“Do our students have a fair chance?”

Reimagining the high school transcript and the impact on college admissions

As college recruiters sit down to review applicants and choose their incoming freshmen class, how will a mastery-based transcript stand next to a traditional transcript and GPA from another school? Will those around the conference table understand the nuances of competencies, proficiency, and growth? Will they enthusiastically accept a different set of graduation requirements and a new way of understanding a student’s high school journey or will they look at this transcript with scepticism, casting it aside for an applicant with a more traditional profile?

Two minutes.

At the end of a long, winding, rich high school journey, a student has two minutes to prove her merit on paper. Imagine you’re that student. Perhaps you get an essay or interview, a chance to explain how and why your contributions to the incoming freshmen class will enhance that institution. Perhaps you have a school counselor who advocates for you, reaching out to the college to articulate the CBE model and your growth and mastery. But ultimately your transcript must convey your accomplishments in efficient and concise terms, familiar to a college recruiter. This decides your post-secondary path.

So where do institutions of higher education stand on reviewing mastery-based, competency-based, or proficiency-based transcripts?

The New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) and the New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) were the first to seek an answer. In 2016, they convened a group of admissions leaders from selective colleges and universities, including Harvard, Babson, Tufts, MIT, and Wellesley. The result –

“Overwhelmingly, these admissions leaders indicate that students with proficiency-based transcripts will not be disadvantaged in the highly selective admissions process. Moreover, according to some admissions leaders, features of the proficiency-based transcript model shared with the group provide important information for institutions seeking not just high-performing academics, but engaged, lifelong learners.”

You can read the outcomes of the meeting here.

Since then, more work has been done. In 2017, the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) was founded. It is a network of member schools seeking to change the game by creating a “digital, high school transcript that is mastery-based and that reflects the unique skills, strengths, and interests of each learner” (Mastery Transcript Consortium).

What MTC hopes to do is take “the transcript from a flat, two-dimensional accounting of student time spent on single subjects and a listing of grades without context, to an interactive, digital transcript that highlights mastery of both content and interdisciplinary skills.” Once complete, a Mastery Transcript will reflect “learning that is deeply personalized, student-driven, based in authentic engagement and designed to educate the ‘whole student.’”

Building 21 recently joined the MTC.

As we move away from translating our competencies to traditional grades (read more here) and credits and move towards a purely competency-based model, knowing how our students will be viewed by college admissions teams is essential. We shared our newly developed graduation requirements, a set of experiences, skills, and competencies that equally value core academics, as well as, the skills and mindsets necessary to be successful in today’s world, which have been adopted by three schools from different districts in our Network. This provides a springboard for the conversation around what should be included on a Mastery Transcript. We are working with MTC to develop a prototype that could be used by CBE schools across the MTC.

The work of NEBHE, NESSC, and MTC has elevated this conversation like never before. The momentum is strong to create a transcript that represents the learning and growth of our students, capturing the full narrative of their high school journey in a concise and compelling way. But challenges remain.

When navigating the college admissions process, Building 21 schools encounter obstacles for students with CBE portfolios of learning. Our school counselors balance advocacy with compliance, as their ultimate goal is to secure our students’ admission to the post-secondary institutions of their dreams. Last year, one of our counselors reached out to a popular university among our students to see if they would join the transcript conversation and provide feedback on the essential elements of a Mastery Transcript. Their response – 

“Unfortunately when it comes to the transcript, [we] only [look] at grades/GPA (math, science, english, social studies/art/humanities, and world language). We no longer require transcripts for the admissions review process and will only use them to confirm graduation and the grades/GPA students entered when they submitted their Self-Reported Academic Record.”

While it takes time to change minds and hearts, the growing network of hundreds of MTC member schools brings a powerful voice to the conversation about the value of a Mastery Transcript. Our students will be our best ambassadors, for as they begin to matriculate to schools across our region and country, they will undoubtedly demonstrate that the mastery of the skills and mindsets captured in our graduation requirements, beyond core academics, sets them apart. And colleges and universities will want to know more about their high school journey.