At the risk of sidetracking you before you even get into this column, I invite you first to watch this breathtaking, four-minute performance by Courtney C. (Grauer class of 2017) and to give it a grade (click on the link below to watch the video):
Ready now? Here’s the question: How would this amazing demonstration of cross-curricular mastery be shown on a school transcript or college record? Even if we give this capstone “Senior Portfolio” demonstration an “A” grade, would that adequately reflect what you have just seen? Now, please enjoy this week’s column.
In the coming days of June, as another school year winds down for summer, students across America will receive report cards and transcripts. Almost all of these reports will serve to reduce their year’s efforts to a single number: The GPA. The grade point average is a number that will be the subject of parent pride, bribes, punishments, soaring and plummeting self-worth, cul de sac whisperings, and rankings of all kinds. The GPA could easily stand as the ultimate symbol of human reductionist thinking.
Old-school “transcripts,” based upon the ”Carnegie Unit” or grade-point system, fail to capture what students learn and do during their time in schools and colleges. College and school registrars deal almost daily with the transcript’s shortcomings. The current approach to transcripts “only tells a fraction of the story,” echoes Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and Extension and a former vice president at the American Council on Education. “Schools and colleges need ways to “more granularly validate and acknowledge different components of learning.” Nationwide, a movement is underway towards more comprehensive student records and a richer representation of student success (Paul Fain, Inside Higher Ed, July 13, 2015).
The Grauer School has been a frontrunner in the development of holistic student evaluation and transcripts that represent far more than the totals of letter grades, finals, and standardized exams. For instance, Grauer routinely includes community service, development of character traits such as resourcefulness and perseverance, and even expeditionary and service learning as a part of the way we represent students on our report cards and transcripts.
Additionally, and as a founding principle, our school has eschewed class rankings and valedictorians, which further reduce students to Grade Point Averages. Today, many more schools and colleges are pursuing this path. The four-point system has long been viewed as flawed for various reasons:
- Such grades are often subjective and inconsistent from class to class, while giving the illusion of being precise and objective.
- Grades are designed to rank students, not to report on or support student learning.
- Grades are often used to promote compliance rather than stimulate creativity, critical thinking, and learning.
- A-F grades encourage students to think in terms of task completion, ego fulfillment, and competing with others instead of focusing on learning. (“Remaking the Grade” by Annie Barton and Wendell Thomas in Independent School, Summer 2017, Vol. 76, #4, p. 92-100)
Alternative grading systems, such as we have at Grauer, are “tilting students away from gaming the system for high grades and instead getting everyone thinking about developing the skills needed to be effective learners – the ultimate prerequisite for top grades in high school and college success. What’s more, many college admissions officers say they’re receptive to proficiency-based transcripts” (Barton & Thomas).
And now, 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, the “Mastery Transcript Consortium,” could be strong enough to bring about this change nationwide (https://www.csmonitor.com/EqualEd/2017/0518/Could-a-different-kind-of-transcript-revitalize-high-school-learning). “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.”
Tests and letter grades can serve a useful purpose in providing feedback and diagnosing student learning needs. But as blunt labels or predictors for students’ abilities, they can be shattering. When we reduce a student experience to a GPA, we degrade that student and, ultimately, the school program as a whole. “The outcomes of a college experience are more than a degree,” said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators). The Lumina Foundation has kicked in $1.27 million for NASPA to partner with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) to explore how to collect, document and distribute information about student learning and “competencies,” including what is gleaned outside of the traditional academic classroom. While the field is nascent, said Mike Reilly, AACRAO’s executive director, it’s developing quickly. Reilly said the two associations hope to provide some guidance. “There’s a lot of innovation taking place,” he said. “People are looking for examples right now” (Barton & Thomas).
The two associations will tap eight colleges to develop and test several models of a “comprehensive student record.” They are avoiding the word “transcript,” Kruger said, because whatever emerges will be broader than a list of courses and grades. “This is not going to be a one-size-fits-all model.” Institutions like Elon University and Stanford University are considered by many to be pioneers in the field, having developed “extended” transcripts that include more than grades. Other colleges are getting into the game, often putting their own spin on transcripts (Barton & Thomas).
Notably, The Grauer School has been refining holistic student reporting for 26 years while achieving college acceptance rates that are hard to match—something of a puzzle. In fact, among (self-reporting) Grauer seniors this year, 85% were accepted into their 1st choice college, 96% into one of their top 2, and 100% into one of their top 3 (S. Boniwell, Senior Exit Survey, May 23, 2017).
Grauer enters core values grades on our permanent records even though Grauer officials know some colleges will ignore them. Our vision is that student knowledge that might be documented in next-generation transcript prototypes will include co-curricular or experiential learning—maybe working on a campus robotics team—or even soft skills like critical thinking and good communication.
Grauer has also used end-of-course portfolios for many years as a way of guiding students in demonstrating learning more meaningfully than a letter grade can. Many colleges are creating electronic portfolios to help students better explain their experience in college.
Making Sense of Learning
Grauer’s efforts to reflect learning in a broader way are a part of larger movements in competency-based and values-based (“character”) education, as well as expeditionary education. Academic programs based on competencies—a student’s ability to demonstrate mastery of a learning goal—can look different than a conventional grouping of courses, which lead to degrees based almost entirely on a credit count. There are now well over 300 colleges, and many schools like Grauer, that have created competency-based credentials and values-based grades, or are working on them. These holistic credentials do not replace the transcript, which we still produce—we still “map” our transcripts to conventional course equivalents. Likewise, free schools, homeschools, and democratic schools nationwide are developing holistic transcripts (or in some cases complete transcript substitutes). In such schools, students demonstrate competencies and these competencies may be translated into credits towards course equivalencies. Unlike the transcripts we are all used to, these systems are neither simple nor simplistic—but they are considered more “authentic.”
Reilly (AACRAO) also envisions a comprehensive digital learning record, which a student could update throughout a lifetime. He points to diploma supplements in the United Kingdom as an early example. “This could really become the coin of the realm,” Reilly said.
A separate Lumina-funded project will seek to create a web-based “credential registry.” Several vendors and nonprofits have done extensive work with digital repositories for student knowledge. Notable players include Parchment, which is already working with nearly 2000 colleges, perhaps under the radar. The National Student Clearinghouse and Campus Labs are players. Related offerings include those from Merit Pages, Degreed and the Mozilla Foundation’s Open Badges (Barton & Thomas).
The new collegiate transcript project will tap some of those groups’ expertise, Kruger of NASPA said. Likewise, the work will draw heavily from the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), a Lumina-supported framework that seeks to determine what students should know and be able to do at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree levels.
Ultimately, at Grauer, we want our transcript to blend in with the student’s resume, as a reflection of their whole development. The inclusion of character grades and portfolios on our transcripts at Grauer are a part of the effort to translate lifelong and authentic learning and competencies into a student record. Nationwide, the goal is to create tools for schools and colleges to demonstrate and articulate student learning, as well as authenticating and verifying that knowledge.
People are just crazy about ranking everything they can. It’s not likely The Grauer School model or the model under development by “Mastery Transcript Consortium” will put an end to the human need to rank everything under the sun. But, at least we may be a part of generating a more humanitarian and personalized array of things to rank. Amy Laitinen, deputy director of New America’s higher education program, who has criticized the credit-hour standard, applauds efforts for mainstream higher education to reflect competencies and learning outcomes. “Change is here,” she said. “It’s happening” (Barton & Thomas).
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