ABCs to ATMs - The Case for Paying Students to Learn

Chapter 6: Mastery and Micro-Assessments

From Standardization to Individual Mastery

In the conventional educational landscape, large standardized tests have long been the gatekeepers of academic success. They come with their own set of challenges: test anxiety, memorization over understanding, and a one-size-fits-all approach that often leaves diverse learners in the dust. Enter the era of mastery and micro-assessments, a shift that aligns neatly with the concept of paying students for learning. This chapter will delve into how replacing large standardized tests with micro-assessments not only improves the educational experience but also provides a more authentic measure of mastery.

The Imperative for Accountability

With the introduction of financial incentives for educational accomplishment, the stakes are higher, not just for students but for the educational system at large. Financial fraud is a tangible risk when students are being paid for their academic achievements. To counteract this, stringent verification processes are in place. Identities are confirmed before assessments, which are conducted in proctored settings that minimize the possibility of cheating. Teachers are still there to guide and prepare students for these assessments, but they can no longer pass a student who hasn’t truly earned it. This framework establishes a high level of accountability that keeps the integrity of the educational transaction intact.

When you hear a story about people in high school but at a 3rd-grade reading level, this is exactly what has happened. An emphasis on grade levels tied loosely to age means students are “kindly” passed along without skills or accountability.

The Beauty of Micro-Assessments

Micro-assessments break down what would be a large, monolithic exam into smaller, more focused evaluations. Each assessment is tied to a specific “learning gig,” providing a clear pathway for both study and mastery. The materials for these micro-assessments are transparently available, and the questions are direct, culled from the educational resources themselves. In contrast to the sometimes tricky questions often found in standardized tests, these queries are straightforward, designed to assess true understanding rather than the ability to navigate a confusing question.

The system is also built to identify which questions throw off otherwise good students so that the questions can be reviewed and clarified if need be. The goal is never a hierarchy of grades – but a simple pass/fail of sufficient mastery of the topic.  And failure only means to go back, study, and try again.

Mastery Learning: A New Paradigm

Mastery is not about recalling facts from two years ago; it’s about understanding a concept so thoroughly that you can apply it in real-world situations. Traditional educational models focus on a broad curriculum, much of which is forgotten soon after the final exam. The mastery model, however, focuses on specific, useful, and concise information that a student must understand deeply. 

The Retention Equation

Let’s confront an educational reality: much of what we learn in school is forgotten. Yet, the concept of mastery coupled with micro-assessments challenges this norm. By focusing on more specific and applicable knowledge—and by actually applying it in various projects—students are more likely to retain what they’ve learned. And because they don’t have to cram a multitude of topics for a single, high-stakes test, they’re also less likely to forget material after the assessment. Continuous, lifelong learning is a habit that is built from an early age and carried into adulthood.

A Harmonious Symbiosis

Mastery learning and micro-assessments offer a harmonious solution to many of the problems plaguing traditional educational assessment methods. With the added layer of financial incentives, these focused, accountable assessments pave the way for a more equitable, effective, and enriching educational experience. As we move toward this new model, we’re not just paying students to learn; we’re investing in a future where education is both a personal achievement and a societal good.

Student Perspective: Attendance

How students see attendance as reported by multiple surveys.

We conducted surveys in multiple schools that have a population where attendance is an issue. As of this writing, 100% of students have reported that being paid to go to school would improve their attendance.

Attendance in school is crucial for academic success for several reasons. Consistent attendance allows students to engage with the curriculum in a structured way, participate in interactive learning experiences, and benefit from the social and emotional development that comes with being part of a school community. Missing school not only results in gaps in knowledge but also breaks the continuity of learning, making it difficult for students to catch up, especially in subjects that build on previous lessons like math and science.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Education, chronic absenteeism, defined as missing at least 15 days of school in a single academic year, is strongly associated with lower academic performance. The study found that only 64% of fourth-graders who were chronically absent in kindergarten and first grade were proficient in reading, compared to 82% of those with better attendance. The gap widened for mathematics, where 60% of chronically absent students scored proficient, compared to 89% of those who attended school regularly (“Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools: An Unprecedented Look at a Hidden Educational Crisis,” U.S. Department of Education, 2016). This data underscores the vital role that attendance plays in academic achievement.

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Ron McDaniel
Author of “ABCs to ATMs”
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