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Managing Summative Assessments in a Mastery Classroom Solved

#mastery Nov 29, 2021

If you are following the script on Mastery Learning, one of the key principles is that if a student doesn’t master the material, they need to re-test until they achieve mastery. One of the biggest challenges of Mastery Learning is that you have to give students multiple opportunities to master the curriculum. If they don’t demonstrate mastery on your first assessment, you need to provide a new assessment that tests the same material. Logistically, this is a huge challenge for teachers. How many versions of the summative assessment can they create? And what about the amount of grading required? Yikes!

This article is part of a series where we will discuss how you can make mastery learning a reality. In this series, I am sharing how I, and thousands of other teachers, have transformed classrooms into a place where every student succeeds. In my previous articles, I gave an overview of Mastery Learning, then we learned that you don’t have to lecture to the whole class at the same time ever again, how to create a flexible pace for other students, Extreme Differentiation that Doesn’t Drive You Crazy, Purposeful Teacher-Student Interactions Every Day – Really!, and How Mastery Creates a Culture of Collaboration in Your Class. If you haven’t yet read the other articles, I encourage you to go back so you can see the progression of how to do Mastery Learning well.

Using Software to Create Thousands of Versions of a Summative Assessment

Back to solving the summative assessment conundrum. The good news is that software has solved this problem. For me, my go-to assessments are generated via our learning management system. Our school has created banks of questions that assess each objective. When students sit down to take a summative assessment, they are randomly assigned questions from each major objective. I organize these questions in banks, and there are multiple questions that assess each objective. Students must then score a minimum percentage in order to demonstrate mastery. If students achieve mastery, then they are able to move on. If not, then they must retake a different assessment that pulls new questions from the same banks. 

What happens if students don’t “pass” the summative assessment? Should you allow them to start the next topic? That depends on your context and on what you teach. I usually allow students who have not passed to move on to the next topic so that those students who are unsuccessful don’t get inextricably behind. These students still need to go back and demonstrate mastery on the previous unit, but having them continue on has helped with the logistics of making Mastery Learning work.

I learned early on in my Mastery Learning journey that developing and writing good assessments is hard. To that end, I have found that it can sometimes be helpful to find others’ assessments and merge them into my repertoire. I have found, and even purchased, banks of questions that have made this work easier.  

But don’t just limit yourself to question banks. Also, be willing to have authentic assessments: projects, interviews, etc. A good source of project-based assessments is found at They have a project designer that helps you design age-appropriate projects organized and tied to most school standards. 

Give Non-Traditional Summative Assessments

As you progress through your Mastery Learning journey, you may begin to expand both the way you do assessments and how you assess. Though this is not an article on designing the perfect summative assessment, I will offer the following advice:

  • Don’t have all summative assessments be a traditional exam or test. I put my paper and pencil tests online. I did this to make it easier to manage the grading aspect of assessments. Later I realized that assessment can take many forms. I allowed projects for summative assessments. I gave students choices where they could find some alternative way to demonstrate their mastery of the content. Hear me carefully. I am not saying you shouldn’t give traditional assessments. I still do sometimes! And sometimes a traditional assessment is the best tool. What I am saying is that not everything is best assessed traditionally.
  • Target Your Assessment Questions:  Make sure that your assessment questions are targeted at what you are teaching. Again, I have made this mistake. My computerized system relies on having huge question banks to draw from. To populate my question banks, I search all over the internet for quality questions. But many of the questions don’t assess what I have taught and have confused my students. I am now in year three of implementing Mastery after an eight-year break from teaching full time and I see creating quality assessment questions as a process that gets better each year.
  • Interleave Questions From Previous Units: Research shows that it is best to add questions and prompts from previous units to summative assessments. This helps students to keep and solidify learning by placing it in long-term memory.
  • Avoid Always using Multiple-Choice/Recall Questions. Make sure your questions dive deeper into the content. We don’t just want students to know a bunch of information, instead, we want them to be able to use it, analyze it, and synthesize it.
  • No Traditional Exams — Have Students just ask questions: Finnish author, teacher, and researcher Marika Toivola sometimes has her students just write out questions as their summative assessment. The quality of their questions is a window into their understanding of a topic. After they have submitted the questions she follows up with a conversation where she determines their level of mastery.
  • Create Alternate Assessments: Several of my summative assessments test a student’s knowledge via a hands-on activity. Just this past week my physics students had to drop a ball into a moving car and land in the cup on the top of the car. They had two chances to hit the target and if they did a second attempt they had to justify why they deserved a 2nd chance. This activity summarized all that we had learned in the unit and it represented a large percentage of their summative assessment score.

My students report to me that allowing them to retake exams until achieving mastery is one of their favorite things. They know that they sometimes have a bad day and having multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery takes the pressure off. So now it’s your turn. What do you see as the top hurdles for you to implement this in your classroom?  What do you need to learn to make this a reality every day for your students?


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