Why students in public and private high schools will all benefit from a mastery transcript

February 07, 2018 by

By Guest Authors Patricia Russell and Susan Bell

This article originally appeared on Education Dive on October 11, 2017. Patricia Russell is Chief Education & Operations Officer of Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) and most recently dean of studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, an independent residential high school founded in 1778, and Susan Bell is an advisor to the MTC and superintendent of schools in Windsor Locks, CT. This blog previews our February 9, 2018 Hot Lunch.

Some might say we’re unlikely partners because we represent two distinct areas in the educational universe — private and public schools. As different as we may seem, we share so many of the same goals for students. In fact, after learning more about each other’s work, we quickly realized that working together on a mastery transcript could ultimately help all of our students — in public and in private schools. After all, all the kids we currently serve must be better prepared for a less-predictable economy and a more-connected world.

Like most Americans, the two of us attended public high schools that featured programs built around subjects like math, English, and history, and we earned credits based in those subjects. Our schools also had fairly unyielding tracking systems — ways of placing students into “ability levels” that were dependent largely on students’ work ethic and compliance rather than the depth and breadth of their skill development and understanding. In this design, school is supposed to be an efficient — and unmistakably industrial — human sorting machine.

The two of us went off to college with the understanding that we knew enough to succeed in our courses. Fast forward a few decades, and now we are in positions in which it certainly would be easier to maintain the same model with some tweaks here and there for our current students. After all, the system worked quite well for the two of us; we were accepted to colleges, have careers and reasonable financial stability as a result. Why, then, are we so determined to disrupt the old transcript model?

The system is ill-equipped to prepare today’s students for the world they’ll inherit.

Students graduating from high school in 2018 will live their entire lives in a globalized digital economy that requires different skills, mindsets and habits than those required of our generation. While we remain indebted to our own teachers and to our dedicated colleagues today, we also fully recognize that assessing and crediting students with grades, largely based on content knowledge, as the central carrot and stick is no longer sufficient to prepare today’s students.

Current transcripts 'inadequate'

Traditional grades on a high school transcript are restricting our ability to enact needed changes in learning and teaching in schools. Scholars and journalists alike have detailed the flaws of grades on a transcript. As Jessica Lahey notes in an Atlantic Monthly piece, “if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students' peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.”

Grades also indicate precious little about a young person’s developing ability to adapt to new situations, to work cooperatively with a diverse group of people, to retain knowledge, or to apply what they’ve learned in real world contexts.

For all of these reasons, the two of us are working together with the Mastery Transcript Consortium, part of a much larger movement in education. Schools in the Great Schools Partnership, Mastery Collaborative, Big Picture Learning, XQ Super School Project, and EdLeader21 represent but a sampling of public school networks that are also exploring and implementing a more comprehensive mastery-based assessment system, also known as competency-based or proficiency-based assessments.

A stubborn obstacle in our way is the almost universal high school transcript, which not only aims to present a student’s academic record, but also inevitably shapes each student’s educational experience in school. If we change the transcript to present mastery of knowledge and a wider set of skills including academic and social and emotional mindsets and habits, we will help clear ground for teaching methods that fit our era and more opportunities for all students.

While some opponents of a mastery transcript with mastery credits instead of grades have suggested that this model will only help elite, private schools, we believe wholeheartedly that it will not only work — but will benefit — public and private school students alike.

A mastery transcript allows teachers the time and space to teach the way students learn best. Students of all ages learn most effectively when they are both interested in and challenged by the learning tasks. Most students today spend so much of their time thinking and worrying about being tested, graded — essentially, being judged — that they are not sufficiently engaged in productive, challenging, learning experiences that help to develop their talents, support their learning goals, and prepare them for the next level of mastery.

The model is spreading

What’s more, we know that mastery based education works. Windsor Locks is a small, public school district with a high school that was, until recently, considered one of the lowest performing in the state. The current 10th graders will be the first to graduate from Windsor Locks in 2020 under the new assessment system. Similarly, there are very promising data emerging from New Hampshire districts that are part of the Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) program. According to Chris Sturgis, co-founder of Competency Works, there have been measurable improvements in math, English, and student engagement in districts where teachers and students have been fully supported in implementing the PACE program.

Meanwhile, the growing Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is a group of more than 130 independent schools forging ahead to build and pilot a digital transcript so that students’ strengths, knowledge, skills, mindsets, and habits can all be more fully represented in a clear, transparent, and highly readable digital format. The MTC hopes to have a prototype up and running in a small number of public and private pilot schools as early as the 2018-19 school year and has promised that the student’s full profile showing all the mastery credits earned will be easy to interpret and readable in under two minutes so that it won’t make the already difficult jobs of college admissions officers any more so.

As we talk with teachers, parents and students at Windsor Locks High School and at Phillips Academy, they have very similar suggestions for improving their schools. Teachers want to mentor students who are excited about and engaged in problem-solving and projects that allow them to transfer their new knowledge and skills with purpose. Parents are eager to understand their own child’s progress and to know that their kid will be adequately prepared for higher education and an increasingly hard-to-predict set of professional opportunities and challenges. Students want to be judged less, mentored more, and are eager to identify their own strengths and where they can work hard to improve their skills.

Current high school students are the ones who will soon be leading all facets of our increasingly complicated world. We think they deserve educations that will prepare them for the challenge.

(Photo Credit: Education Dive)