By Stephen Abbott
As more and more schools across the United States make the transition to proficiency-, competency-, or mastery-based systems* of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting, one question often comes to dominate conversations in community after community: How will mastery-based grades and transcripts impact students when they apply to college? In fact, this question can become so emotionally urgent for some students and families that it can render all other issues—including all the many advantages and benefits of mastery-based learning—effectively invisible.
Over the past decade, the Great Schools Partnership and the New England Secondary School Consortium have worked with hundreds of districts, schools, colleges, and universities across New England and the country on a wide range of issues related to mastery-based education, grades, and transcripts. After thousands of hours of conversations, meetings, interviews, presentations, workshops, and working groups, we’re confident we’ve learned a thing or two about the topic.
Here’s what you need to know about navigating the transition to mastery-based transcripts in your community.
In the many conversations and meetings we’ve we had with colleges and universities, admissions officers have repeatedly told us—unequivocally—that mastery-based grades and transcripts will pose no problems whatsoever for applicants to their institutions. In fact, many of these institutions—including some of the most highly selective institutions in the world, such as Harvard and MIT—have provided public statements expressing this position. And the New England Board of Higher Education even published a position paper on mastery-based transcripts and college admissions that affirms what admission officers have been telling us for years: there is no cause for concern as long as sending schools provide some basic information and context explaining their systems.
Here’s what we’ve learned:
- Concerns about mastery-based transcripts are largely unfounded. And more often than not, they are based on assumptions that are easily dispelled. In general, admissions offices will happily discuss any concerns that school leaders, guidance counselors, and prospective applicants and their families may have. If you have questions, pick up the phone. Or read this interview with Nancy Davis Griffin, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at the University of Southern Maine—she will tell you a lot of what you need to know.
- College and university admissions offices receive—and always have—a huge variety of transcripts, school profiles, and other academic records, including transcripts from international institutions, foreign-language schools, home-schooled students, and countless non-traditional educational institutions and programs. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say that there is actually no such thing as a “traditional” transcript, given that admissions offices have been receiving a huge variety of transcripts, and from every corner of the globe, for generations.
- Colleges and universities simply do not discriminate against applicants based on the grading system or transcripts of their sending school, as long as the school’s documentation clearly presents and describes its policies, programs, and practices. If a postsecondary institution happens to have a specific admissions requirement that is not directly addressed in a school’s standard transcript or school profile, they typically contact the school to request the necessary information. If any information gaps emerge over time, schools can then modify their transcripts and profiles to include the required information.
- As long as the school profile is comprehensive and understandable, and it clearly explains important information such as the content and rigor of the academic program, the technicalities of the assessment and grading systems, and the characteristics of the graduating class, then admissions officers will have no problem understanding the transcript and properly evaluating the strength of a student’s academic record and accomplishments—after all, this is what they do, quite literally, thousands of times of every year.
- Secondary schools use so many different systems for educating, categorizing, assessing, grading, ranking, and tracking students—and always have—that these many diverse systems can only be fully understood when a school clearly articulates how its policies work and submits a comprehensive school profile. A course title, grade, GPA, or class rank, for example, doesn’t mean much unless the admissions office also has the “key” (e.g., the school profile) it needs to understand how the system works and how the applicant performed in that system.
- The rigor and quality of the school’s academic program, and understanding how an applicant performed in that system, matters much more than class rank or artificial “rank-enhancers” such as weighted grades (in fact, many admissions offices will “unweight” weighted grades). An admissions office wants to know that applicants have been intellectually challenged, that the school’s courses and learning experiences are rigorous, that the applicant performed well in those courses, and that the applicant is prepared to thrive academically in their program. The irony: If well designed, a mastery-based transcript will actually satisfy all of these admissions needs far better than so-called “traditional” transcripts.
What Schools Can Do
Here’s the most important thing that school leaders, educators, or guidance counselors can do: Play offense, not defense.
- Anticipate questions and have a plan to address them. If your school is transitioning to a proficiency-, competency-, or mastery-based system of teaching, assessment, grading, and reporting, expect students, parents, and family members to express some level of concern or anxiety—it’s a natural, predictable, and perfectly understandable response to change. Parents will want to know that the system won’t disadvantage their children—and they should. Don’t be blindsided. Don’t get caught off guard. Put together a plan and execute it.
- Start by listening. When people become anxious, frustrated, or upset, they won’t be able to hear what you have to say until they first feel their concerns have been heard, considered, and acted on. Start by listening to your students, teachers, parents, and families. Don’t wait for them to come to you—invite them in. The simple act of listening is the first step toward understanding and reassurance. If you don’t know their concerns, and what’s motivating those concerns, you won’t know how to address them (and when concerns go unaddressed, they only tend to grow in magnitude). Once you know their questions, start addressing them one by one and point by point.
- Be prepared. When the concerns expressed by parents and families are met with reactions such as defensiveness, equivocation, and hesitation, or with unconvincing answers to simple questions, those reactions tend to amplify, not assuage, any anxieties they may have. If you want students and parents to have confidence in your plan or proposals, you first need to have confidence in them yourself. So do your research. Talk with other school leaders and educators about what they’ve done and why it’s worked. Copy or borrow from our exemplar transcript and school profile—both documents have received strong support from admissions professionals. Anticipate questions and prepare good answers. If you know that your mastery-based system is better than the old system it’s replacing, the worst way to sell your community on its benefits is to greet their skepticism with uncertainty, timidity, or self-doubt. Make your case with confidence.
- Be clear. Over and over, we see school leaders respond to questions from families with indecipherable jargon, vague abstractions, inscrutable professional references, and convoluted technical explanations. Terminology and phrases that may resonate with educators—such as seat time or learning is the constant and time is the variable—tend to be completely opaque or immensely frustrating to non-educators. Instead, speak plainly and persuasively. Don’t use jargon—ever. Instead, share compelling stories, specific examples, and personal narratives to make your case. And make sure you tell your students and families why mastery-based education is important. Why it will better prepare students for college. Why it will equip students with the knowledge, skills, and work habits they will need to succeed in every area of adult life.
- Foreground advantages. In some communities responding to questions about mastery-based transcripts can become so emotionally charged or time-consuming that school leaders will forget to highlight the many advantages that a mastery-based education can provide when it comes to the college-admissions process. For example, students who graduate at the top of their class, with high GPAs and transcripts full of Advanced Placement courses, are no longer standout applicants to selective colleges and universities. The applicants with a true competitive advantage in today’s admissions process don’t just have strong grades and test scores on their transcript—they have also accomplished impressive, “non-traditional” things. For example, they may have developed software programs and apps, worked in on a scientific study or in a research lab over the summer, started a student organization or led advocacy campaign, volunteered in their community or overseas, wrote a novel or got published in magazines, completed a challenging internship or independent project, or taken college or university courses while still in high school. And it just so happens that the very kinds of learning experiences that help applicants stand out from the crowd are precisely the kinds of learning experiences that a mastery-based approach to education can enable in any school and for every graduate.
- Create the best transcript and school profile possible. Instead of responding to concerns about mastery-based transcripts with evasiveness or uncertainty, why not just develop the strongest possible transcript instead? Find out what admissions offices need to know, and then deliver everything they need to know—and even a little more. Admissions offices have told us that the worst mistake schools tend to make is neglecting the school profile—it’s essential to understanding the transcript and the applicant. (They also want to know which colleges and universities have accepted a school’s graduates in the past, so include this list in the profile.) Make your school’s academic records epitomize clarity, professionalism, and usefulness. Make the most compelling case possible for the strength of your academic program and the preparation of your students. Hire a designer and make your school profile stand out. After your materials have been created, share them with as many admissions offices as you can. Ask for their feedback, modify as needed, secure their endorsements, and then invite them to convey their support in letters, statements, interviews, videos, or community presentations.
- Recognize that transcripts are merely an information-display problem (or, more to the point, opportunity), not a curriculum, teaching, or learning problem. Over and over in debates about mastery-based transcripts, we see this fundamental fact get lost in weeds: Transcripts are merely the written record of a child’s education—they are not the education itself (and yet concerns about documentation, if left unaddressed, tend to call a school’s entire program into question). While it’s hard to overhaul your curriculum and fundamentally change teaching practice, it is far less difficult to create documents that clearly convey need-to-know information—particularly when admissions offices will happily tell you precisely what information they need to know. For example, if a college or university requires applicants to have completed a certain number of credits or certain courses (such as Algebra II), it’s important to keep in mind that these requirements are merely proxy measures that admissions professionals have historically used to evaluate, in the absence of other information, the academic preparation of applicants. What truly matters to an admission office is determining an applicant’s level of preparation and likelihood of succeeding in their institution (not counting up credits or seeing specific courses listed on a piece of paper). If your school has moved away from credits, or doesn’t offer a course called Algebra II, simply articulate on the transcript, or in the accompanying school profile, that all graduates have completed a course of study comparable to XX credits and so and so courses. If your student-information system limits what you can do with your transcripts, make sure everything an admissions office needs to know appears in the school profile and other documentation. Remember: The transcript is a presentation-of-information problem, not an education problem. And the sooner you solve this design problem, and move your school community beyond concerns and anxieties, the sooner you can get back to doing what truly matters: preparing the next generation of citizens, workers, and leaders.
- Great Schools Partnership Proficiency-Based Learning Resources
- Ten Principles of Proficiency-Based Learning
- Exemplar High School Transcript
- Exemplar High School Profile
- College and University Statements on Proficiency-Based Education and Transcripts
- New England Board of Higher Education Policy Spotlight on New England: How Selective Colleges and Universities Evaluate Proficiency-Based High School Transcripts
*NOTE: For the purposes of this article, the terms proficiency-, competency-, or mastery-based should be considered synonymous and interchangeable. While different state agencies, districts, and schools may prefer one term over another, and any given district or school system may be unique in its technical features or practices, in general usage the terms tend to be more conceptually synonymous than not (even if those using the terms hold different definitions when it comes to certain technical minutia). Conceptually, one could say with a relatively high degree of confidence that the terms refer to educational institutions that articulate the most important knowledge, skills, and work habits that students need to know (i.e., standards), and then develop approaches to instruction, assessment, grading, and reporting that ensure students achieve those standards at a predetermined level of proficiency and achievement. For a more detailed discussion, see Understanding Standards, a guide to learning standards, proficiency, and related issues published by the Glossary of Education of Reform.