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Aurora Institute

Issue to Tackle for Certifying Learning: Meaningful Qualifications

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick, Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Meaningful Qualifications


Not only do high school diplomas need to certify mastery of academic competencies, but they also need to certify mastery of a comprehensive set of skills, knowledge and dispositions students need to succeed after high school. More meaningful qualifications can promote active, inquiry-based pedagogy with more holistic, learner-centered models to ensure students gain the knowledge and skills they need to thrive after high school.

Currently, most high school diplomas in the United States are based on transcripts that reflect credit for academic subjects based on meeting minimum seat-time requirements (or Carnegie units) and a passing grade, which may or may not signify mastery of the content. There is wide variability in grading practices and in the knowledge attained in given subjects, which is evidenced by high remediation rates in entry-level college courses. College faculty often cite the underpreparedness of high school graduates for the rigor of college courses. Today, the only thing we can know for sure about a high school graduate in most U.S. school districts is that they have put in the required seat time in the requisite courses. When schools are passing students along and graduating them with major gaps in skills and knowledge, they are doing students a disservice.

How could the high school diploma align to a more comprehensive definition of success and be more transparent about achievement? This is one area where state policy makers and communities can take action. Whether a community conversation or a state conversation, the idea of engaging communities and families in conversations around what is different in the 21st century, and around what students need to know and be able to do, is increasingly important. A more meaningful high school credential would focus on the knowledge, skills and competencies a student has earned based on evidence of mastery.

A conversation on creating meaningful qualifications could help states and communities to answer the following questions:

  • What would a more innovative high school diploma look like?
  • How can we create multiple pathways for students to engage in learning, including in the community, in museums, in internships and in place-based learning, with formal and informal learning opportunities inside and beyond classrooms?
  • How would a meaningful qualification, with a comprehensive e-portfolio, be valued and useful for entry to the next level of education, career pathway and lifelong learning?
  • How would this shift the focus toward ensuring students have targeted supports to reach future goals and success? and
  • How would this expand rich learning experiences that spark creativity and a thirst for lifelong learning?

There are alternatives to the American system of time-based credits and transcripts. Let’s challenge ourselves to rethink this — and create a meaningful credential that certifies knowledge and skills on mastery!  Competency replacing Carnegie is the big idea.

Learn more about meaningful qualifications in Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education, and stay tuned for the next installment in this blog series.

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