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Aurora Institute

Reinventing Crediting and Transcripts (Part 2): Considerations for Making Change

CompetencyWorks Blog

Authors: Jonathan Martin

Issues: Issues in Practice, Base Learning on Mastery, not Seat Time


As described in my previous post, there are tremendous advantages that can come with a new form of scholastic crediting and a new model of school transcripts. Instead of itemizing courses completed and recording what is, in effect, seat-time accrued, we can document what students actually know—and what they can do with what they know. Students, their parents, and their future schools and employers can gain much greater understanding of the student’s genuine abilities and have greater confidence in their prospects. Students can be credited for the myriad ways they develop competencies, whether in a conventional course, an online learning environment, an internship, a co-curricular experience, an individualized passion pursuit, or an elaborate interdisciplinary project. They are no longer restricted to being credited only for a traditional sequence of classes.

The advantages of such a transformation of school crediting are clear. Indeed, as I discuss in my book, Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education, they’ve been clear for decades. A US Bureau of Education (before there was a Department of Education) report published in 1954 is remarkably prescient and entirely current in the many critiques it makes of the Carnegie credit system used widely in high schools both then and now. These complaints include that it “encourages a rigid schedule of classes and subjects,” “gives undue emphasis to time served,” and doesn’t recognize “work experience or civic competence.”

But how? How do schools pursue such a large change, upending generations of expectations of what a high school transcript should look like, and shifting such a powerful paradigm? Reinventing Crediting provides case studies documenting how schools and systems have managed or are undertaking this transcript transition, either to completion, as in the case of New Zealand schools (though completion may be the wrong word, as the work is never truly done), or in the early phases, as in the case of Mastery Transcript Consortium schools such as the Nueva School (CA) or the Putney School (VT). Reinventing Crediting also provides a road map for schools and districts to transform their transcripts that draws upon the lessons learned from the case studies.

Some main points from my two chapters on the change process that are important for schools and districts seeking to transform their transcripts are:

  • Communicate and Co-Create. Schools and systems benefit from an assertive communication plan from the beginning that provides multiple avenues for change leaders to articulate why change is necessary and what transformation will accomplish. This message should emphasize the benefits to students: their increased well-being and engagement, and also their enhanced competency and preparation for success. It’s also important to go beyond “seeking buy-in” from faculty and parents. Instead seek “co-creation,” in which important elements of the change are collaboratively designed by representatives of multiple key constituencies.
  • Don’t Forget the Students. There’s a fascinating passage in the excellent book chronicling Alaska’s Chugach district’s transformation to competency-based education, Delivering on the Promise (DeLorenzo et al.), when the system leaders confront a revolt of the student body after implementing new grading and report cards. Chugach’s leadership then regrouped and worked with students extensively to explain and generate support. Consider student participation throughout the process of change.
  • Focus Professional Learning on Assessment. As with any major school transformation, a great deal of time, energy, and funding will need to be invested in faculty professional development. Skills in grading and assessment will be especially important, and should be the focus, in part because there will likely be skepticism that this innovative approach is holding students to appropriately high standards. In many of the case studies in Reinventing Crediting, lack of assessment proficiency among educators has limited progress. Educators at Lerner Medical College (see previous post) recognized as they implemented their system that they needed to give far greater attention to inter-rater agreement when assessing competency to a high standard. In New Zealand, a strong expectation has been placed on teachers to assess student mastery of standards consistently, and additional resources have been needed to support teacher skill sets and efficiency in this work.
  • Develop School-Specific Core Competencies from Mission and Values. One of the great advantages of crediting the competencies that students have attained—rather than the courses they have completed—is that it enables schools and systems to incorporate their particular educational values and purposes more effectively in their assessment systems. Early in the work of transformation, educational leaders can engage their community in a process of reflecting on their mission, history, and values. Then they can undertake a scan of what their region and the job market more broadly most need in the skill sets of their alumni. From these two sources, they can define and craft the core competencies their students must demonstrate for graduation, and then build their curriculum and instruction accordingly.
  • Go Together to Go Far. Schools and systems shouldn’t undertake this complicated transformation alone. Transforming what is reported on student transcripts should entail seeking support and approval from institutions of higher education, employers, and accrediting agencies, and will depend on close collaboration among the organizations advancing this change. The role of such hubs as the Great Schools Partnership, the Aurora Institute, and the Mastery Transcript Consortium in this transformation is extremely valuable.
  • Take Interim and Incremental Steps. The Mastery Transcript Consortium has called for a quantum leap whereby most or all of the standard elements of transcripts—courses listed, numeric credits allocated, letter grades assigned, grade levels denoted—are replaced on high school transcripts. But we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, and in many cases an incremental approach will be needed. Some schools are already implementing a two-part transcript where one part is a conventional listing of courses completed and one part documents competencies attained with links to portfolio evidence demonstrating mastery.

This may be a long and complicated journey of transition and transformation—or it might prove in some cases to be not so challenging after all. But the successes of systems that have already managed the change make a convincing case that it’s worth the effort. Crediting what students can do is a critical step towards making learning meaningful.

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Jonathan Martin PhotoJonathan E. Martin, a former 15-year independent school head of school, has consulted to more than fifty schools and organizations in the past eight years on school innovation and assessment excellence. In 2016 and 2017 he consulted for the Mastery Transcript Consortium, preparing the first set of MTC sample rubrics and sample competencies and working with others in planning programming for MTC Site Directors. He is currently the Director of K12 Professional Learning for ACT.