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Aurora Institute

What’s Happening with Competency-Based Transcripts and Rethinking College Admissions in the United States

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick, Natalie Truong

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Harness Opportunities in ESSA, Modernize HEA


What are competency-based transcripts, and why are they important?

The New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) explains the main issue: “For more than a century, American high school students have earned ‘credits’ for passing courses. When they accumulate enough credits, they receive a diploma. The problem with this approach is that credits do not always equal competency.”

Competency-based transcripts provide colleges and universities with comprehensive information on a high school student’s knowledge, skills and performance upon graduation. They communicate what a student knows and can do in the transition from secondary to postsecondary systems of education based on actual mastery and offer a comprehensive record of achievement in a competency-based learning model.

Recently, more institutes of higher education have come out in support of competency-based transcripts for high school students in college admissions.

Why? Competency-based transcripts offer more transparency in college admissions. What really matters is seeing a transcript with a detailed student profile, offering a report of their achievement and progress, based on demonstrated mastery of skills and knowledge, often accompanied by a portfolio of work.

We were recently asked whether college admissions offices “like” competency-based transcripts compared with traditional transcripts. Of greatest concern is whether proficiency-based learning and grading will disadvantage students in the college application and evaluation process. The short answer is competency-based transcripts are just fine and often preferred. Colleges and universities receive a variety of transcripts from alternative education programs, as well as from schools around the world, and they are accustomed to evaluating them when making admissions decisions. Competency-based transcripts provide more information on student mastery of knowledge and skills than the traditional A-F grading scale, so they can provide college admissions officers with clarity on applicants’ college readiness. Still, most competency-based high school transcripts will offer a conversion so they contain the same basic reporting, which includes course names, final course grades and credits earned, making it comparable. There are many ways to convert competency-based transcripts back to traditional GPA and credits, however, what matters is the improved insight into what a student has learned in K-12.

Recognition of Competency-Based Transcripts by Institutions of Higher Education

In New England, schools and districts implementing competency-based education have formed networks to collaborate with institutions of higher education to recognize competency-based transcripts.

District schools piloting the New Hampshire Performance Assessment for Competency Education program have shared their transcripts with college admission officers across the United States (For more information, please see these blog posts on the topic: Much Ado About Mastery Based Transcripts: What Schools Need to Know and What They Can Do and Sanborn School District in NH: Understanding Competency Education: Separating the Facts from the Myths in the Competency-Based High School Transcript.)

The Regional Education Laboratory Southeast is supporting a research alliance of K-12 and higher education representatives to develop best practices in competency-based education. The alliance, called Measuring Success through Competency-Based Learning, convened districts and schools advancing toward competency-based education earlier this year. They are also working with the Johnston County Public School District in North Carolina in its transition to personalized learning district-wide. One area of work is to engage admissions officers from colleges and universities to talk about transcripts and the admissions process for students who attend competency-based school models.

Great Schools Partnership and the New England Secondary School Consortium collected statements from 75 private and public institutions of higher education across New England (including Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, Tufts and Bowdoin) in support of competency-based education. These institutions unequivocally state that students from competency-based systems are not disadvantaged in the admissions process: 75 New England Institutions of Higher Education State that Proficiency-Based Diplomas Do Not Disadvantage Applicants. Furthermore, the New England Board of Higher Education published this article in support: How Selective Colleges and Universities Evaluate Proficiency-Based High School Transcripts: Insights for Students and Schools.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is “a collective of high schools organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation.” The Mastery Transcript Consortium was founded by independent high schools working on changing college admissions to accept mastery transcripts based on student demonstration of skills and knowledge and is expanding to include competency-based public schools and districts. MTC calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is evaluated against an institutionally specific standard of mastery. (Disclosure: Susan Patrick is a member of the board of the Mastery Transcript Consortium). Chris Sturgis recently wrote a blog on MTC.

Reimagining College Access & Admissions: Portfolios and Performance Assessments

Last week, there was a meeting on Reimagining College Access in Washington, DC. This is a part of a national effort to support the use of K-12 graduation performance assessments, such as student portfolios, capstone projects and senior defenses, in higher education admissions, placement and advising decisions. This initiative is bringing together “a diverse group of K-12 and higher education leaders around the idea that both systems can benefit from authentic and holistic ways of assessing students’ competencies and mastery of skills needed for college, work and life in the 21st century.”

The meeting focused on how performance assessment can show achievement by linking content knowledge, skills and student work products from projects and can be recognized systemically by college admissions. This is also important for recognizing “hidden aptitudes” of students on broader measures of achievement that include knowledge, skills, abilities with a more holistic review of merit.


Why do we boil a high school student’s entire K-12 educational experience down to a single number (grade point average) and test score (college admissions placement testing)?

If we want to improve learning for all students, transparently communicating what a student can know and actually do is critical. College admissions has a chance to be a key driver for improving quality across K-12 education and into higher education. K-12 and higher education can work together to align around competency-based systems. Competency-based pathways are a way forward to ensure each and every student has the knowledge and skills they need for future success.

Learn more:

Natalie Truong is Policy Director and Susan Patrick is President & CEO at iNACOL.