Building A Better Transcript: What Grades Measure, And What They Don't

Chairs set up for a graduation ceremony. (Katie Montgomery/Unsplash)
Chairs set up for a graduation ceremony. (Katie Montgomery/Unsplash)

This month, approximately 3.5 million high school seniors will be granted diplomas.

The rest of us will (and should) applaud their achievements, but we must also stop and consider: What did these students have to do to earn their diplomas, and what, exactly, has their schoolwork prepared them for?

In 1892, The Committee of Ten, led by Harvard President Charles Eliot, created a standardized framework for the high school curriculum that, in turn, dictated essential prerequisites for college admissions. This system requires that students earn between 18 and 24 “Carnegie Units” in order to graduate. A Carnegie Unit is a standardized measure of “seat time served” in a given class — roughly 120 hours of a class over the course of a year.

Students’ grades in a particular class are supposed to represent how well they served that time, and students’ grade point average and class rank are taken as measures of how well individuals have performed compared to peers. And these numbers still make up the typical high school transcript, which is required by virtually every college and university in America in order to be considered for admission.

But these measures are more than a century old, and hopelessly obsolete. In this era of innovation, all students need essential skills and dispositions for work, learning, and citizenship — habits of mind and heart that cannot be measured by Carnegie Units.

Students who can take initiative, learn through trial and error, collaborate, persist, understand and solve problems through interdisciplinary approaches, and who have strong moral foundations are set up to thrive in the future. The students who are merely good at the "game of school" — those with high grades but without those skills — are not.

And if school is a game, then “losing” comes with stark emotional consequences. Too many students in our "best" suburban and independent schools increasingly experience high school as a cutthroat competition for admission to a selective college. Bright and resilient students who receive poor grades or don’t get into the “right” college often see themselves as losers for life.

There is a better way.

In March of this year, some of America’s leading independent schools announced the creation of the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). It is an effort to create an entirely new way to assess and report the quality of student work — one that is based on real evidence of mastery, rather than a grade or time spent in a particular class.

The MTC is still in development; it will be built, refined and tested over the next several years.

But the goal is to finally see students’ educational record in clearer focus, and in three dimensions.

The new reporting will indicate the skills and knowledge that students have mastered. But it will also include qualities of character that make their humanity visible and help admissions officers make better decisions when it comes to an applicant’s “fit.” The design will help colleges better understand students’ skill sets and potential to succeed on campus, and allows students to present themselves more authentically to admissions officers.

Since the March announcement, more than 100 schools have signed up to join in the discussion and development of the Mastery Transcript, including renowned schools such as Phillips Andover Academy and Punahou in Hawaii, President Obama’s alma mater.

And the Edward E. Ford Foundation just gave the Consortium a $2 million grant to develop its technology platform. Once there is a proof of concept, the Mastery Transcript Consortium membership will be open to all public and private high schools at a cost commensurate with each institution’s resources.

How many of us studied a foreign language for four years in high school, but graduated unable to carry on an extended conversation in that language? How many of us did well enough in high school geometry and algebra, yet struggle to use math to solve real-world problems? In the 21st century, academic content knowledge still matters, but essential skills and dispositions matter more. The Mastery Transcript Consortium is developing ways to record what students can do with what they know.

“Each Mastery Credit applied to a transcript signifies complete mastery of a specific skill, knowledge block or habit of mind as defined by the crediting high school,” says the Consortium’s founder, Scott Looney. Reading the electronic transcript “will allow college admission officers to dive deep within a transcript to see the specific standards of the sending high school and actual evidence of student work and mastery, thus giving depth and transparency to the student’s work record.”

There are many ways to acquire and demonstrate mastery. Some students may choose internships to gain mastery of a particular competency, take college courses or work in another country. The genius of the Mastery Transcript Consortium is that it will register and reward individual students’ achievements and choices while still providing a common framework for assessment.

After 124 years, it’s time to reimagine the high school curriculum for the 21st century and to encourage teaching and assessment of the skills and dispositions that matter most. Our students deserve a more accurate measure, and they shouldn’t have to wait another century for their transcripts to better reflect their accomplishments.

Tony Wagner is an expert-in-residence at Harvard University’s new Innovation Lab and senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute. He is a member of the MTC’s Board of Trustees.



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