Independent Schools Come Together to Build a New High School Transcript

It’s funny how something as seemingly innocuous as a high school transcript can be the lynchpin for so much of a person’s life.
It doesn’t take much investigation, however, to discover that the transcript is that powerful because it shapes the very education it hopes to measure and represent. Many educators have concluded that the current transcript model is an inadequate and outdated tool. Intentionally or not, it fosters educational experiences that often do not prepare students, support teachers, or better our world.  
We are trying to offer a new model that could help change that.
The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is not a group of wide-eyed idealists and elitists hatching some scheme to upend school as we know it. Instead the MTC belongs to a growing movement that seeks a better way to represent and inspire meaningful learning — a movement that prizes mastery over gamesmanship, demonstration over grades, applied learning over simulation.
The MTC was born on March 1, 2017, at the NAIS Annual Conference in Baltimore. Since that day, our membership has nearly tripled. The Edward E. Ford Foundation awarded us a matching $2 million Collaborative Innovation Grant, its largest grant ever. Nearly 50 media outlets have covered MTC’s launch, from The Christian Science Monitor to Inside Higher Education, from Teen Vogue to The Boston Globe
Composed of more than 130 independent schools and advised by more than a dozen leaders from higher education and beyond, the MTC is working to invent a tool that will make each student’s humanity and abilities visible and understood to colleges and to the students themselves. By changing the high school transcript, we hope, in the words of our vision statement, “to change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.” 
The MTC aims to use the collective influence, access, and flexibility of established independent schools to change the college preparation model for all high schools — not just private schools. However, we are starting with independent school members to minimize complication and maximize our initial influence as we partner with college presidents and admission deans. 
Once we have proof of concept (meaning a digital transcript design and corresponding software platform to support it), as well as partnership with our colleagues in college admissions, the MTC plans to open membership to interested public schools. We’ve already had productive meetings with a number of superintendents. For example, we’re learning from visionary public school districts like Windsor Locks, CT, which is well on its way to instituting the kind of competency-based education that the Mastery Transcript will someday capture and present to colleges. The work of other public school organizations, including the Great Schools Partnership and Mastery Collaborative, has also helped the MTC immensely.

The Problems We’re Trying to Solve

The current transcript model used by more than 99 percent of high schools has stayed virtually the same for almost a century. Born from some originally reasonable ideas, it carries the fingerprints of a bygone era, merging the education of children with the prevailing models of industrial production. The transcript credits seat-time (the Carnegie unit). It batches students by manufacturing date (age cohorting). It distills a student’s knowledge, skills, persistence, ambivalence, integrity, curiosity, collaborative abilities, and raw talent into a single letter grade, which increasingly are mostly A’s.  And worse, a single number: the GPA.
Not only does this transcript largely determine a student’s higher education options, but it can also shape a student’s childhood, intellect, character, and sense of self. 
That may strike some as part of the “snow-flaking” of America’s youth. We’ve certainly heard the critique that this kind of transcript belongs to the constellation of adjustments schools have made to soften the corners of the world that, if left unadulterated, could teach kids lessons about how life really works. That point would be more persuasive if it were true.
Consider what Stanford scholar and MTC advisor Denise Pope shared with us about how today’s schools don’t prepare students for their tomorrow: “[Students] realize that they are caught in a system where achievement depends more on ‘doing’ — going through the correct motions — than on learning and engaging with the curriculum. Instead of thinking deeply about the content of their courses and delving into projects and assignments, the students focus on managing the work load and honing strategies that will help them to achieve high grades.”
In other words, many students do not learn about the world in school; instead, they learn about a teacher’s preferences, a test’s likeliest questions, and their own ability or inability to master a system that doesn’t place their growth first.
The current system is broken for colleges as well. Inundated by the increased volume of applications that they themselves seek, most college admissions officers resort to complicated algorithms and tea-leaf reading sessions to gather what they hope is an accurate understanding of who each student really is. Many will confess that in the end it’s hard to tell the difference between two students with similar GPA and SAT scores and overly curated teacher recommendations. 
And that’s not the whole of the problem. Not only is the tool of the transcript broken, it’s also harmful. The data on the mental health of students on college campus should give all of us pause.
Convening a task force on student mental health in 2006, Stanford’s provost wrote: “Increasingly, we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns, ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors … and suicidal behavior.”

Harry R. Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, lamented in William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: “Too many students, perhaps after a year or two spent using college as a treadmill to nowhere, wake up in crisis, not knowing why they have worked so hard.”
It’s important to note that those descriptions apply to the students who supposedly won the high-stakes college process. Many colleges across the selectivity spectrum report similar results. Later, many college graduates struggle to adapt to a world that runs without a script, a test, or the option for extra credit.

So What to Do?

The enormous power that the transcript wields over each student’s experience and the way it influences teaching methods provide an ideal opportunity to make things better for everyone. The new Mastery Transcript isn’t built yet — that’s the main work in front of us — but we do have a clear vision of its features:

1. It will be a digital transcript that’s readable in under two minutes. Every Mastery Transcript from every school will share a common design so that, once trained, college admissions officers will be able to navigate it easily.

2. Evidence of a student’s best work in high school will be two clicks away for any reader of the transcript. In essence, the Mastery Transcript will function as a home page that will link to the actual evidence of student mastery the school certifies.

3. Rather than listing courses and grades, the Mastery Transcript will illustrate a student’s mastery of skills, knowledge, and elements of her or his demonstrated social, emotional, and self-directed learning skills.

4. Each school will develop its own Mastery Credits. This means each school’s teachers and administrators will determine what skills, knowledge, mindsets, and habits they want to credit based on the school’s mission, values, and vision.

5. As a result, the Mastery Transcript will offer much greater transparency and clarity than current transcripts do. Colleges will know the shape of each student, and students can use their classes, extracurriculars, and even their summer work to stretch, strengthen, and know themselves.

6. Despite what some critics suggest, schools using the Mastery Transcript will likely become more rigorous, not less. After all, there are no B-’s on a Mastery Transcript, just credits representing complete mastery.
The Mastery Transcript isn’t just about helping with the college process. It’s about clearing ground for schools to teach in ways that match our era and to honor how students learn best. We hope the transcript will foster an apprentice-based pedagogy as teachers move from judges to coaches, working with students to meet the Mastery Standards and to curate evidence to submit for Mastery Credits. While apprenticeship may be the oldest form of education, it may also be the best way to inspire intrinsic motivation, nurture curiosity, demand deep understanding, and lead students to truly master what they have learned. In other words, we’re not just building a transcript; we’re creating a path to a better school experience for students.

Taking Steps Forward

In August, the first group of 67 MTC site directors gathered at Phillips Academy (MA) to imagine their school's Mastery Credits. Global Online Academy facilitated the session, using their vast experience with competency-based education to help site directors with their work.

Keynote Speaker Kevin Mattingly used Grant Wiggins's definition of mastery as a prompt for discussion of how a Mastery Transcript can better demonstrate a student's learning. Photos courtesy of Global Online Academy

As part of a change management exercise on the second day of the workshop, site directors completed "Empathy Maps" for different school constituencies and envisioned concrete actions they and colleagues could take on campus to serve them. Here you see one small group's ideas for serving students.

The workshop concluded with head of school calls. In groups of two or three, site directors prepared a short presentation synthesizing their learning to share with a head of school via video call. To promote networking, everyone came from different schools.

Another group of 86 site directors will meet at Catlin Gabel (OR) in November. A third will meet at Lake Forest Academy (IL) in December. Then, these site directors will spend the next year or so investigating competency-based education with other educators at their schools. Slowly, they will decide if and when their school will transition to the Mastery Credits system — the heart of the Mastery Transcript. 
Simultaneously, the MTC is developing the software necessary to house all the evidence students will curate and submit to their school to earn Mastery Credits and that admissions officers will access to read Mastery Transcripts. The $2 million from the Edward E. Ford grant plus the $2 million in matching funds raised by our founding schools will support developing this tool.
All the while, we’ll continue to listen and learn about how to do this work well. Our Advisory Council is filled with seasoned members of the college and public school worlds as well as assessment and curriculum experts.
We envision an extended and thoughtful process, but we don’t know when the first Mastery Transcript will be issued and which school will be the first to issue it. The best estimate is five to seven years from now. Here’s what we do know for sure, though: The Mastery Transcript has touched a nerve. The need for it and the momentum behind it are real, and we’re committed to seeing this effort through. This is a once in a generation opportunity to offer students a new path to college, one that values their growth and literally credits their individuality.  

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D. Scott Looney

D. Scott Looney is the head of school at Hawken School (Ohio) and the founder and board chair of the Mastery Transcript Consortium.