Mastery-Based Learning and Grading

Ten Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning from Great Schools Partnership

Over the past decade, the movement to adopt proficiency-based approaches to teaching, learning, and graduating has gained momentum throughout the United States, as more educators, parents, business leaders, and elected officials recognize that high academic expectations and strong educational preparation are essential to success in today’s world. Schools use proficiency-based learning to raise academic standards, ensure that more students meet those higher expectations, and graduate more students better prepared for adult life.

To help schools establish a philosophical and pedagogical foundation for their work, the Great Schools Partnership created the following “Ten Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning,” which describe the common features found in the most effective proficiency-based systems:

1. All learning expectations are clearly and consistently communicated to students and families, including longterm expectations (such as graduation requirements and graduation standards), short-term expectations (such as the specific learning objectives for a course or other learning experience), and general expectations (such as the performance levels used in the school’s grading and reporting system).

2. Student achievement is evaluated against common learning standards and performance expectations that are consistently applied to all students regardless of whether they are enrolled in traditional courses or pursuing alternative learning pathways.

3. All forms of assessment are standards-based and criterion-referenced, and success is defined by the achievement of expected standards, not relative measures of performance or student-to-student comparisons.

4. Formative assessments measure learning progress during the instructional process, and formative-assessment results are used to inform instructional adjustments, teaching practices, and academic support.

5. Summative assessments evaluate learning achievement, and summative-assessment results record a student’s level of proficiency at a specific point in time.

6. Academic progress and achievement are monitored and reported separately from work habits, character traits, and behaviors such as attendance and class participation, which are also monitored and reported.

7. Academic grades communicate learning progress and achievement to students and families, and grades are used to facilitate and improve the learning process.

8. Students are given multiple opportunities to improve their work when they fail to meet expected standards.

9. Students can demonstrate learning progress and achievement in multiple ways through differentiated assessments, personalized-learning options, or alternative learning pathways.

10. Students are given opportunities to make important decisions about their learning, which includes contributing to the design of learning experiences and learning pathways.


SAU 39’s Approach to Mastery-Based Learning:


Mastery-Based Learning and Grading Forum Presentation

Glossary of Terms

Frequently Asked Questions


One-Page Briefing Papers

What are learning standards?

What is assessment?

What is performance assessment?

How do colleges view proficiency-based transcripts?

What is proficiency-based grading?

How does proficiency-based learning work?


Additional Resources

Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading by Patricia L. Scriffiny

Charting a Course to Standards-Based Grading: What to Stop, What to Start, and Why It Matters by Tim R. Westerberg

Five Obstacles to Grading Reform by Thomas R. Guskey

Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning by Cathy Vatterott

On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting by Thomas R. Guskey