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In this Wednesday, March 8, 2017 photo, high school students Jackson Laferriere, left, and Noah Lemoine fill out worksheets as teacher Natalie O'Brien, top center, speaks with students during a civics class called "We the People," at North Smithfield High School in North Smithfield, R.I.
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Could a different kind of transcript revitalize high-school learning?

A consortium of more than 100 of America's best preparatory schools think a competency-based transcript can relieve the pressure on students. And education reformers say the clout of this group could be strong enough to bring about this change nationwide.  

Imagine a transcript that doesn't say anything about the courses a student took or the grades earned. Instead, there is a description of the qualitative skills and character traits that student mastered, along with examples in the form of essays, labs, and videos.

This is the vision of Scott Looney, head of Hawken School, outside of Cleveland, and the founder and board chair of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a group of more than 100 of the most prestigious preparatory schools in the United States. The coalition is developing a digital transcript that tracks the whole progress of students, not just performance on tests and class assignments. It's a change that reformers say could free high school education from the century-long limitations of A-to-F grading.

“If we figure out how to make this work, this could be a really major change in education,” says Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. “I’m extremely excited and optimistic.”

Many US schools have turned from A-to-F grades to more descriptive assessments of student mastery of skills. But only a handful of states and major cities have made competency-based assessments available at every grade level. Most schools have confined the movement to lower grades. On the high-school level, schools and parents alike worry that not granting A-to-F grades to students could hurt their college admissions chances.

But that could change if the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which includes some of the most highly regarded private schools in the US, succeeds. With members like Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, the Dalton School in New York, and the Cranbrook Schools in Michigan, the group's clout could force a broader acceptance of the new transcript.

The consortium has worked out a first pass of a new digital transcript. The document would be standard across schools but each school would determine for itself the competency areas and mastery credits it wants students to focus on. And letter grades would play no part in the assessment process.

“The problem with a grade is it doesn’t feel like coaching and guidance to kids – it feels like a judgment,” Mr. Looney tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “Kids are not focusing ... on what they need to learn. They are just worrying about what the teacher wants from them.”

An idea in progress

When the Carnegie Unit – the 120 hours students are expected to sit in class each year – and A-to-F grades became the standard for American high schools more than a century ago, they were viewed as revolutionary, too. No longer were students put through subjective oral or written examinations to gain entrance to college. Over the years, however, educators say the traditional transcript has turned high-school learning into a college-admissions game. Students strive to "win" by earning the highest grades in the hardest classes – but don't necessarily retain knowledge or skills.

The Hawken School has discussed experimenting with a pilot program with volunteer students, Looney tells the Monitor. Under the pilot, a teacher may, for example, attach a strong student essay to a transcript. Then a panel of faculty members would review the essay and either let it stand, or remove it and tell the student how to improve it.

“We know that if you want kids to get better at theater, at acting, or at basketball, you don’t give them a letter grade at the end of practice,” Looney says. “You just say, ‘Hey, you did a good job.... But at the next practice I really want you to work on this.’”

The Edward E. Ford Foundation announced last week that it will award the consortium $2 million, which members have pledged to match. Ultimately, the consortium says, it hopes to win over both public and parochial schools as well as the college admissions world.

Good or bad?

But the consortium could end up hurting the very public schools it says it wants to help, says Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell.

“Admissions at top colleges is a zero-sum game, after all,” she wrote last week. “If signal-jamming by the [elite schools] of the world sufficiently confuses college admissions officers into accepting more of their students, fewer spots will be available for other schools. Additionally, less digestible transcripts might lead colleges to place more weight on something that’s more easily comparable across students: standardized test scores.”

Some other education professionals express a mix of caution and optimism.

“I think it’s a promising development,” says Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. “The concern that I would raise is if that’s the only document that is going to be produced by the school and handed to the student for colleges and universities, that could negatively impact students who are trying to go to schools that have not transitioned to be able to evaluate those and be able to make admissions decisions.”

But Randall Bass, the vice provost for education at Georgetown University, says a transcript like the consortium’s could offer value.

“In many ways the admissions process now is a game of trying to read in between the lines of transcripts to look for certain qualities that are not actually represented by high scores and good grades,” he says. “It could strengthen the process if they are successful in finding ways to represent, in a more explicit way, the qualities we’re continually trying to infer.”

It could also alleviate the pressure on high-school students, says Mark Hatch, vice president for enrollment management at Colorado College.

“We’re seeing an average 18-year-old that matriculates at our institutions a little bit more frazzled and a little bit less focused right now,” he says. “There is a growing concern among faculty at institutions that they are inheriting students who are very good at punching buttons and very good at collecting a 5 on AP scores and great grades, but are lacking the passion, curiosity, and freshness for learning that we’d like to have.”

Has it worked before?

Though competency-based transcripts are more often used in elementary schools in the US, some independent and public schools have expanded it to secondary school.

Wildwood School, an independent progressive school in Los Angeles, evaluates all of its K-12 students on academic and life skills. It also provides them with narrative assessments of their performance and standards-based evaluations. Most or all of their 65 or so graduating seniors go on to college the next year, with several attending the best institutions in the country.

Public schools in Windsor Locks, Conn. use standards-based evaluations for all students in ninth grade or younger, and will expand to the whole school system in the next three years.

Parent Ann Marie Charette says she has learned more about her sixth-grade daughter's progress at school than she ever gleaned from the traditional grades and transcripts of her two older sons.

“Do I care she has an A? Or do I care she knows what a right angle is?” says Ms. Charette, who is a human resources specialist in the district. “I’m more concerned about what she knows and is mastering versus the grade that is coming afterward.”