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A Feather in our Pioneering Cap

A Feather in Pathways High’s Pioneering Cap

While it’s not polite to gloat, we can’t help but respectfully say, “We told you so!” regarding the strength and importance of the mastery transcript movement, which led to last week’s announcement of the Mastery Transcript Consortium’s (MTC) merger with ETS. Back in August 2019, I wrote a blog post, “Overhauling the High School Transcript - Fantasy or Necessity?”, about the presentation of a working prototype of the Mastery High School Transcript at a MTC covening in Fort Worth, TX. I wrote then that the leaders of the MTC member schools were “united in the belief that the system of grades and averages for assessment and transcripts is inadequate at representing the breadth and depth of student skills and dispositions, and we are committed to working together to develop a new more useful and equitable system.” 

Furthermore, I wrote that despite being the youngest school in attendance at the conference, Pathways High was further ahead in our work of developing mastery assessments and transcripts than more established schools as we had the advantage of designing our system from scratch rather than retooling an existing system. What happened in the next five years is a testament to Pathways High’s leadership in the mastery transcript movement. In 2020, Pathways High was the first of four schools to issue a mastery transcript for all its graduates. Two researchers and journalists, Thomas Toch and Alina Tugend, followed pioneering Pathways High students and staff over the course of the 2019-20 school year as the students built their mastery transcripts and applied to universities. Their stories were featured in a Washington Post article in November 2021, A Crusade to End Grading in High Schools. While I’d hoped the title would frame the mastery transcript movement in a more positive light, especially given the overwhelmingly positive response from universities, it was likely designed to attract attention and readership which is important for creating momentum for change.

So why are traditional high school courses, grades, and transcripts problematic?

According to Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, in a recent article, the problem with courses and grades are as follows:

  • Diplomas and grades have lost currency as signaling devices 

  • A list of required time-based courses is a weak and inconsistent way to organize skill priorities 

  • Courses silo learning by discipline and stifle innovative and equitable learning experiences 

  • Grades are a mushy inflated signal and lousy extrinsic motivator

In my 2019 blog post, I posed the question, “Will the mastery transcript replace the traditional GPA transcript?” I indicated it was too soon to tell and that such a significant change to the status quo would likely encounter resistance. I did not predict that support for the movement would arrive quickly from two giants in the education assessment establishment. Fast forward five years, and the Carnegie Foundation and ETS, a global nonprofit education and talent solutions organization, announced a new partnership designed to transform assessment to capture the full range of skills required for American students to succeed in K–12, postsecondary education and beyond. The following statement from ETS’s white paper, A New Vision for Skills-Based Assessment, foreshadowed the recent announcement to merge with MTC. 

“The current paradigm for defining and certifying educational attainment in the U.S. is outdated. This system is misaligned with the many nonlinear educational pathways through which students now acquire expertise (e.g., military service, internships, apprenticeships, volunteerism, community service) and the wide variety of knowledge and skills those diverse pathways impart. Reorienting the U.S. education system to cultivate the “whole student” (e.g., Darling-Hammond & Cook-Harvey, 2018) is critical to securing the long-term civic and economic flourishing of the country.” 

At Pathways High, we couldn’t say it better ourselves. We’re hopeful that the added resources ETS can provide to MTC will accelerate the adoption of the mastery transcript so all learners’ unique talents and capabilities will be recognized. Pathways High is unleashing ALL learners’ potential, and the Mastery Transcript enables these learners to present a rich and holistic picture of themselves to colleges, universities, and employers. 

I will end as I concluded the August 2019 blog, I am excited that “we’re moving closer to the end of average. Will you join us?”


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