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Aurora Institute

Mastery Credits? Mastery Transcript?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation

Image from the MTC website.

I had the opportunity to participate in a fascinating conversation as a member of the advisory council to Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) a few weeks ago. Lots of people I’ve never met. Lots of ideas that got me thinking. Here’s a bit of background about MTC, as we should all follow and support what they are doing, followed by some of my take-aways.

Background on the Mastery Transcript Consortium

The Mastery Transcript Consortium, recently founded by educators from the world of private high schools, want to create an alternative model for high school credits and transcripts. Scott Looney, a force behind MTC, described his vision. He believes that the reductionist approach that wraps a student into one number – the GPA – is deeply problematic. (Check out their website for their analysis of the problem – it’s got some great speaking points.) MTC wants to create a system of credits and transcripts that represents the whole child, or whole teenager in the case of high schools.

If I understood the vision correctly, they want to structure the transcript around knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Credits, based on demonstrated mastery, are the building blocks for communicating how students are progressing toward the graduation competencies. The transcript is to be designed to tell the story of what students know and can do. Tags would allow college admissions to search through the transcript and teacher comments for what is most important to them.

The MTC theory of action to introduce a new form of credits and transcripts is to create a technology platform that can be used by high schools and college admissions. The goal is for college admissions to be able to quickly see the credits and the standards the school use to determine credits, and then deep dive into examples of student work. From what I can tell, they are drawing on the ideas of digital badging so that anyone can see the skill and who credentialed, and then look at an artifact to quickly assess if the level of performance is indeed what the college or employer is seeking.

The new transcript would be based on three core principles:

  • No required standardization of mastery credits
  • No grades or numerical equivalents
  • Consistent transcript format

There is actually a fourth principle: do not indicate how much time it takes someone to fulfill that credit. I haven’t fully come to terms with this one, as it is so important to monitor growth and pace in K-12. Shouldn’t a student who was “behind” grade level learns at a pace of 2.0 performance levels per year be recognized? However, perhaps we just need to monitor it in schools but not include it in communicating to colleges and employers? Students can always use that type of result in telling their story even if it isn’t credentialed by a school.

MTC is serious about creating an alternative. They have trademarked the term “Mastery Credit,” as they don’t want anyone to be able to use that term if it doesn’t represent credit fully based on demonstrated mastery. However, because there aren’t any standards driving the private schools, each high school is going to be determining what the standards are and what mastery means. There’s a lot of wiggle room there.

MTC already has well over one hundred members. But that doesn’t mean that they are all mastery-based. They are introducing a second strand of work in introducing online courses on mastery-based learning for their members.

There are already some public high schools in their network and they’ll be recruiting more.

Musings, Tidbits, and Take-Aways

Can You Have A Mastery-Based Transcript Without Mastery-Based Learning? MTC is advancing a mastery transcript but not necessarily mastery-based learning. Their focus is primarily on changing grading policies. But as we’ve learned from watching districts that move to standards-based grading too quickly, you actually have to have a number of pieces in place to make standards-based grading work. Don’t teachers have to create a shared understanding of the learning objectives (competencies and/or standards) that students are expected to achieve? Doesn’t that have to be organized by performance level so you can determine progress? Doesn’t there have to be moderation and calibration so that teachers are consistent in how they determine mastery? I assume private schools want all their students to be successful. That would call for flexible supports and the flexible use of time.

My conclusion: I think a mastery-based transcript only works if it is based on mastery-based learning. Otherwise it is more like badging where anyone can badge another person for skills based on whatever they think is “good enough.” Credentials needs to have systems in place to provide confidence that they really do represent demonstrated knowledge and skills.

Given the role private schools play in our country, I’m pretty sure that the Mastery Transcript Consortium is likely to be catalytic in increasing attention on mastery-based learning.

Making Room for the High Achievers: MTC is thinking of organizing the transcript to indicate regular credits and advance credits. It got me to thinking about high achievers.

As I’ve listened to students in high schools moving to competency-based education across the country, it’s been clear to me that we have to make sure that students who want to be high achievers can do so within the competency-based system. The fear some people hold that somehow competency-based education is a doorway to communism comes from the idea that students are only going to be taught to a minimum set of outcomes and not allowed to achieve beyond. Although I really am not worried that communism is some dark force that is trying to damage our communities, I do think we need to make sure that students can soar. Certainly, to students and their families who experience success in the ranking and sorting of the traditional system, they need to see benefits in a competency-based system, as well.

Students are high achievers for lots of reasons. They are provided more learning opportunities outside of school. They have aptitudes for some academic domains. Their identity is wrapped up in being better than other students. There are family pressures to do so. Whatever the reason, students need to be able to achieve at higher levels than the “common” outcomes. However, in competency-based education this means something different. Perhaps students go deeper. Perhaps they advance beyond grade level in some or all of the academic domains. Some schools have jettisoned honors courses and established the score of 4 to indicate honors level work. What’s important is that districts and schools do need to put into place the structure to allow students to achieve at high levels and be an over-achiever. We also need to make room for those students who may not be at the highest grade levels but have shown the greatest growth. They too are high achievers.

Assuming Correlations Between Purpose and Mental Health: There was a stream of conversation about how students in the private high schools are extrinsically motivated by the GPA but end up having mental health crises in college or later because they don’t have purpose. Now, I spend more of my time working around students who have been traumatized by the hardships that come from their current lives rather than the potential challenges they might face later on. However, it’s an insight we might want to think about in how we talk about competency-based education to families. Students need to have intrinsic motivation and value themselves for who they are and not their GPA. We want to develop students with a sense of purpose and excitement for creating their future.

What Happens When We Remove the Word Prepare? A different perspective was offered by a comment that whenever we talk about “preparing” students for the future, for college, or for adulthood, we are disconnecting ourselves and our students from the present and from “flow.” We also become less student-centered and more focused on adult systems. However, when dealing with public schools that haven’t yet put into place the pedagogy, structure, and culture to make sure all students have the option for college without remediation, it’s pretty clear that we need to stay focused systemically on preparing students. However, it’s certainly worth taking a moment to note how we think differently about problems if we drop the word “prepare” for a minute.

Driven by the Elites: A college admissions representative from a small liberal arts college pointed out that that there is a big difference between how the 75 or so elite colleges think about admissions and how all the other 4,000 colleges and universities do it. The elite colleges and universities have such low acceptance rates that they are more focused on selecting students to build a strong, diverse (in every way) community consistent with their values and vision than trying to rank and sort students on achievement. The remaining institutions of higher education pay more attention to making sure that they have enough students coming to fill the seats or beds each fall.

Thus, his advice to us was Don’t Worry about College Admissions! He said that college admissions officers can figure out how to make the decisions they need to make. What is important is…that we do what is best for students and for helping them learn.

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