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Aurora Institute

Rethinking the High School Credential

CompetencyWorks Blog

Authors: Tom Vander Ark

Issues: Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation


This post originally appeared at Getting Smart on May 4, 2018.

Most American youth don’t get what they need from high school. There are lots of reasons–some economic, some cultural, some educational. Two root problems are how we’ve defined the finish line (graduation requirements) and how we communicate success (transcript).

For 125 years we’ve managed and recorded the high school experience as a series of courses and grades. It’s a record of time and activity but not a very good measure of knowledge, skills and dispositions. It doesn’t capture experiences or work products that provide evidence of growth and accomplishment.

The number and type of credits required (defined by local and state graduation requirements) guide course taking. Because it defines the minimum expectations for compulsory education, it reflects a social contract and equity promise.

Standards-based reforms of the last quarter century attempted to connect high school exit requirements to entrance requirements for pathways that lead to living wages with long-term opportunity. Unfortunately, by simply adding more English, math, and science credit requirements, these well-intentioned reforms reinforced time-based controls and traditional content-based courses.

In short, there are five problems that result from using credit-based requirements, test-based accountability and a transcript limited to these data points:

  1. Discipline-based course requirements block interdisciplinary study.
  2. Test-based accountability reduces the number of extended challenges, performance-based assessment and public products.
  3. Limited (and usually paper-based) transcripts list course credits and test scores but don’t help students share personal bests, unique accomplishments and capabilities, and evidence of growth on career readiness indicators.
  4. Graduation expectations aligned with college entrance requirements may work for traditional disciplines but are not well suited for new “earn and learn” ladders in career and technical education (for example, robotics and advanced manufacturing).
  5. Narrow focus on course and credit requirements limits emphasis on the importance of out-of-school learning (for example work, service, and civic-based learning). There are few if any opportunities to gain credit for out of school or informal learning (learning fractions on Khan Academy, taking calculus in a MOOC, learning work-ready skills on LRNG, starting one’s own business or cause).

It’s time for a new way to express expectations, to promote powerful learning, and to help young people share their capabilities. We’ve launched a 90-day sprint to design a better high school credentialing system. Some of the questions we’re asking include these five:

  • Outcomes. What’s the best way to express desired student learning goals? What are the best outcome frameworks? To what extent should desired outcomes vary by career pathway or postsecondary plans?
  • Evidence. What forms of evidence should communities accept of learning and growth? Micro-credentials and badges seem like a cool approach but how can we ensure consistent quality?
  • Transcript. How could schools help students summarize their capabilities, accomplishments, and aspirations in ways that benefit them and receivers (especially colleges and employers)?
  • Networks. How could schools be encouraged to work together around common expectations, assessments, and supports?
  • Equity. If diploma systems become more modular and flexible, how can we ensure equitable access to career pathways? How can we improve guidance in order to support successful experiences and contributions?

We’d love to hear from you if you have an opinion or model in one or more of these categories.

After I talked to place-based education expert Greg Smith, he woke up in the middle of the night and penned this beautiful list of dispositions he’d like to see cultivated:

  • Do as little harm as possible
  • Care for others and the Earth
  • Pay attention
  • Cooperate rather than dominate
  • Lead when needed, follow when appropriate
  • Recognize and avoid the attractions of greed, hatred, and ignorance

Maybe you’ll be equally inspired the opportunity these questions ignite. If you are, add a comment or send your suggestions and examples to [email protected]. Thanks for joining this important thought experiment.

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Sydney Schaef, M.BA., M.Ed., is an educator, entrepreneur, and school design consultant. She currently works as a Mastery Learning Designer at reDesign and a design consultant for Building 21. She served at the School District of Philadelphia from 2013-2015 in the Office of New School Models, and prior to that, served as Founder and Executive Director of a 501c3 nonprofit organization that led innovative education and youth development programs in East Africa. Follow Sydney on Twitter at @sydneyschaef.