A group of elite private high schools has proposed posting a transcript of "mastery" instead of grades. Sounds great! But I fear that if there is a list of “competencies” and “skills” that elite students achieve, there will be summer boot camps and counselors advising them on how to raise their “competencies” so that their non-transcript will still stand out.
It will still be a game, but a non-numeric game.
How do we know what students know? How do we know which students are excellent? How do we decide which students are worthy? What is “merit”?
For about a hundred years the discourse surrounding schooling in the U.S. has been obsessed with schemes and plans and analyses, grades and tests and norms and standard deviations, fights about gifted and special needs students, timed and untimed tests, and more. The competition for admission into elite colleges has gotten absurd. (Most other college admissions is not at all selective.) SAT prep courses, extra points for Advanced Placement courses, summer enrichment — all these have been used as ammunition in the college admissions war. But GPA has occupied a good deal of everyone’s attention.
This summer a proposal to get away from the use of transcripts, a set of grades, has come from a new corner of the educational world: elite private high schools, together as the Mastery Transcript Consortium. Instead of grades, there would be a list of what students know and can do.
I like the idea of getting away from conventional transcripts and GPAs, I really do. I’ve been experimenting with ways to get the focus off grades in my own university classes for the last several years, based on research about the nature of motivation. If the goal is to focus the students’ attention on learning, then I’m all for it.
But despite the well-intentioned reasons — the lack of uniformity of students and the emphasis on nuanced mastery, competencies and skills — I am skeptical.
There is still a rubric, and still a list. This has a tendency to lead to gaming the system, especially with high-stakes outcomes like admission to elite colleges. When there is a simple rubric, or even a complex rubric, there is a tendency to make this drive the experience.
When my children were in junior high school, they attended a Montessori school that emphasized “mastery.” That sounds excellent, worthy. This becomes operationalized, though, in tests for which students had to achieve 85 percent. If they fell below this, they could retake the test. One of my children was completely uninterested in some of the subjects. She would take the test, see how she did, and then figure out how to raise her score to 85 percent. She did not achieve “mastery.” She achieved an empty semblance of mastery.
I fear that if there is a list of “competencies” and “skills” that elite students achieve, there will be summer boot camps and counselors advising them on how to raise their “competencies” so that their non-transcript will still stand out.
It will still be a game, but a non-numeric game.
I have one more concern, though: This newest approach to changing high school, and therefore college admission, is reminiscent of a plan in the mid-20th-century to change college admissions at the most exclusive Ivy League colleges, and in the process to redefine “merit.” This is where we get the idea of “well-rounded” students and the emphasis on extracurriculars — a legacy we still have.
The real motive, though, according to sociologist Jerome Karabel, was to exclude blacks and Jews, who had begun to excel in the measures of academic ability. So these colleges excluded students without the social and cultural capital of their traditional student body. Since college admission criteria drive the entire childhood experience, now we have wealthy students exhausting themselves to demonstrate “leadership” and “service,” along with athletic prowess, artistic and musical accomplishment, and academic stardom.
Students obsess, agonize, about their grades, so anything we can do to change that is welcome.
I absolutely believe the organizers of the Mastery Transcript Consortium (and I hope it is not mostly a commercial endeavor that sells the tools) that their goal is noble. But I also concur with critics that it would probably help mediocre wealthy students and hurt capable less-advantaged students. The students in less resourced schools don’t have an army of counselors and intimate relations with teachers to push them forward; they rely on something else to push them to the forefront of admissions personnel attention, which may be truly outstanding grades.
The real problem is equality. With stratified high schools and huge disparities in family resources, college admissions mostly replicate the economic system.
If we want to challenge inequality, we need to do it full-on. A handful of accomplished students demonstrating miraculous levels of accomplishment, against all odds, and attending elite colleges is not going to change the system, except for that handful.
Meanwhile, focusing on learning rather than measurement would be a welcome change. But it would have to be in the service of more than only college admissions; it would have to refocus the nature of schooling.
I hope it works!