The Current High School Transcript is a Relic of the Past

For decades, high schools have reduced students to the grades and test scores reported on their transcripts, representing a narrow set of traditionally valued subjects. They assume that mastery of content knowledge is the most important indicator of success in further education and career. But, with information available at our fingertips, 24/7, accessible just-in-time, we must question the degree to which our historical values remain the right ones for the future.

Abundant research encourages us to think differently. In our world today, there is a premium placed on an individual’s ability to exhibit emotional intelligence and collaborate, think critically and creatively to solve complex problems, act ethically and responsibly, take initiative and assume leadership, and remain curious. The current transcript provides little, if any, information about these skills. And worse, the misguided focus on grades, standardized tests, and admission to selective universities does little, if anything, to encourage teachers and schools to foster these qualities and skills among our young people.

The high school transcript is the official documentation of a student’s achievement through his/her tenure in high school. Students rely on it to demonstrate their performance. Parents refer to it to validate their child’s achievement. High schools use it to rank students and select valedictorians. Scholarship sponsors consult it to assess qualifications and grant awards. Universities and colleges depend on it to determine eligibility and admissions. In many ways, the content of a high school transcript grants or denies access to future opportunities. More than anything else, the transcript is the “currency of education.”

This form of educational currency is outdated and arguably detrimental. It is preventing us – as individuals, school leaders, and policymakers – from shifting the focus of learning from discipline-specific content knowledge to demonstration of qualities and skills necessary for young people to thrive in an increasingly global economy and sustainable world. We are stuck in the past.

A Strategic Lever for Change

Changing the content and format of the high school transcript (and regular report cards that roll up into the transcript) would serve as a powerful lever to drive an evolution in education that our young people deserve and our society needs. Doing so has potential to propel us into the future. Students, communities, colleges and universities, and society at large would be better served with a new kind of high school transcript that reports on the skills, competencies, and mindsets that matter most. The massive disruption created by the Coronavirus has (at least temporarily) given us a reprieve from grades and test scores. That makes now an optimal time to re-evaluate and revamp our form of educational currency.

Since the high school transcript is the currency of education, modifying it would serve as a strategic lever to force a shift in the way students present themselves, and correspondingly, the way in which colleges and universities assess their qualifications. The oft-cited adage, “what gets tested, gets taught” is only partially true. Even more so, what gets reported (to colleges, education agencies, school boards, parents) gets taught. Thus we can rest assured that, over time, a change in the content and format of the high school transcript would have a domino effect. Such a change has the potential to shift the priorities of the education system, including the approaches to student assessment and school accountability, the instructional methods used by teachers, the professional growth for current teachers, and pre-service training of new teachers.

Best of all, as these shifts happen, teachers will be compelled to facilitate more engaging, student-centered, and authentic learning experiences  – i.e., project-based, experiential learning. These approaches require essential skills, such as collaboration, resource management, project planning, critical inquiry and analysis, creativity and innovation, and more. Over time, more educators will affirm that how students learn is more important than what they learn if we want to achieve the outcomes that truly serve our collective future.

Coronavirus Waivers Open Doors

While pursuing this path may appear attractive, we’ll have to address two primary drivers that continuously pull our education system back to the status quo: (1) accountability systems based on standardized test scores, and (2) admissions criteria for selective universities. Current conditions open the door to re-evaluate both.

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced education authorities to waive requirements for student testing, and teachers to assign pass/incomplete grades (for this term, at least). Likewise, colleges and universities have waived requirements for 2021 applicants to submit grades and test scores for the current school year. While most national and state governments have been reluctant to seriously interrogate the value and effects of their current systems of assessment and accountability, now may be an opportune time to do so.

Similarly, the leniency established for this year also opens a window for colleges and universities to take the next step in revamping their admissions practices. Many admissions directors freely acknowledge that traditional formulaic admissions processes (relying primarily on grades and test scores) have limited ability to predict student success. In recent years, the vast majority, especially selective colleges, have moved to holistic review, paying more attention to the whole person. Individually or collectively (i.e., through NACAC and AACRAO), if colleges and universities were explicit about their eagerness to receive student information about broader ranging skills, competencies, and mindsets, the K-12 community would happily oblige.

Good News on the Horizon

Fortunately, a version of this new kind of transcript has been developed and is being piloted now by schools affiliated with the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). Launched in March 2017, membership has grown to over 300 schools. Most are independent schools, both in the U.S. and overseas, but increasingly public schools are opting in. The new transcript has no grades or numerical ratings, is customizable to align with school or district outcomes, and includes links to artifacts that demonstrate the level of student proficiency reported. The transcript’s consistent format allows for easy interpretation by colleges and universities. Learn more about the transcript here.

School districts interested in educating the whole child and modifying their systems of assessment to reflect the broader goals can read Getting Started at the Local Level. Policymakers and others eager to take steps to shift systems can read A Strategy for Systemic Action.

The world our children will inherit is changing faster than any time in history. For our children to prosper and humankind to flourish, we need a new kind of education. Students deserve an education that fully prepares them for the demands they will face in the future. Society needs young people who possess the personal qualities and professional skills necessary to lead in increasingly challenging times. The current education system is not meeting either of these expectations. Unfortunately, an abundance of policies, doctrines, funding mechanisms, and other forms of institutionalization protect the status quo in a way that is difficult to change.

Yet, our history is filled with examples of innovative approaches taken by dedicated individuals and groups to break through institutionalized systems that no longer serve societal needs and open the door for a better way forward. By changing the traditional high school transcript – the currency of education – we can free ourselves from one of the codified remnants of an outdated education system and launch a new era of learning that better serves our students and society. Current conditions make it more accessible than ever before. Let’s not waste this crisis.

Roman Stearns is Founder & Executive Director of Scaling Student Success, a California partnership dedicated to educating the whole child. This piece, written originally in December 2016, was updated in April 2020 to incorporate the work of the Mastery Transcript Consortium and leverage the opportunity presented by the current disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.