Scott Looney thinks the high school transcript is broken.
The document — a one-page representation of a student's academic achievements and a ticket to college admission — is out of touch with the increasing number of schools that are rethinking how to educate students in the 21st century, he argues.
Looney, head of the private K-12 Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio, is leading a consortium of close to 150 private high schools across the country that want to do something about it, including Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Menlo School in Atherton, the Khan Lab School in Mountain View, Woodside Priory School in Portola Valley and Nueva School in San Mateo (one of the founding schools), among others in the Bay Area.
The Mastery Transcript Consortium is designing a new transcript that emphasizes student work and mastery over more abbreviated measures of success like grades.
"We don't see the 'uber grade'... as all that meaningful in terms of giving kids sophisticated feedback about what they're learning and where they need to grow and how well they're applying their learning to real-world situations," Castilleja Head of School Nanci Kauffman told the Weekly.
Looney started the consortium several months ago after trying to create a new transcript at Hawken and failing. The school hired a research firm to scan the education world and find a non-traditional, non-graded transcript being used somewhere else so they could replicate it, he said. The firm looked at both private and public schools across the country and found nothing.
When the school started to build its own alternative transcript, Looney heard from college admissions officers that they wouldn't have time to read a special transcript from one school. So months later, he gathered support from reputable schools across the country and launched the effort anew.
Instead of the traditional transcript's "one-size-fits-all" model listing courses and Carnegie units (hours of class time, or "how long you sat somewhere," Looney said) and A-F letter grades, the mastery transcript is organized around performance areas, mastery standards and "micro-credits." The "micro-credits" signify mastery of a specific skill, as defined by the high school. For example, a draft mastery transcript shows a student earning credit for the abilities to "foster integrity, honesty, fairness and respect," "lead through influence" and "implement decisions and meet goals."
The mastery transcript, which is digital, is also multi-dimensional. College-admissions officers will be able to access a student's entire work record with the click of a button: examples of their work, teacher feedback and self-assessments. The transcript's creators hope this will help admissions officers understand students more fully.
Menlo School joined the consortium shortly after its launch, wanting to be part of an important, growing conversation, said Head of School Than Healy.
The traditional transcript "leaves quite a bit to be desired," he wrote in an email. "As we watch high schools across the country give unprecedented A's and 4.0 or higher GPAs — and student anxiety and perfectionism has increased in kind — we realize that we very likely have reached the end of the line with this manner of understanding students."
At Castilleja, the mastery transcript jibes well with what students are already doing, Kauffman said. A student taking computer science designed a website for Ada's Cafe, a Palo Alto nonprofit that employs peoples with disabilities, for example. A student interested in how language impacts bias and prejudice conducted research with the Stanford University linguistics department. Others are completing science internships. And the school did away with Advanced Placement science courses several years ago in favor of teacher-designed curriculum.
"How do you create a transcript that actually reflects the uniqueness of the path that students are taking?" Kauffman said.
Looney reached out to Kauffman early in the process, she said, given that Castilleja received a $250,000 grant to develop and train teachers on how to provide students with feedback on more interdisciplinary, student-driven projects and learning. Castilleja will help train teachers at consortium member schools, Kauffman said.
Perhaps most notably, there will be no grades on the mastery transcript.
Looney said he would love to do away with grades entirely, but "you can't assassinate an 100-year-old ubiquitous paradigm in one fell swoop." When it launches, Hawken and other member schools will offer students and parents the choice of either a traditional or a mastery transcript.
Kauffman said it's "too early to say" whether Castilleja will move away from grades entirely, but she acknowledge the harmful levels of anxiety they cause for students today, particularly around college acceptance.
The Khan Lab School, by contrast, opened in 2014 with no letter grades. Founded by Khan Academy creator Sal Khan, the independent school serves students ages 5 to 15 years old and emphasizes mastery and project-based learning in a mixed-age setting where students are grouped by skill level and work habits rather than grade levels. Instead of letter grades, the school uses narrative transcripts and "curated" portfolios for students. In the narratives, teachers describe how much of a subject students have mastered, identifying their strengths and weaknesses as well as character strengths and cognitive skills, said Erica Cosgrove, the Khan Lab's college and career adviser.
"If getting 85 percent right is the basis for a 'B,' what about the material that you just didn't understand?" Cosgrove said. "There's not much incentive — there's really almost none — in typical grade-based systems for going back and mastering something you're a little wobbly on or didn't quite get the first time around."
The small, young school was eager to sign onto a national effort to make this kind of transcript more standard, she said, and hopes to be a pilot school for the mastery consortium.
The private Girls Middle School in Palo Alto also uses detailed narrative assessments instead of grades, according to its website.
The question still remains whether colleges and universities will accept a new kind of transcript. The consortium plans to train admissions officers and create a summary transcript that they will be able to read in less than two minutes (and then dig into further if they have the time and interest).
The consortium expects to pilot a transcript at select schools in the 2018-19 school year. In the long run, Looney hopes to see the transcript rolled out at public schools, which will be admittedly more challenging, he said.
Sharon Ofek, chief academic officer for secondary education in the Palo Alto Unified School District, said the administrators there are "following and interested in" the consortium's efforts.
The Mastery Transcript Consortium is not alone in its ambition to make high school less focused on traditional metrics of success. In 2015, the XQ Super School Project, launched by Palo Altan Laurene Powell Jobs, created a national challenge to redesign public high schools. The same year, close to 100 colleges and universities, including Stanford University, announced they would offer a new online portfolio to capture student work from ninth grade. And last year, Harvard University launched its "Turning the Tide in Admissions" campaign with a group of admissions deans and school leaders committed to overhauling the college admissions process.
"It's not anybody's fault that the system has these corrupting influences," Looney said. "It still doesn't remove the obligation from those of us in the system to start deconstructing it."