Growth vs. Mastery

Growth vs. Mastery

My blended learning pilot this summer was designed to fill learning gaps for incoming 9th grade students—specifically, I wanted to increase their English Language Arts (ELA) grades, improve their performance on standardized tests, and increase their overall engagement.  30% of my school’s 9th graders failed the course last school year with a grade of D or lower.

My school administration also wanted the pilot to include a component for character education, since many of our 9th grade students had trouble last year transitioning to high school.  We incorporated a public service announcement (PSA) competition into the pilot and asked students to create a one-minute video using Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens to warn their peers about the dangers of drug use, teen pregnancy, and gang violence.

Students presenting the video they wrote and produced urging students not to drop out of high school.

Students presenting the video they wrote and produced urging students not to drop out of high school.

During the first week of the pilot, we implemented a series of diagnostic tests to identify problem areas for this group of students, and we realized that students struggled with parts of speech—specifically, the average student scored about a 20% on their pre-test. Learning and understanding the parts of speech is an important component to good sentence writing, and it also falls under the new Common Core standards that will guide teaching and instruction for all students.

My students worked independently for 60 minutes a day on pre-loaded lessons on Digedu, a technology platform that allows teachers to personalize learning and promote mastery.  After each assessment, students with a score of 70% or lower were moved to small group reteach/ intervention sessions, which presented a new challenge. Often, there was not enough space in the classroom for those groups, so we had to use the hallway if we had two conferences happening simultaneously. However, the results were worth it.

With the help of paraprofessionals in the classroom, I was able to dig deeper into the core of the problems that my students were struggling with, while our student intern circulated to work with others. We also had three student “tech leaders” in each room to handle troubleshooting for students.

Each day, students tracked their movement toward mastery of parts of speech on our classroom Mastery Tracker.  Students created “fish” that “swam” along our unit tracker to show progress, and each student’s goal was to move the fish out of the pool and up to 70% mastery.


We gave students a pre- and post-test to measure their growth for each unit.  About halfway through the pilot, we realized that while a student may have achieved 70% mastery on a given unit, that achievement didn’t necessarily demonstrate the student’s level of growth.  In fact, a student that took a while to achieve 70% mastery in a unit could have a high amount of growth based on their pre- and post-test.

For instance, a student like Jabari, who took two weeks to achieve mastery, grew frustrated when his peers surpassed him. However, he was overjoyed to see how high of a growth score he’d achieved (40%).  During individual conferences with me, students were excited to “move their fish” or to “calculate their growth” on the growth chart.  Students even began coming in early to catch up on work or to study for assessments.


The juxtaposition of these charts in the classroom helped create an environment where grades were totally transparent, and the stigma of test anxiety was taken away. Additionally, students could retake tests and get help in small groups. This created a classroom dynamic in which the students, not the teacher, were in charge of their pace.

At the end of the pilot, all of the students achieved over 70% mastery, and our class average growth was around 30%.  We hope to continue to use this model in the current school year in our ELA and Social Studies departments—so stay tuned!


Written by Shayla Adams

Shayla Adams

Shayla Adams is a U.S. History teacher at Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School in Northeast Washington, D.C. and a 2014 CityBridge-NewSchools Education Innovation Fellow

Follow Shayla’s mastery-based/PBL class at or on Twitter: @remixeducation1.


  1. Yas, Adams! Whip those brains into shape!

  2. Correction: tumblr is

  3. You are such a brilliant educator! Such a pioneer!! Great job!!

  4. Shayla, your skills in teaching the youth who will become our future is a wonderful undertaking. There are many young individuals who have stigma of testing and there has not been a proven effective way to offer support. Now your stigma of test anxiety has been taken away or a work in progress. Thank you.

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