IMSA Board Considering Mastery-Based Learning Proposal

On April 14th, 2021, Dr. Comfort Akwaji-Anderson and Dr. Jeanette Bartley presented a new policy on Mastery-based learning to the Board of Trustees on behalf of IMSA’s administration. Under this Master-based learning proposal, IMSA could cease to give students letter grades, transitioning to a different process for assessing and recording student learning. According to documents provided to the Board of Trustees, the policy aims to address concerns regarding inequitable educational opportunities on campus and “set [IMSA’s] teaching and learning in a context of equity.”

Proponents of Mastery-based learning argue that it differs from the traditional educational system by creating inclusivity, identifing biases, and discontinuing inequitable practices, while developing students’ unique personal strengths. The Mastery-based system views skills such as critical thinking and problem solving as “core competencies that all students will be required to master prior to graduation” and puts emphasis upon developing such skill sets to ensure continuous improvement. To attain those goals, the Mastery-based learning plan focuses on utilizing “learning targets” and assessments to determine a student’s ability to grasp learning. It would incorporate a new Mastery Transcript in place of a traditional transcript to measure student progress “based on evidence of mastery, not seat time.”

IMSA currently describes its Core Competencies in education as learning that is “competency-driven, inquiry-based, problem-centered, and integrative.” The Core Competencies sought to strike a balance between learning knowledge applicable to solving real-world issues with developing learning skills and analytical thinking in order to drive further learning progress. However, according to the proposed Mastery-based learning policy, “there [currently] exists many inequities that do not allow all students to meet the intended outcomes of the Revised SSLs (Standards of Significant Learning) and Core Competencies.” Additionally, IMSA’s current mode of assessing student mastery of learning skills is the CWRA+ test, but concerns have been raised about the accuracy and usefulness of the test due to the fact that “students do not take the CWRA+ seriously.” The policy also notes that there has not been a comprehensive, consistent, IMSA-wide Mastery-based plan in the past and that IMSA is currently “well-positioned” to develop a new system with “the implementation of IMSA’s DEI Plan and the caliber and diversity of IMSA students.”

At the core of the proposed changes is a new partnership with the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), which aims to develop a new transcript and grading system for all Mastery-based schools. When The Acronym reached out to Dr. Bartley for comment, we were told that there were no further details to add at this time, and that no official decision has yet been made by the Board about its implementation. However, a review of MTC online does currently list IMSA as a member school. IMSA joins 10 other Illinois-based schools that are currently partnered with MTC, which consists of 273 private schools and 119 public schools as of May 17th.

The MTC Mastery Transcript bases its grading on Foundational and Advanced Mastery Credits and eliminates traditional A-F letter grades and GPAs. According to the proposed policy, “foundational credits are based on the core competencies that all students are required to master and are required for graduation … Advanced credits are based on competencies that go beyond those required for graduation [and] provide opportunities for students to delve deeper into specific topics/content [that] will vary based on student interest.” MTC claims that the new transcript is modern, flexible, personalized, and equitable. As of now, there is no detailed information as to how the proposed Mastery-based curriculum would impact college admissions or be adapted specifically for IMSA. The MTC’s official website notes that in the transcript’s pilot usage in college admissions, “initial results [have been] very encouraging.” An example transcript can be found on the MTC website here, though it is not yet clear how IMSA would use this model.

IMSA’s Board of Trustees has yet to vote on the Mastery-based learning plan, and implementation would likely occur over a few years as elements of the school curriculum and record keeping would need to be adapted to its methods. To the best of our knowledge, IMSA teachers have not yet been consulted for their input about this new pedagogy. The plan highlights that “time and funding [will be provided] for discipline-specific and cross-discipline PLCs to engage in work related to clarifying beliefs and assessing alignment of current practices to mastery-based learning, deciding on discipline-specific and integrated learning outcomes, and deciding on systems for assessment, grading, and reporting.” The plan also aims to provide development opportunities for faculty and staff to strengthen their understanding of Mastery-based learning while also engaging with all areas of IMSA “to ensure that the Mastery-based curriculum meets the needs of all students.”

The next meeting of the Board is scheduled for this Wednesday, May 19, and the Mastery-based Learning Policy is listed as an action item for this upcoming meeting, according to the April 14th Board of Trustees agenda posted to BoardDocs.

For more information, specific Board documents could be found on IMSA’s BoardDocs website under the April 14th, 2021 meeting. The documents extensively cite the Mastery Transcript Consortium and the Aurora Institute as bases for IMSA’s proposed plan.

About the Author

Oliver Ni
Oliver Ni is a member of the Class of 2022 and previously served as co-Editor-in-Chief and Opinions Section Editor. He lived in 05C for all three of his years and is proud to have witnessed the most destructive period in the wing's history. Outside of The Acronym, he was involved in speech and debate, student council, ACLU, and math team. He is now pursuing undergraduate studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

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