Mastery and Standards Based Learning

WJSD Frequently Asked Questions

Why is WJSD exploring Standards-based Learning principles and Mastery-Based Principles?

In 2015, House Bill 110 directed the department to perform the following activities to begin implementing Idaho Mastery Education:

  • Conduct a statewide awareness campaign to promote understanding and interest in Mastery-based Education for teachers, administrators, parents, students, business leaders and policymakers.
  • Establish a committee of educators to identify roadblocks and possible solutions in implementing Mastery Education and develop recommendations for the incubator process.
  • Facilitate the planning and development of an incubator process and assessments of local education agencies to identify the initial cohort of 20 local education agencies to serve as incubators in fiscal year 2017.

The Idaho Mastery Education law is codified under Idaho Code 33-1632.


 Is every class using standards-based grading?

No. While every class must use state standards to guide course topics, most core classes are using it. Some electives are still using a traditional grading system while tying their grading to their standards.

Will my student receive a letter grade?

Yes. The following will be used to determine the final letter grade in classes using a 4 point scale:

Tri-mester Letter Grade

Trends in Proficiency Levels on Course Standards


All standards achieved at “3” or “4” levels


All standards achieved at “2”, “3” or “4” levels with at most one standard at level “2”


All standards achieved at “2”, “3” or “4” levels with two or more standards at “2” level


All standards achieved at “1”, “2”, “3” or “4” levels with at most one standard at “1” level


All standards achieved at “1”, “2”, “3” or “4” levels with two or more standards at “1” level

 Will this hurt their chances for College Scholarships?

No. Students will still receive a grade in the course, a GPA and class rankings; all essential elements of most scholarship applications. What the research says it will do is help students take more ownership of their learning and focus on their learning and less on a grade.


How does It Help Each student Take More Ownership of Their Learning?

Each student’s experience is based on a “competency framework.” Learners can describe the skills and knowledge they are working toward, and how that learning meaningfully connects to their own lives and futures.

Learners can also locate themselves on a developmental spectrum of specific skills and knowledge, justify their location on that spectrum, and describe what they are working toward achieving.

Learners can articulate the connections between the skills and knowledge they are developing, and the performance-based assessments they are working on. They can also articulate how each of these relate to the world and/or specific postsecondary pathways.

Learners can describe the work they are conducting and the portfolio of work they have completed, and explain how that work relates to their learning goals.


Why Now?

Standards-Based has been implemented in parts over the last 4 years at the Elementary and High School. Standards-Based has been around for a long time. It is catching on in many parts of Idaho and nationally. With the uncertainty surrounding COVID it may be the perfect time to implement it. As the focus will be on less things like watching a video and answering questions or filling out a worksheet. The focus should be on what the state and teachers have identified as the most essential learning that should take place in a class. Accordion to a Stanford University article written and published in 2000:

“The history of standards-based reform goes back to the educational philosophies of Benjamin Bloom, through his 1956 work "Taxonomy of Educational Objectives."  In his work, Bloom discusses the importance of requiring students to develop "higher-order thinking skills," which was a movement away from rote memorized learning.  The philosophies of Bloom were a driving force in the first uprising of standards-based reform, then called "Outcome Based Reform" ( OBE).  Critics of OBE were dismayed by the non-definitive word "outcome," and it was soon changed to the current term, "Standards-Based Reform."

    Standards-based reform first gained momentum in 1983, during the Reagan era, with the federal educational goals and objectives highlighted in "Nation at Risk."  This federal interest in reforming education lasted through the Bush ("America 2000") and Clinton eras, and is currently known as "Goals 2000."  The standards-based reform movement [as of 2000 is] employed by the following states:  California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington.

In 2020 Most states will use some form of Standards-Based Education.  Around us some of the districts researching or already a part of it include Fremont School District, Bonneville, Ririe, Salmon, Rigby, Madison, West Side and according to the State Dept of Ed. almost 100 other schools across the state are either already doing it, implementing it or are exploring it.

As a little background, it was moving to mastery that was the number one recommendation of the Governors Task Force in 2013. Here is a link to national trends:


What is the Definition of Idaho Mastery Education?

Idaho Mastery Education is a student-centered learning system that promotes relevant learning while allowing flexibility in both time and teaching methods, where student success is the only option.


What is the Difference between Standards-Based Grading (or Reporting) and Competency-Based Education?

Standards-based grading “involves measuring students’ proficiency on well-defined course objectives.” (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006).


Is there any research or expert opinion supporting this decision?

There is almost 40 years of research on the topic. Please look through some of the summaries of the research here.


As a Parent What Questions Should I ask my Student’s Teacher?

  • How can I support my child best in this new environment? How does my role as a parent change?
  • How does my child need to be prepared to start school?
  • How will I be kept up to date on my student’s progress, including any challenges my student may be facing?
  • My student has an IEP. What does this mean for him?
  • What happens if my child is struggling to understand a concept? How will she get caught up?

What is the Difference between Standards-Based Grading (or Reporting) and Competency-Based Education?

What is standards-based grading? 

(taken from Townsley, Matt. "What is the Difference between Standards-Based Grading (or Reporting) and Competency-Based Education?" Editorial. Aurora Institute, 11 Nov. 2014).

Standards-based grading “involves measuring students’ proficiency on well-defined course objectives.” (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). (Note: Standards-based reporting involves reporting these course objectives rather than letter grades at the end of each grading/reporting period.)

The visual below compares traditional grading with standards-based grading practices.

Traditional Grading System

Standards-Based Grading System

1. Based on assessment methods (quizzes, tests, homework, projects, etc.). One grade/entry is given per assessment.

1. Based on learning goals and performance standards. One grade/entry is given per learning goal.

2. Assessments are based on a percentage system. Criteria for success may be unclear.

2. Standards are criterion or proficiency-based. Criteria and targets are made available to students ahead of time.

3. Use an uncertain mix of assessment, achievement, effort, and behavior to determine the final grade. May use late penalties and extra credit.

3. Measures achievement only OR separates achievement from effort/behavior. No penalties or extra credit given.

4. Everything goes in the grade book – regardless of purpose.

4. Selected assessments (tests, quizzes, projects, etc.) are used for grading purposes.

5. Include every score, regardless of when it was collected. Assessments record the average – not the best – work.

5. Emphasize the most recent evidence of learning when grading.

Adapted from O’Connor K (2002).  How to Grade for Learning: Linking grades to standards (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

In this district, secondary teachers are required to abide by the following grading guidelines:

  1. Entries in the grade book that count towards the final grade will be limited to course or grade level standards.**
  2. Extra credit will not be given at any time.
  3. Students will be allowed multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of classroom standards in various ways. Retakes and revisions will be allowed.
  4. Teachers will determine grade book entries by considering multiple points of data emphasizing the most recent data and provide evidence to support their determination.
  5. Students will be provided multiple opportunities to practice standards independently through homework or other class work. Practice assignments and activities will be consistent with classroom standards for the purpose of providing feedback. Practice assignments, including homework, will not be included as part of the final grade.

** Exceptions will be made for midterm and/or final summative assessments. These assessments, limited to no more than one per nine-week period, may be reported as a whole in the grade book.

What is Master-Based or Competency Based?

Under a competency-based education system, “learners advance through content or earn credit based on demonstration of proficiency of competencies” rather than seat time. (Source: Iowa Department of Education CBE Pathways.)

With so many definitions of CBE available, I settled on principles of competency-based education from Iowa’s Guidelines for PK-12 Competency-Based Pathways as a reputable framework, because they were adapted from International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL). I’ve included the CBE Pathways principles and their descriptors below.

  • Students Advance upon Mastery 
    • Students advance to higher-level work upon demonstration of mastery of standards rather than according to age or seat time.
    • Students are evaluated on performance and application.
    • Students will master standards and earn credit or advance in content at their own pace.
    • They will work through some standards more rapidly while taking more time to ensure mastery on others.

What are some ways in which standards-based grading and competency-based education are similar?

In both systems…

  • Students learn specific standards or competencies based on a pre-determined rubric.
  • Students take more ownership of their learning, because it (learning) is communicated rather than “Project 3” or “Worksheet 4-2.”
  • Using assessments in formative ways is the norm rather than exception.

These two systems may be similar in some contexts. For example, learning outcomes could emphasize application and creation of knowledge in a classroom that uses a standards-based grading philosophy, but, by definition in a standards-based system, this may or may not be the case. Similarly, experiences could be designed around students’ needs and life experiences in a standards-based grading classroom, but it is not necessarily the norm.

What are some ways in which standards-based grading and competency-based education are different?

In a competency-based system…

  • Students advance to higher-level work and can earn credit at their own pace. (In a building, district, or classroom using a standards-based grading philosophy, this is not necessarily the case. Students are likely required to complete x number of hours of seat time in order to earn credit for the course.)
  • Learning expands beyond the classroom. This may or may not take place in a standards-based grading philosophy. For example, in a competency-based system, a student who learns a lot about woodworking over the summer may earn credit when he or she returns to school the next year. Similarly, students are encouraged to learn outside the classroom so that they can demonstrate competencies at their own, rapid rate.
  • Teachers assess skills or concepts in multiple contexts and multiple ways. (This may or may not be the case in a standards-based grading classroom; however, it is non-negotiable in competency-based education.)


A standards-based grading (SBG) philosophy is similar, but not synonymous with, the idea of competency-based education (CBE). SBG is a way of thinking about grading and assessment that more clearly communicates with parents and students how well learners currently understand the course objectives/standards/competencies. CBE is a system in which students move from one level of learning to the next based on their understanding of pre-determined competencies without regard to seat time, days, or hours. A competency-based system may utilize a standards-based report card to communicate student learning; however, the two educational terms are not, by definition, the same.