The Mastery Transcript Consortium

You may have already heard about the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). With recent media coverage in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Inside Higher Education, just to name a few, the budding movement has gained attention less than a year after going public. The MTC is a coalition of schools looking to replace the grade-based system in education with something that better reflects and promotes student learning, encourages students’ individuality, all while reducing the unhealthy “arms race” that has emerged within competitive school environments.

One of the leading educational thinkers in the country, Dr. Tony Wagner, whose work has been influential to Colorado Academy’s progressive work in the past, has voiced strong support for the MTC. Wagner argues that “After 124 years [of this educational model], 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.” Many leading educators in the independent school world feel similarly.

A more complete story

It is increasingly clear that students cannot always effectively tell their entire high school stories or distinguish themselves meaningfully through their transcript. To supplement the transcript, up to now we have relied on school and teacher recommendations, along with supplemental information about the student’s involvement in clubs or other activities, to convey the journey of a young person’s growth over four years. Still, the transcript and test scores have dominated the admissions process, because they provide easily quantitative measures by which colleges can choose to admit or deny students. The MTC looks to help students tell a more complete story and to help high schools re-calibrate what they measure. Rather than simply provide a list of students’ courses with the grades they received, the mastery transcript would be more akin to a portfolio of student work with clear evidence, curated by the students themselves, about what they have learned and how they have demonstrated what they know and what they can do.

It’s a bold endeavor, and one that would take years to come to fruition, if indeed it ever does. Still, regardless of how far the MTC can move towards overhauling the current high school transcript, the coalition is helping steer educational discussions towards one important aspect of pedagogical practice: how we assess students. Currently, most of the traditional assessment methods—tests, papers, even oral presentations—tend to support the grade-based system that we have all grown accustomed to. But research has shown that these are not the best ways for students to demonstrate what they know, and it doesn’t have much lasting impact, or transference, to other situations. If students learn what they need to learn for the test’s sake, not necessarily for learning’s sake, more often than not, their level of understanding is not particularly deep.

If any of us considers something we know very well, we know we have been exposed to this body of knowledge or skill multiple times over a longer period of time. If we truly aspire to mastery of a topic, we don’t cram information into our heads, test ourselves on it, and move on to the next thing. In a mastery-based approach, tests and papers would continue to have their place. Knowing certain content still matters; clear written communication of ideas still matters. But these ought to be just two components of a much larger body of work. Students’ performance on certain authentic tasks, hands-on learning opportunities, and multi-dimensional projects would also fill their portfolios. So would frequent self-reflection on their learning; mastery requires us to ask ourselves regularly “What did I learn from this experience and how can I apply that learning to the next similar situation?” This is also something our current system does not do very well, as individual assignments within particular disciplines tend to remain as self-contained units.

CA and MTC

Colorado Academy is pleased to be in on these important conversations. As one of the first thirty members of the MTC, CA has been able to participate in impactful conferences and workshops already. So far, the discussions have included administrators only; teachers will be officially invited into the conversation at this year’s National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Annual Conference in March.

In the meantime, many public and independent schools are already exploring alternate methods of assessment, evaluation, and compiling of student work. At CA, for example, we have used a Pass/Fail system during the first trimester of the Freshman year. Without the usual constraints of an A-F grading system, teachers can do more to emphasize the learning process, offering students multiple attempts at the same assignment (thereby promoting mastery), and encouraging students to take risks and offer more creative solutions to problems.

Undergirding this whole potential shift in the way transcripts look is the new and exciting brain research that has emerged in the last decade. We now know much more about how people learn, what motivates them, what is effective in terms of long-term retention, and how the concepts of grit and having a growth mindset factor into our ability to learn and grow. Future years will bring even more advances in the fields of social science, and that will have important and positive effects on student learning and on the ways school is conducted.