by Mallory Butcher, staff writer

OCTOBER 2021 – Mastery learning has been a staple of Bio-Med Science Academy since the school’s opening in 2012. Although mastery learning was first proposed in 1968, most schools have not implemented it, and students have raised many concerns over the years about the system. One question asked by students is if the grading scale helps or harms them in the eyes of a college.

Bio-Med Science Academy alumnus Jared Butcher stood in front of the Kent State University Archway located outside of the College of Architecture And Environmental Design. He graduated from Kent State University with a Bachelor of Science in May of 2021.

A major goal for mastery learning has been to get students involved in their education. The system was designed to give opportunities to practice and gain knowledge in the curriculum. The idea was designed with flexibility for students in mind, allowing the individual to combine their strengths and weaknesses as they work through a course. A few states have even adopted mastery learning as their main education model, including Utah, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Ohio, however, has continued to support the traditional model of education.

“What’s hard with mastery schools is that each school defines mastery a little bit differently,” Bio-Med’s Guidance Counselor, Stephanie Hammond, explained. “Colleges understand what that means, but how that looks [from] school to school, they’re not going to know. So that’s where we have to have conversations with schools and talk with them about things [that Bio-Med does differently than a traditional school].”

Colleges are often notified of Bio-Med’s learning system in the form of a description in front of a student’s transcript detailing the school practices. Hammond recounted: “That school profile’s like a four-to five-page document that talks about Bio-Med specifically. What we do, how we do it, courses, what mastery looks like for us, PBL [Problem Based Learning], [and] all of those things.”

Bio-Med’s grading scale is one of the items included in the school’s description. The grades, in descending order, are: exceeds mastery, mastery, developing mastery, not yet mastered, and no evidence of mastery. Exceeds mastery is a grade that can only be earned if students go beyond the requirements of an assignment.

As far as Hammond knew, the idea for our grading system was unique to Bio-Med. When sent to colleges, students’ mastery grades get converted into the traditional A-B-C grading system on transcripts. Exceeds mastery was designed to make up for the school’s lack of weighted GPAs.

“In colleges, I know they kind of ask, ‘What do the different levels of mastery mean; what does that look like, with exceeds being that student that goes above and beyond?’” commented Hammond. “While no, you don’t have AP [Advanced Placement] and IB [International Baccalaureate], we do have CCP [College Credit Plus]…. We do have that exceeds mastery.”

Many students have assumed that mastery, a grade translated to a B on transcripts given when students fulfill the requirements for an assignment, would be an A at another school.

One of those students, Sophomore Mackenzie Thompson, described, “I think, because of how hard we’re pushed here, I think it [mastery] would translate to an A…. I believe we work a little bit harder than normal schools.”

According to Hammond, that answer is complicated. She said, “We know that Bio-Med is rigorous. We know that Bio-Med is difficult. Where it gets tricky is that a B at Bio-Med versus an A at Rootstown, what does that mean? We can say Bio-Med is harder, but in our school profile it doesn’t say a B here is an A at a traditional district.”

Using an uncommon grading scale, like the mastery system, in rural Ohio has forced Bio-Med to communicate with colleges. Although many have applauded their efforts, some students fear college GPA requirements might cause them to face rejections.

Senior Robert Greenwood noted, “What I’ve noticed with some colleges is that they require a certain GPA. The standard is like, 3.5. I’ve had to drag myself through these four years of high school. It’s been a struggle to maintain a three.”

Brian McDonald, Bio-Med’s freshman language arts teacher, disagreed with Greenwood’s concern. McDonald argued, “Students are, in general, over-worried about their grades. I think they should be much more worried about learning and developing the skills of a learner rather than, you know, ‘Will I have a 4.0?… Will I be top of the class? Will I get into this program?’”

Though the staff and students do not always agree on this topic, student concerns with their GPAs have not been ignored. Some solutions Hammond proposed were to focus on academic portfolios and orientation-day projects. Most ideas, however, she immediately rejected due to the time and labor investments.

Hammond concluded, “I also wish more schools would do interviews because I think [that with] a Bio-Med student, we have to take everything we do and turn it into a very traditional transcript, and a school profile is great, but it’s only a couple pages. How could you turn Bio-Med into a pamphlet? I know if you would all do interviews and get to talk about the things that you do here, [that is a] totally different story.”

Hammond noted that colleges are starting to understand how Bio-Med works. In 2019, Bio-Med’s Chief Administrative Officer, Stephanie Lammlein, and Hammond began traveling to colleges such as Hiram, the University of Toledo, Cleveland State, and Mount Union. While there, the two met with other schools to get feedback on sample mastery transcripts. The idea was to start with local colleges and expand outward, but COVID-19 canceled any remaining plans. As of now, they have yet to reschedule meetings with previously planned colleges, such as Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati.

The Hive reached out to Kent State University’s Admissions and The University of Akron’s Office of the University Registrar for comment but received no response from either.

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