When my husband introduces a new seminar topic for his training business, he works hard to develop the new course. Before he can present any new workshop to a paying audience, he must understand the concepts and become proficient with the new material. He has to anticipate which topics might confuse those in attendance, then come up with alternate ways of presenting the same information. His goal is their full understanding.

Similarly when my daughter cooked for a nearby golf course restaurant, she had dozens of recipes to memorize and many kitchen appliances to master (not to mention the necessary people skills). The clubhouse had high standards for their meals, and she had to give each customer exactly what they ordered. Neither my husband nor my daughter would continue to work in their jobs if they didn’t master the needed concepts and skills.

As homeschoolers, we have a tremendous opportunity to lay in front of our children the same expectation that future employers will: mastery! Whereas public and private schools assign letter grades and annually promote students by grade levels, we who homeschool can use the mastery of concepts as our standard to measure student achievement.

Assign Grades or Assess Mastery?

Have you ever heard homeschoolers say they give their children report cards? No? Well, I haven’t either. That’s because we homeschoolers don’t have to assign grades to our children’s schoolwork. Daily as I sit beside my six-year-old, near my twelve-year-old, and across the table from my fourteen-year-old, I know which subjects are easy for them and which ones give them trouble. I watch them work math problems and hear them read aloud. I see their cursive and read their writing assignments almost as soon as they are finished. We discuss Bible chapters, history assignments, and the world’s current events almost every day. I continually assess their work—as they well know, because then I require corrections and updates.

I am not looking for academic perfection from my children. Perfection is an unattainable standard for us humans. Instead, I am seeking mastery. Mastery means full command or understanding of a subject. Understanding implies much more than a right answer. It also means knowing why the answer is correct.

For instance, in a word problem asking for the volume of water in a swimming pool, my son might correctly decide he needs to multiply the pool’s length by its width by its depth. He might write down “12 ft x 10 ft x 5 ft = 60 cubic feet.” That shows me he understands that volume requires multiplication and is expressed in cubic units. Since he got the answer wrong, he may need more work on his multiplication tables (or the use of his calculator!), but he understands how to calculate volume in a real-life situation.

In our homeschool, mastery means not moving ahead until concepts are solidly understood; no third-grade math or spelling workbook until second-grade concepts are firm. Likewise, completing all the pages doesn’t mean we are finished with the topics. If we need more work, I borrow another curriculum or look for study aids on the Internet. It’s a blessing that I am able to teach (and slowly reteach) until mastery is achieved. For my older children, mastery can mean making the effort to memorize, working to reread, and struggling through rewriting essays. The ultimate test of understanding is this: can my child explain the material to someone else?

In public schools, letter grades are the measure of understanding. Remember the bell curve? By definition, it’s a graphical representation of a “normal” distribution of data. Grades are used in classrooms because of the sheer number of students each teacher must evaluate. The majority of students “should” receive a grade of C, and a smaller percentage of students should get A’s and B’s with equally small percentages receiving D’s and F’s. But what if they all understand the concept? Shouldn’t all students get A’s if they master the information? What if no one has a good grasp on the material? What’s “normal” about that? Why can’t the teacher spend a few more classes, or additional weeks, reteaching the concepts until all students grasp them? Classroom teachers have to walk a fine line, because they can’t fail the whole class or fall behind the syllabus.

My oldest daughter is now in graduate school for a medical profession. Throughout her college years, she was asked, “How did you get grades in homeschooling?” She’d reply that in our homeschool, she received A’s—but it wasn’t because we were easy on her, taught to a test, or dumbed downed her assignments. It wasn’t that I just gave her an A because I am biased! Instead, she worked on a topic until she totally learned the material, even if that meant taking extra time. She was never moved on to more difficult material until she mastered the concepts, completed the assignment well, or excelled in her written work. Her good grades in our homeschool high school were based on the fact that she worked hard to master the material. And boy, did that pay off for her in college! She was well prepared for the quicker pace and the difficult material there.

Because college admissions officers and potential employers want a high school transcript, we adopted a contract approach to assigning letter grades. Before each semester, I would create weighted grading criteria for each course. She would agree to those expectations, thus forming our contract. For instance, her biology grade was based on:

  • Assigned Reading & Practice Problems 50%
  • Labs/Dissections & Lab Notebook 25%
  • Study Guides & Chapter Tests 25%

While not a measure of success in our homeschool, these grades gave a measurable value to her studies for others.

I recently heard another homeschool mom tell the story of her child, who struggled with Algebra 1. Math had never been her forte and probably wouldn’t be something she would need to pursue in the future. The mother, who is one wise woman, decided it was best not to promote that child into Algebra 2. Instead, she asked her child to spend the next year teaching algebra to her younger sibling. Being responsible for teaching Algebra 1 required that her daughter understand the material at a whole new level. It gave her a year to improve her working knowledge of the subject, to the point where she was able to teach it. Now that’s learning algebra! What a great example of striving for mastery, not just giving out a grade.

Grade Levels vs. Mastery

When signing up my sons for sports leagues, I’ve often had to pause to remember what “grade” they are in before I fill out the forms. It can be a bit comical when a coach or a league official asks my boys what grade they are in, because until they enter high school, they usually have no idea how to answer that question.

In those contexts, grade levels are really just age groupings, done for the convenience of schools. Schools place children of the same grade into the same classrooms. They assume that kids the same age must be doing approximately the same level of academic work. In other words, all eight-year-olds must be ready to write in cursive, and all twelve-year-olds must be ready to work with decimals. By putting children in grade levels, teachers can mass-produce education.

But as homeschoolers, grade levels are irrelevant to us. We are tutoring our children, utilizing an individualized approach. If our eight-year-old is ready to work decimals, so be it. If our high schooler needs to review long division, we can do that too. We want our children to master concepts, not just progress according to a predetermined schedule. I don’t promote my kids to the next curriculum (or “grade”) until they understand the current material, but once they do, we quickly move on to the next concept.

Let me give an example. Like every human being God has ever created, each of my six children is unique. One is particularly gifted with numbers, so he excels in math (which makes his siblings a bit jealous). Now fourteen years old, he is completing geometry and Algebra II simultaneously. It’s not the first time I’ve had him double up on math; last year he studied Algebra 1 and a course called Mental Math at the same time. His grade level is officially eighth; his math competency is much higher. What a blessing to be homeschooling so he’s not locked into a lower level of math, predetermined just by his “grade”!

As we prepare our children for life, we want them to become competent, caring adults. We work to launch graduates who can enter new situations with confidence. I am so thankful that homeschooling allows our students to focus on true learning, not just passing a test. Mastery beats grades any day. 

This article was published in the May/June 2016 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine.

Melanie Hexter and her husband, Matthew, started their homeschool journey in 1998. With two graduates and four children still at home, they ask the Lord to teach them how to uniquely educate each child. The Hexters love to travel the US, using their Colorado Springs home as a western base. Melanie is working on two books and offers several homeschool curricula, including the U.S. National Parks Unit Study, for download at www.LEMILOEpublishing.com. LEMILOE is their family motto: Live Every Moment In Light Of Eternity.