacher also has some flexibility to make adjustments at the end based on how the student has progressed over the year,” Duncan said.

Why not both?

English teacher Mr. Samuel Hanley thinks that a mixture of the two systems is a more widely used concept. A mixture helps to prepare students for the expectations out of high school while still taking simple student mastery into consideration.

“A grade should show mastery,” Hanley said. “A grade should reflect what a kid knows, what a student is able to do and it probably should in a really idealistic world stop right there, but this is not an idealistic situation…the people outside the walls of this high school expect us to hold students accountable for other things other than just content standards and ultimate performance.”

For example, Hanley likes a system that holds grades towards the end of the semester in a higher regard than older grades. This is an aspect of the student mastery system.

However, Hanley doesn’t like some of the nitty-gritty parts of the mastery system. He thinks for instance that a student could abuse the system, blowing off early work only to get an A on the test and ultimately a good grade in the class. This results in people who did all their work from the beginning sometimes having similar grades to those people who chose to wait until the test to try.

“I have a problem with the idea that the kid that works hard from the beginning…that his grade isn’t better than the next kid’s grade who just waited until the very end and got an A on the test,” Hanley said. “Does that mean I think that second kid should get a D or an F? No, but this is where we have to ultimately say we have to have some standard.”

After gathering information from teachers and administration, the general consensus is this: there is no right or wrong answer regarding the debate between student mastery and student performance. Both systems have their positives and negatives, but in the end it is up to a teacher’s personal preference regarding how they want their class to operate. Brouwer says that as long as a teacher can justify the grade he/she gives to his/her student, then there’s no issue.

The one thing that stayed consistent between the staff members was that no matter what, a student has to put in hard work to get a good grade. Brouwer, Hanley and Duncan all think that whether it’s through mastery or performance, a student simply has to stay involved and put in effort to see their effort reflect into an A or a B.