Experts at High Schools and Colleges React to Radical Reform Plan

Some praise plan offered by more than 100 elite private schools to kill high school transcripts and reform college admissions. Others are dubious.

May 15, 2017

In high schools and colleges nationwide last week, educators debated a new plan to abolish the traditional high school transcript and reform college admissions. The plan, pushed by more than 100 elite private schools, is called the Mastery Transcript Consortium, and the product it hopes to create is the mastery transcript. It would not include courses or grades, but levels of proficiency in various areas. Instead of saying a student earned a certain grade in Spanish 2, the mastery transcript might say the student can understand and express ideas in some number of languages.

Admissions Insider asked experts at high schools and within higher education for initial reactions -- and those reactions included praise, criticism and many questions. Here are the email responses we received:

Bob Bardwell, director of school counseling at Monson High School, a public high school in Massachusetts:

Intrigued is my first comment. I've certainly heard about this concept before and while I think that there are many independent schools and some public high schools (I am aware of one in Conn.) which have switched to the competency based transcripts, I think that the vast majority of colleges/universities and high schools are currently ill-equipped to make such a switch. Certainly change is difficult and it takes time, but there would have to be a great deal of education and training done for everyone -- from admissions professionals and college professors, to high school counselors, teachers and administrators to parents and students. Basically everyone would need to be educated about the change and what it would look like.

What worries me the most is that without a consistent format, this could be disaster. Which competencies are you evaluating and what evaluation system will you use? Yes, you could argue that currently high school transcripts with grades are not consistent (which is certainly true) and an A in one school is not an A in another (yes, grade inflation does exist), but a competency based transcript is even more likely to cause confusion, frustration and misunderstanding. In a world more complex than ever before where we are seeing huge increases in both adolescent and college student anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges, the idea of implementing something new and vastly different concerns me. I'm not saying I am unwilling to look at change and move to a better system but have some concerns. No doubt, if properly trained and implemented, this new system could revolutionize the education world like only computers or other forms of technology have done in recent memory.

What bothers me most about this whole discussion is the amount of $$ that is being spent to study the idea and the amount of resources (time, financial and human) that would go into making such a switch when I have students who can't get to school regularly, who sleep in homeless shelters and who face numerous challenges, many of which are more than any adult will ever face. So where is the $$ and call for action on behalf of those students? While the independent school movement can focus on creating a new/better/improved transcript, there is no thought about those students who may not be lucky enough to graduate from high school. For them, it doesn't matter what kind of transcript they have since they won't likely need one. Granted, a $2 million grant is a mere drop in the bucket to solve the problems I just described, but the point is that those challenges will continue to exist while the rest of us learn how to create, utilize and interpret a competency based transcript and spend lots of $$ implementing that change? It just doesn't seem fair for the underdogs.

Eric Hahn, Advanced Placement world history teacher at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, in Missouri:

While I am on the brink of retirement after 30 years teaching history in public schools in Missouri, I have long thought about the harms our current grading system of A, B, C, D and F cause. One issue, that an A in one teacher’s classroom is equivalent to an A in the next teacher’s classroom is difficult to defend in terms of performance, assignments required and skills gained for students. Further, students who attempt to earn an “A” for extrinsic purposes may be missing the notion that learning is a lifelong, intrinsic pursuit. Colleges and universities have little idea what might have transpired with a student’s experience in high school upon admission; letter grades simply do not tell the story of a student.

While the article suggests that a more qualitative approach (the mastery transcript) to assessment by teachers alleviates the clear shortfalls of archaic letter grades, I would suggest added components to the mastery transcript. A synopsis of the course should be given, and a student response to the assessment should be allowed. I am especially thinking about students who may have experienced something unusual while taking a course. These experiences may include positive academic realizations or disclose a personal obstacle on the negative side. Either way, institutions of higher learning would receive a much fuller picture of a student in admissions applications. It is refreshing to see there is a thoughtful direction away from letter grades.

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and longtime critic of the standard high school curriculum and traditional college admissions:

This is an extremely positive development that provides more of the kind of information that colleges need to assess whether a student can do independent intellectual and creative work that a first-rate college demands. This move is particularly welcome since there’s no evidence that there will be a turn away from national standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT. The subject matter SATs, for example, now simply duplicate the list of grades and courses. This new form of assessment will also have a positive impact on the teaching and curriculum in the high schools, opening up the opportunity for a closer match between what is taught in high school and what is provided in college. But none of this goes far enough because the awkward truth is that high school is too long and college should start earlier, and the kind of rigid and standardized courses and grades infantilize adolescents, suppressing their intellectual aspirations not only in the humanities but particularly in the sciences.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author and educator on the college admissions process:

This appears to be a promising way to reduce some of the insane and damaging stress that primarily affluent students at high-performing private and public high schools experience as they pursue what they perceive as  golden-ticket universities. It would be a good move if this would cut down on the serious mental health problems that too many ambitious teenagers experience as they gird themselves for what they believe is a high stakes admission race.

Even with mastery transcripts, I would not underestimate the elite colleges and universities to find new ways to torture these teenagers.

Mary Ann Willis, director of college counseling at Bayside Academy, a private school in Alabama:

Reform efforts in admissions aren’t new. Like all things in education (I’m old -- humor me) -- admissions issues come and go in waves. There was the no-essay standardized test, the California earthquake -- we-might- stop-using-the-test-because-it-doesn’t-have-an-essay, the standardized test with essay, and, we’re back to the no-essay standardized test. There was the report-all-scores testing organization, the we-never-made-you-report-all-scores organization, score choice and now we are in an era where we just advise students to do what the college asks them to do regarding standardized tests -- report all, self-report all, we superscore, we’re test-optional.

There are traditional academic schedules and programs, portfolio assessments, IB/AP and everywhere along the spectrum ... including ditching all those branded courses in favor of what super school X’s faculty/staff/board,, think is best for that particular school setting at a particular point in time. We have had the institutional app, the Common App, the Universal App, the Questbridge App, the fast app (ugh), and the Coalition App. (Did I leave any out?) The admissions frenzy every year captures huge chunks of the national spotlight -- the National Association for College Admission Counseling survey revealing what the average admit rate is never gets the same press.

I applaud anyone seriously stabbing at shedding light on the admissions process and lessening the pressure-cooker atmosphere that exists in some areas. But don’t underestimate what a Herculean task this is. The graveyard of ideas and efforts is large.

Joyce Vining Morgan, independent college counselor and co-author of Admissions Matters:

The usual transcript today converts student achievement into alphabetic or numeric code: one letter or number grade per course to summarize months of work. No matter what the educational experience, the transcript just gets the course names and the code. The Mastery Transcript changes all that, and expands the definition of education. I hope a Mastery Transcript would also show the level of achievement as well as skill areas and earned credits, and how that mastery was acquired, be it in course work, independent study or other experiences. The transcript format is meant to be consistent across the schools that use it, but the evaluation system will “vary from school to school.” The resulting demand on admission readers may be daunting, but admission readers already deal with transcripts from a wide range of schooling.

The potential of a competency-oriented transcript to support authentic learning makes it worth addressing the challenges. I think it will transform much more than just the college admission process.

Robert Massa, senior vice president for enrollment and institutional planning at Drew University:

The Mastery Transcript is an innovative approach to assessing what is really important in a student’s educational development: analytical thinking, creativity, communication, integrity. As the co-director (with David Holmes) of the Institute on Character in Admission, I am strongly in favor of using non-academic character traits as one factor in a college’s admission decision. The Mastery Transcript moves us in this direction. I would add that mastering content will still be important, especially in determining a student’s readiness for a specific major, so I would see us retaining some form of traditional assessment to be enhanced considerably by the Mastery Transcript.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy of the National Association for College Admission Counseling:

There is no question that educators, including high school counselors and college admission officers, regularly struggle with questions about whether existing academic indicators provide the full picture of a student's capabilities, understanding of subject matter, and drive to succeed, among other qualities. While the traditional transcript still retains value, particularly given that high school grades comprise the most important factor in college admission decisions and remain more predictive than any other variable in estimating academic performance early in college, it is also clear that there is a lot about what contributes to educational success (at any level) that we cannot pinpoint.

The success of this effort will depend on the organization's ability to: (1) gain broad consensus in the educational community, including teachers, postsecondary faculty, and accreditors, as being reflective of student learning; (2) appeal to a wide range of educational institutions, including public schools; (3) measure and articulate the relationship of information contained in a Mastery Transcript to student success in postsecondary education; (4) show colleges how to easily integrate the Mastery Transcript into admission decision-making processes; and (5) conduct the comprehensive outreach necessary to reach the audiences they seek to influence, including college admission officers.


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