“What is the fruit of these teachings? Only the most beautiful and proper harvest of the truly educated–tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom. We should not trust the masses who say only the free can be educated, but rather the lovers of wisdom [or philosophers] who say that only the educated are free” ~ Epictetus, Discourses, 2.1.21-23a
Most of us remember panicking before taking a test in school. The stress made these kinds of questions pop into our minds: Did I study enough? Did I study the right things? What if I forget what I learned? What if I get confused and make mistakes? What if I get a headache and can’t focus? What if my brain is too tired to do this?
My kids experience this kind of stress daily, especially my high schooler. And some tests are bigger than others. My 11th grader is getting ready to take the SAT, and even though some schools aren’t requiring it anymore, it’s been an anxiety-producing right of passage for college applicants for decades.
But what if you didn’t have to “do” school and testing this way? What if the high-stakes testing approach taken by most high schools isn’t working for the bulk of the students… and what if there were a better way?
I’m no expert on education, but I’ve spent a while observing my children’s public school experiences, and I’ve reflected on my own schools. I’ve also worked in the past with education professors, to learn about how they teach teachers and what kinds of teaching methods they promote.
What I’m coming to see is that so much of the current system is just not functioning for so many students. During the pandemic, a lot of failures in the way students are taught and assessed came to light, especially for those in underserved or underfunded districts and those dealing with challenges at home. Students got report cards filled with Ds and Fs, and were forced into summer school. They hadn’t learned the material, but then again, the teaching approach hadn’t given them much of a chance once they fell behind or missed tests due to tough online learning conditions.
That’s why teachers and school districts are starting to downplay testing and even grading via rigid points systems. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, teachers and administrators described the changes they were making as the pandemic and school closures severely affected student performance—and as they began to see academic differences among groups. The story describes
… a growing trend in which educators are moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups. The trend was accelerated by the pandemic and school closures that caused troubling increases in Ds and Fs across the country and by calls to examine the role of institutionalized racism in schools in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.
Los Angeles and San Diego Unified—the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined—have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policies encourage teachers to give students opportunities to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have met learning goals, rather than enforcing hard deadlines.
My kids got a taste of this kind of approach in their middle school, when their math teacher offered them a chance to retake tests to improve their scores. It greatly lessened their stress about individual tests without dimming their desire to learn the material. In fact, they learned more overall by retaking tests that at first seemed daunting, and by studying the material for longer, in greater depth.
Unfortunately, in the local high school, courses don’t work this way. Students are thrown into midterms and finals and high points value final projects where they don’t even know how they’re being assessed until their semester grades are entered into the official grade book—too late to change anything or learn anything new for that particular unit.
It’s painful. It’s arbitrary. And it doesn’t give students a chance to actually improve if something goes wrong.
My high school daughter explains that many of her teachers are “teaching to the test.” She says they want students can do well enough to pass final exams—but that they are not teaching in a way that prepares her and her classmates for the next class in the series. That’s been particularly tough with the unevenness of teaching and class environments during the pandemic.
On top of the mercurial and stressful nature of testing and grading this way, there’s the added element of the many inequities in education that are now being put under the microscope. For both reasons, a new approach is needed. It’s something that I think Epictetus would agree with: He was clear that all people deserved to be educated to become free in their minds—not just the few. All people should have a chance at liberating themselves through learning… no matter the circumstances.
Standardized tests have also been a thorn in the side of teachers for decades, as teacher performance as graded based on testing. To quote Daniel Koretz of Harvard Graduate School of Education,
To undo the problems created by test-based accountability, teachers must refocus instruction on teaching the underlying knowledge and skills that any good test should reflect, rather than spending time preparing kids for the specific test used for accountability.
Again, the argument comes down to helping students master a body of knowledge and skills, rather than assessing a single snapshop of what students memorized and could spit back out onto the page on a specific day.
Side note: This is not to say that student behavior such as tardiness or attendance issues, missing assignments, etc., shouldn’t have any impact or any measurement. In fact, some schools working on mastery approaches are adopting a “citizenship” grading system to capture some of these elements, separate from the typical transcript. It wouldn’t be part of students’ GPA.
Here in Northern California, a local independent school near my home uses a “mastery-based learning model,” which they explain this way: “Students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of all competencies and skills identified in a course before moving on, thereby reducing the number of ‘gaps’ in their education. Academic progress in a discipline is decoupled from age… While the time it takes a student to finish a course may vary, the depth of mastery remains constant.” When their students apply to colleges, they submit a mastery transcript, rather than one full of As, Bs, Cs, or Ds.
In some California schools, districts expect students to know 80% of the material before they can move on from a unit; they aren’t allowed to pass through without demonstrating competency.
This approach is already well underway far outside of California, too, and larger districts or even states have already adopted it—showing it isn’t only an option for small or private schools.
Mastery-based education, also known as competency-based education, has taken root in the state of Idaho, for example. The Idaho state department of education website says that the Idaho legislature voted to move towards this style of teaching in 2014, and that
Mastery-based education empowers students, personalizes learning, supports the demonstration of competencies (the knowledge, skills, and personal attributes that lead to success), and recognizes mastery by allowing students to advance as they demonstrate their knowledge and skills regardless of time, place or pace.
With Mastery-Based Education, failure is not an option. Mastery systems give students the opportunities they need to demonstrate their competency with appropriate pacing and supports. Assessments are purposeful and demonstrate what students can do, not just what they know. Learning is flexible, self-paced, engaging, and focused on building skills critical to college, career, and life…
The most promising thing I’ve taken away from this approach is the quote above: "Failure is not an option."
This way of thinking, to me, embodies a Stoic message: It’s through adversity that we can learn the most, and that we have the chance to build and deploy our virtues. It’s by learning skills for the sake of understanding and growth that we better ourselves and exercise our human excellence, not simply cramming to prove ourselves to others or compete with them. It’s when we fail that we see we could do better and keep going, acting on what is in power at any given moment. It’s our intention to learn and improve as humans that powers us forward.
This idea of working at it until you master something is difficult for many students, and it may seem easier to assign a grade (even if it's low) and move on... but shouldn't we give students the chance to build real skills?
This is a timely concept. In a period when many, many students received Ds and Fs during online learning in 2020-21, and when many classes and instructors weren’t able to adequately help students understand the subject matter, we have to re-think what it means to “fail” students.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.