The Redesign of the Traditional High School Transcript

High school is all about numbers: GPA, SAT/ACT scores, class rank, hours of community service, number of extracurricular activities and electives, to name a few. Reducing a heap of data to a few numbers has its benefits. First, it allows for more efficient processing of data. It is difficult to imagine what the college admissions process would look like if quantitative data were omitted. There would not be enough hours in the day to read essays, interview applicants, and consult references. Second, quantitative data helps to compare students. One student is a top performer in an AP Chemistry class; another excels at IB Biology. Who could say which student is stronger if there weren’t a consistent evaluation system?

The problem with today’s educational climate is that such a “consistent evaluation system” is sorely lacking. Grade inflation, uneven quality of instruction, and varying availability of course offerings means that two students, each with a 4.0 GPA at their respective high schools, may differ radically in terms of preparation for college. The vagueness about the GPA of a particular student at a particular school is one of the reasons that colleges and universities rely on the SAT and ACT tests. Neither is a strong assessor of student achievement in the classroom, since schools vary dramatically in terms of content taught, but at least the results are standardized: on a given Saturday, every test-taker in the continental U.S. will see the same test. And so students must focus on around a dozen data points when applying to college, each of which provides an incomplete snapshot of their abilities.

Enter the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), an effort by more than a hundred private high schools to redesign the traditional high school transcript. The goal is not a transcript with grades provided per course attended, but one that indicates the areas in which a student achieved mastery. Rather than seeing that a student earned a B+ in English II, the mastery transcript would indicate that the student had a mastery level of “analytical and creative thinking,” particularly in “analyzing and creating ideas and knowledge,” skills that the student may have learned in several classes or independently. Each student would have a transcript that would include “earned credits” for mastery of skills such as “global perspective,” “adaptability, initiative, and risk-taking,” and “integrity and ethical decision-making.” The transcript is designed for an admissions officer to read in less than two minutes.

The benefit of this type of transcript would be the admission office’s focus on a student’s mastery of a subject rather than simply “seat time.” An officer would require less time and energy figuring out what a 3.7 GPA at a particular high school means if she had a list of skills that a student had achieved proficiency or mastery.

There are many challenges, risks, and potential consequences to implementing such a transcript. First, there would be a need to standardize the definition of proficiency and mastery among participating high schools, or else we are back where we started, simply replacing the grade designations of A and B with the words “mastery” and “proficiency.” Unfortunately, one of the core principles to the MTC is that content will never be standardized across schools. This core principle threatens the ability of the mastery transcript to expand beyond schools that have already demonstrated the strength of their rigor to top colleges and universities.

Second, it would remain to be seen if the mastery transcript concept could jump from the elite private school camp into that of the low and middle-income public school. With a first-time “capital commitment” starting at $50,000 and annual fees starting at $2,500, it would certainly be an investment on the part of a school already strained with its current budget. If the MTC remains a reporting method used chiefly among elite private schools, it might provide an alternate pathway for high-income students to get into competitive schools, one that is not available to the majority of high schoolers. The consortium could be contrasted with the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, which targets under-resourced students.

Third, there remains the challenge of communicating the vision of a mastery transcript to students and families. What freshman high schooler would not leap at the idea of not receiving letter grades at the end of each semester? Yet the mastery transcript would be the replacement of a traditional high school transcript, read by an admissions officer, and subjected to the same scrutiny. It would require much work to impress upon students and families that the responsibility for actively learning and engaging in class is not lessened, but possibly heightened, with this new transcript.

Other competency-based programs are starting up, most notably in Maine, where a law requires all schools to convert to a proficiency-based diploma by 2021. Like the Transcript Mastery Consortium, a competency-based learning program would seek to prove that a student has mastered particular concepts before moving on to others.

For the majority of today’s students, the Mastery Transcript and competency-based diplomas will not be something they will experience during their time in high school; however, those attending the MTC member schools or states with new education agendas, like Maine, should be aware of the potentially massive change to how their performance is reported.

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