What Does It Mean to Master Content in a History Classroom?

A few years back I made an attempt to shift my history classroom to a standards based one. So as to not confuse the students and stress out the families, I still gave letter grades on individual assignments. I just kept a spreadsheet that tracked students in terms of their skills. I eventually abandoned it when it became clear that it was quite a bit more work for me and I wasn’t able to get the kids to focus on the spreadsheet as opposed to the graded assignment. I just didn’t have it in me to sustain it through to a successful conclusion.

This summer, I planned to revisit the idea of introducing spreadsheets and standards based grading into my class because ultimately I believe it provides better information than my comments and letter grades (which I eventually have to translate into a number which adds another layer of complexity). I am inspired by a colleague who started the standards based journey when I did but stayed the course and has been using standards spreadsheets for a few years now. In June and July, I could never quite get myself to sit down and think about this while the school year seemed far in the future but now that classes are a week away and I am thinking about the logistics of my gradebook, it seems like now or never.

I know¬†I could write standards for research, writing, presenting, and even reading both primary and secondary sources – the skills part of the curriculum. The challenge I feel is in the content. Clearly the history matters in a history class, but what would mastery of content look like for a high school student? If I go by how well students use history to make arguments and answer questions, it might work. But I have this gut feeling that they use content, yet they don’t really master it. My students come closest with their research papers where they spend a lot of time working with a fairly narrow body of material. Even then, mastery seems like a tall order. If a student does well on an in-class writing assignment using appropriate detail to answer a question but then cannot respond to the same prompt a month later without preparation, how do I evaluate that on a standard? If students will forget the majority of the content over the summer, after they take the course, have they mastered content? How do I know what they have learned deeply as opposed to what they have retained for the short term? Does memory mean mastery? I’ve been teaching and studying history for decades now and I have to revisit my content on a regular basis – does that mean I have not mastered it?

All of this takes me back to my title question – one that I have to answer before I can really embrace standards based grading in my classroom, I think. What does mastery of content look like in the history classroom? Initially, I thought it meant learning the content but now I’m not even sure exactly what that means. Maybe mastery is about understanding and using the content appropriately. Thoughts?