Competency Without Compromise: Rethinking the High School Transcript
By Amanda Avallone, NGLC Content Manager
This work is about having students go beyond "this is an A" to "this is what knowledge really looks like. --Edgar Montes, Mastery Transcript Consortium
For decades students, educators, and parents have chafed at the limitations posed by the lists of courses, grades, and scores that comprise the traditional report card and transcript. In my own career I've witnessed many classroom-level efforts to provide a more complete and actionable picture of what students know and can do: rubrics, formative feedback, and narrative-style "comment cards," among others. All of these addressed the paucity of information conveyed by a letter or number to some degree. However, they were still teacher-driven practices, relying solely on an educator's or school's choices around coursework, assessment tools, timing, and evidence of learning.
What's more, these new approaches to reporting on student learning seldom tackled the most sacred of reporting institutions: the high school transcript. Learning design innovators have felt constrained by the traditional transcript, but even parents who enthusiastically support next gen learning sometimes express anxiety around making changes, wondering if an unfamiliar transcript format would mar their child's access to postsecondary options.
Fortunately, forward-thinking organizations are now collaborating with school-based innovators to overcome infrastructure barriers to next gen learning like this one. Working with networks of schools, districts, and systems, they are building an ecosystem in which deeper, personalized, and mastery-based learning can thrive.
One such collaboration is the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), a network of more than 200 public and independent schools. Listening carefully to and gathering input from a range of higher education partners, they are redesigning the high school transcript so that it reflects the unique skills, strengths, and interests of each learner. In place of courses taken and grades received in each subject, the new electronic transcript will display Mastery Credits earned in various performance areas--determined by each school--in a user-friendly graphic, along with links to work products each learner has chosen (and the school has certified) as evidence of that mastery.
For this edition of Friday Focus: Practitioner's Guide to Next Gen Learning, I invited three members of the MTC leadership team, Patricia Russell, Edgar Montes, and Susie Bell, to talk about:
What inspires you to take on the task of redesigning the high school transcript?
What is the MTC's vision and approach to doing this work?
How will this effort support student success?
Challenging Systems of Constraint and Compliance
We need to upend an institution that has created a false sense of what's important; we need to reignite the love of learning that 5-year-olds have and keep it lit until they are 18 and beyond. --Susie Bell, Mastery Transcript Consortium
Susie Bell and her colleague Edgar Montes both served as school counselors before joining the MTC. One reason Edgar is attracted to the organization is its support for innovative, more expansive ways of communicating about student mastery. "This work is personal," he says, tracing his dissatisfaction with traditional ways of communicating about learning back to his own childhood. Growing up in a Spanish-speaking home, he found it a challenge to discuss with family members what he was doing in school.
"I go back to conversations I had at the kitchen table with my parents about grades and trying to explain to them what an A means, what 'honors' means," he recalls. To him, a transcript should communicate in a completely different way, one that allows students to express who they are and what they are passionate about, as well as support them to "take ownership of their educational journey and what it really means to be ready for college."
Both of these goals of the MTC's work--enhancing communication about mastery and promoting learner agency--resonate with Susie as well. She chose a career as a counselor, she says, because she wanted to "help students realize their dreams as adults." Over the years, however, she observed that education was becoming increasingly rigid. "It was basically a set of hoops and requirements," she recalls. "It was about compliance and conformity, and nothing about learning or growth or discovering who I am and who I want to be."
She describes how, as a result, students "disengaged from schools because of systems and institutions we've created that don't speak to who they are." Observations like these, she relates, "fueled my fire to become an administrator and move my district to a Mastery-Based Learning model."
Patricia Russell's experiences as a teacher and school leader led to similar conclusions: "Increasingly, I found myself watching students compromise their passions and interests in order to play the game of school," she explains. Still, she acknowledges, it is "hard to change these systems from within at a single institution."
For her, what's striking about the MTC is the power of its network of high schools all working together: "We all have the common idea of what opportunity for learning looks like, what a good school looks like, and how the needs of kids have changed over time. And we have a network of schools who can partner and learn from each other."
Building a Better Transcript, Together
The idea of mastery learning and the network are really important and married together--the MTC is also adding the tool, and that's the transcript. It's the very concrete piece of the puzzle, one that we believe liberates schools who are confined by constraints around grades and transcripts and Carnegie units. --Patricia Russell, Mastery Transcript Consortium
According to Patricia, there are many schools, like those in the NGLC network, who are creating environments where innovation can thrive and where students are owning the educational journey. "But what they are struggling with," she notes, "is how to design the transcript and how to handle the heavy lift of communicating with the increasing number of higher education partners--not to mention employers, internships, and scholarship organizations." This concept model of the Mastery Transcript prototype displays key elements of the landing page from a sample student transcript:
"The idea behind the MTC," she explains, "is to take on some of this burden and create a transcript that would be uniformly recognized and easy to use." Patricia is quick to point out that this is a co-design effort with people who are already engaged in this work. "It's about gathering the learning from many great educators in many great schools," she says.
Patricia also emphasizes that the new transcript, although consistent in format, will be flexible enough to work with a wide range of school models. As she explains, "Each school will need to determine what their Mastery Credits will be in their context and what their threshold for mastery will be at different levels. This work is about banding together as a network to do a very large job together, but still with complete local autonomy on how the teaching and learning is going on in our schools--that's not something the MTC is prescribing."
Even so, all three expressed hope that improving the transcript would serve as a catalyst for rethinking the learning it captures. A transcript that focuses on mastery of skills and content rather than on courses taken would free schools to innovate and empower students to pursue their passions without the threat of damaging their postsecondary prospects.
A transcript based on mastery, Susie argues, "would allow students to build their own pathways toward success and enable them to highlight the talents they've mastered and share evidence with colleges in a real way. That evidence is more of an indication of a student's potential for success than a beautiful letter of recommendation or a traditional transcript."
For Patricia, a mastery-based transcript is also aligned with an equity by design mindset. "It's not about making school easier or learning watered down," she maintains. "It's about taking the lock-step timing away, with high school graduation as the mastery deadline. It's about avoiding the early failure of low grades--something that affects our most susceptible youth--and replacing it with challenging learning. Making learning as deep as possible as soon as possible is equity at its core."
The Road Ahead
The MTC began as a collaboration between independent high schools, but as of July 1 of this year, it has expanded membership to public schools in order to transform the high school experience for all students. Equipped with a Mastery Transcript, the MTC leadership believes that both public and private schools will be able to better prepare students for future learning, careers, and life.
To that end, according to Patricia, the MTC is "gathering mastery models from different schools and retrofitting those into possible transcript designs." The next four-eight months will be devoted to testing out different ways to display student data and getting feedback from member schools and input from high education admissions teams. The goal is to create a functional model for academic year 2019-2020, a "co-design across the network so it will work in as many schools as possible."
"Building A Better Transcript: What Grades Measure, And What They Don't," a commentary by Tony Wagner, provides background on our current system of credits and presents the work of the MTC as "a better way."
In "Why Mastery Makes Sense," MTC founder D. Scott Looney describes how the new transcript will not only assist with the college process but also pave the way for educators to teach in the ways students learn best.
In their opinion piece for Education Dive, Patricia and Susie make the case that a mastery-based transcript will benefit students at both public and independent schools.
In a blog post about learner plans and profiles, NGLC's Kristen Vogt discusses how closely the work to redesign the high school transcript aligns to other K-12 innovations currently gaining traction.
This story from a high school math teacher questions the current focus on speed and volume over true mastery.
Transcend's Graduate Aims Database is a collection of summaries focused on research-based learning outcomes, including information to help define and measure the outcome, insights into how the outcome develops, potential design implications, as well as equity implications.
Photos, from top:
- Students at Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Two Rivers Public Charter School.
- A concept model of the Mastery Transcript prototype, displaying key elements of the landing page from a sample student transcript. Courtesy of Mastery Transcript Consortium.