One School’s Approach to Equitable Grading

NAIS

Grades determine some of the most important decisions that can affect students’ life trajectories: course placement, athletic eligibility, college admission, scholarships, and employment possibilities. Grades also profoundly affect how our students think about themselves—who they are, what they’re good at, and whether school is a place they can succeed.

But parents, teachers, and school administrators are frequently stunned to learn that many common grading practices are often outdated, inaccurate, and undermine student success. Even when armed with this knowledge, teachers and administrators avoid confronting the complexities of grading, thinking that if they try to challenge the status quo, even if it is inequitable, they won’t have the energy, the time, or the support.

It can seem daunting, and it is hard work, but it can be done. One independent school was ready to take on the challenge.

The Grading and Equity Connection

In 1945, Georgetown Day School (GDS) opened as the first integrated school in Washington, DC. It was founded on a commitment to academic excellence, educational innovation, and social justice, all framed within an umbrella of equity. These ideas continue to fuel the school’s work to serve its diverse K–12 student body of 1,075 and are guiding a major school initiative to unite the lower/middle and upper campuses. The school community is also using this initiative as an opportunity to reimagine the school’s programming, curriculum, and pedagogical priorities.

Debby Previna, middle school principal, decided that the time was right to tackle grading, an issue that had nagged, confused, and confounded her since she became an administrator. Despite GDS teachers’ unified belief in the potential of every student and a heartfelt dedication to equity and engaging pedagogy, each one had different, and seemingly idiosyncratic, grading practices. The practices varied within each grade level, within each discipline, and even when two teachers taught the same course using identical curriculum. The result was that a student’s grade could be more reflective of the teacher’s approach to grading than the student’s academic performance.

Some teachers deducted points if homework was late, while others accepted work without penalty. Some teachers awarded points for correct answers on homework, while others gave full credit if a student showed effort. Some teachers emphasized homework, weighing those assignments at 50 to 60 percent of the grade, while others weighed homework at 0 percent. Teachers’ views on extra-credit assignments and retakes on tests also weren’t consistent.

These practices worked against the school’s mission, stymying the learning process and inadvertently injecting into grades the teachers’ biases about students’ gender, race, or income. They realized that students were so stressed about grades and consumed with amassing points, in large part, because each teacher had their own unique system of grading. In addition, because many of the teachers’ grading practices rewarded or punished students for every assignment, activity, and behavior in the classroom, students often were less willing to take risks and make mistakes, and cared less about learning.

But Previna didn’t blame the teachers. After all, none of them—herself included—had ever received any training or support with how to grade. Much to Previna’s frustration, every administrator she reached out to for advice bemoaned the variability of teachers’ grading practices, and most chalked it up to an unavoidable part of schools. Previna knew that if she didn’t address her faculty’s grading, as intimidating as it seemed, all of their other innovations and equity work would be weakened.

Learning and Unlearning

Previna knew that her first step couldn’t be to launch a full-scale re-examination of the school’s grading practices; she needed the teachers to see how their current approaches contradicted their school’s ideals. She started by sharing a few articles about the weaknesses of common grading practices with the entire middle school faculty. Then she invited all faculty to research, examine, and imagine ways to align grading to their vision for progressive and equitable education. To her surprise, nearly half of the faculty showed interest.

With the help of Crescendo Education Group, Previna capitalized on this momentum. In spring 2018, 20 of her middle school teachers participated in a series of workshops to help them begin critically examining many traditional grading practices. They first learned how many common grading practices were created during the Industrial Revolution and are based on century-old beliefs about teaching, learning, and human potential that have long since been debunked. By continuing to use these practices, we contradict our current understanding about effective teaching and learning. The teachers learned how, for example:

  • Although many grading practices rely on concepts of extrinsic rewards and punishments, those approaches undermine intrinsic motivation, which is important to critical and creative thinking and learning.
  • Penalizing students for their errors during the period of their learning when they are supposed to make mistakes—including student performance on homework, for example—is in conflict with growth mindset messaging.
  • Grading software’s calculations are often mathematically unsound and demotivate students.
  • Implicit biases operate and infect our grading when we include student behavior in the grade.
  • With many common grading practices we inadvertently reward students with privilege and punish those without, and perpetuate cycles of inequities.

After studying the research about grading and learning about research-supported grading practices that are more accurate, more bias-resistant, and develop intrinsic motivation in students, the pilot group of middle school faculty members was excited to start using them. These more equitable practices included using alternatives to the 0–100 scale, not including behavior in the grade, ending extra credit, using rubrics, and developing a culture of retakes and redos.

The Outcomes

A year after implementing these practices across the middle school, teachers started seeing results—many of which were surprising to them—and generated a body of evidence that shows the powerful results of equitable grading practices, including:

  • Students were less stressed, and classroom environments felt more relaxed and supportive of learning.“On the day of the test, students were tense, and I was tense. But after the test when they were allowed to review and reflect on their mistakes and make corrections, they were so relaxed, they were able to work faster, and they were able to make connections that they couldn’t make the day before,” says the math department chair.
  • Grade inflation decreased when teachers no longer padded grades with points for participation or homework completion. Teachers expanded how they gave feedback on nonacademic skills, including with phone calls home or separate reports.
  • Grades are more accurate and less biased. “Using a rubric is making grading more accurate because sometimes you’re biased,” says one teacher. “Without it as a reference, I might give a better grade to a ‘good’ student, but with the rubric, even if you’re the top student, I can give you the grade you earned.”
  • Students’ motivation increased. Rates of homework completion in many classes are the same or even higher than when homework points were included in the grade. And to teachers’ surprise, students continued to submit work on time, or turned it in only a day or two after the deadline, and frequently with higher quality.
  • Changes to grading practices leverage other aspects of programmatic reimagining, including development of course standards and high-quality and valid assessments.

Most schoolwide grading policies are enacted by administrative fiat, usually leading to resentment with no real changes or consistency. But Previna believes that because her faculty now has experience with these tested grading practices, there is more progress toward developing new schoolwide grading policies. The teachers aren’t in lockstep agreement, but they are developing enough evidence and testimonies across the subjects to support more common and more equitable grading practices schoolwide. The pilot faculty members found the benefits so significant that they asked Previna to enlist the entire school to learn and try these new practices. Seeing the middle school teachers’ success, the upper school is interested in continuing this work.

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The big problem with rewarding kids for good grades and punishing them for bad ones

The Washington Post

By Jessica Lahey

When I’m in schools talking to kids about resilience and learning through failure, I usually begin with a quick survey. First, I ask teachers and staff in the auditorium to close their eyes. I then ask the students to raise their hands if they get paid cash money for good grades. Depending on the socio-economic makeup of the district, about 15 to 20 percent of hands go up.

Sometimes it takes a while, hands creeping up slowly, hesitantly, for kids seem to intuit that getting paid for grades may not be the best approach to learning. I then ask them to raise their hands if they get any material thing in exchange for grades; a new iPod or some other shiny enticement. In response, about 20 to 25 percent of the hands go up. The noise in the auditorium tends to amp up with each new question as students begin to compare notes. When the clamor dies down, I remind the staff of the rules: eyes closed, no peeking. And I warn the students that this last question is a little harder to answer, and I want them to think and search their hearts for an honest answer before they respond.

“Raise your hand if you truly believe your parents love you more when you bring home high grades, and love you less when you make low ones.”

Over the past five years, I’ve asked this question to thousands of kids, ages 12 to 18, and the percentages still surprise me. Among middle-school children, about 80 percent believe that, yes, their parents truly love them more when they deliver high grades and less when they make low ones. In high school, the average is a little higher — about 90 percent.

After the poll is over, we debrief, and I reassure them that for the most part, their perceptions are incorrect, that they are loved no matter what, but parenting is hard, and we parents often need a moment to come up with the right response to an unexpectedly low grade. Sure, we are disappointed, but that silence they encounter when they bring home a report card littered with B-minuses (B-minus is the new F, haven’t you heard?) does not mean we love them any less. I promise, we’re just pausing to find the best, most appropriate words to support their hearts, their minds and their intellectual growth.

I’m a parent, however, and I understand the truth behind that pause, even if I don’t want to admit it. That silence in response to a low grade? That’s withdrawal of love based on performance, and our kids hear us loud and clear.

Jim Taylor, a psychologist who specializes in sports and parenting, calls it “outcome love,” a transaction in which parents bestow the reward of love in exchange for their children’s success, and withdraw that love as punishment for failures.

Outcome love impedes children’s happiness as well as their success in life because despite what parents may say to children about unconditional love, they hear parents most acutely through their actions. Taylor elaborated in an email, “If parents send frequent messages of love, happiness, and excitement when their children are successful and frequent messages of withdrawal of love or anger, frustration, and disappointment when their children fail to live up to their parents’ expectations, the kids will make that connection.”

Messages of outcome love don’t just shape kids’ short-term happiness, either. They can have a long-term deleterious effect on mental health, one that endures well beyond adolescence.

“Sadly, these messages fuel mental health problems including perfectionism, fear of failure, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, not to mention the reactions of resentment, anger, and rejection from the children toward the parents. Even more painfully, this attitude of outcome love becomes internalized and children grow up to be adults who berate themselves for failure and only give self-love when they succeed,” Taylor said in the email.

Furthermore, when love is offered in exchange for performance, it becomes a reward to be earned, and the data on extrinsic rewards and their effect on motivation are clear: If we want kids to be invested in any activity — school, athletics, household duties, learning a musical instrument — the fastest way to undermine that motivation is to offer material or emotional rewards.

Of course we are proud of our children’s successes and disappointed in their failures — we aren’t robots. We don’t get much feedback on our parenting, so lacking our own report cards or trophies, it’s tempting to use our children’s success as immediate and reassuring evidence of our parenting success. However, claiming our children’s successes or failures as our own cheats them out of their experiences, devalues their learning, and teaches them that our love for them is conditional.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to avoid outcome love. When parents focus on the process of learning over the relatively arbitrary end product of points, grades and scores, we communicate in terms louder than words that we love our children unequivocally and without reservation.

Rather than gush over a high grade or fume over a low one, for example, focus discussion on what the child did to earn that grade. How did they prepare for the assessment or project? What might they do differently next time? What was successful, and what do they need to change? Did they get enough sleep the night before the test or did they stay up for “just one more hour” to review? Did they speak with the teacher to get feedback on what worked and what did not?

This focus on process over product is particularly helpful for highly anxious or perfectionist kids who tend to get derailed by their intense focus on outcomes. When these kids obsess over an end product, on why their grade was a 90 instead of a 100, for example, it’s essential to steer the discussion back to the learning, back to the ongoing, lifelong process of becoming a more effective, efficient and invested learner.

We can’t always excise all traces of judgment, joy or anger from our responses to our children’s triumphs and tragedies, nor should we. However, if we want our children to truly believe us when we say our love is constant and unconditional, that we value learning more than a number printed in red at the top of a test, we are going to have to put our money (and our unconditional love) where our mouths are.

Jessica Lahey is a teacher and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” and a forthcoming book on preventing addiction in children.

One School’s Conversation About Open Gradebook

NAIS

October 01, 2018

By Jess Hill, Buffy Baker, Armistead Lemon, Jenny Jervis, Maddie Waud, and Adam Wilsman

In the fast pace of what we do in our schools every day, every week, and every year, it is increasingly difficult to carve out time to research or even reflect on any change of policy that may be heading down the pike. We often hear or read about an educational trend or what another school is doing, or we may hear from a few parents that we should do [insert latest trend], too. At Harpeth Hall School (TN), we talk to faculty and to students, if appropriate, and take the time to consider what we think is best for our students within our school culture. Then we make a recommendation whether to change a policy.

In our wonderfully diverse coalition of girls’ schools, we espouse many different paths to reaching the summit of engaging, educating, inspiring, supporting, and mentoring our girls and young women. It comes as no surprise that the mention of an open gradebook—giving each student and parent online access to all of a student’s grades in a teacher’s gradebook, all of the time—is concerning to some girls’ school administrators. To others, it is something they incorporated years ago and are now off to consider newer trends and best practices. This topic was a clear fork in the road for us.

As one of only two girls’ schools in Nashville, with a robust community of independent, magnet, charter, and public co-ed schools, Harpeth Hall may be the only school that doesn’t have an open gradebook. We believe that considering this question within the context of our mission as an all-girls school is essential and a decision not to be taken lightly.

The Pros and Cons of Total Transparency

On the surface, a system that provides both students and parents uninhibited access and feedback on a student’s letter grade would appear to be an improvement. Students can keep track of their assessments and can easily see each grade and whether they have any missing or late assignments. There are no report card surprises; rather, the parent and student can always be aware of the student’s average and take action accordingly. An open gradebook allows for conversations between parents and students, and gives both parties an up-to-date view of the student’s achievements in each class.

Such ease of access and total transparency mirror the 24/7 online world that we live in. An apt parallel might be online banking: Log on anytime to learn your balance. The critical difference is that at Harpeth Hall, and most likely any all-girls school, we know a student’s numeric average at any given moment will never provide the whole picture of her educational journey. We have many high-achieving students, and we must consider whether such a system would best serve our particular community, or whether it would undermine our goals as an institution.

For the student who experiences anxiety about any uncertainty with regard to her grades, an open gradebook will allow for a superficial level of control via constant transparency. What might be the cost of this transparency? Right now, teachers are aware of their students’ specific anxieties because of the one-on-one conversations that happen around grades. Students can already ask for their average, grade, or test result at any time and be accommodated. More importantly, when students ask teachers directly, critical face-to-face conversations often reveal nuances for a teacher about how a student is processing an experience or developing in a class. The current system, while technically old-fashioned, preserves the teacher-student relationship and still allows students to have ownership. At this time, we can find no research showing that open gradebooks have improved students’ grades or helped teachers know their students better.

Minding the Confidence Gap

We do, however, have plenty of research on girls and confidence. Over the past four years, our school has focused on this research, namely the disconcerting truth that girls and young women who perform well in school do not always meet with the same success in the workplace. In order to address this confidence gap, we have identified several primary inhibitors we see in our students. Three of these five inhibitors could be exacerbated by an open gradebook.

Perfectionism: High-achieving students with perfectionist tendencies are more likely to equate their self-worth with their grades. Grades become powerful extrinsic motivators for these students, who begin to value successful performance over learning. Over time, the joy of learning diminishes as they focus narrowly on the numbers and improving the numbers. We are concerned that an open platform will drive students’ focus further toward numbers. At Harpeth Hall, we never want a student to define herself by a number.

Comparison: Equally concerning is the possibility of promoting an obsessive-compulsive behavior focused on results. Teenage girls are already online all the time, checking the number of likes on Facebook and Instagram. Refreshing the open gradebook page is an added reality for many girls across the country today, and we might spare our students from this option by giving them the space to think about something more than their grades. Tendencies toward perfectionism exist without an open gradebook, and we think they would worsen without the intervention of teachers should we go to an open system.

Fear of failure: Research shows that girls are especially prone to the fear of failure because of “good girl” conditioning. Girls avoid risks and value image over learning, and this avoidance diminishes confidence. Yet we are learning that college admission is becoming increasingly more interested in a prospective student’s ability to handle disappointment, adversity, and struggle rather than just seeing a grade point average. Girls who develop perseverance, tenacity, and a healthy sense of risk-taking are less vulnerable to depression and anxiety. This leads to a more successful experience in college and beyond. We hope our girls will have healthy, successful life experiences, and thus we want them to take safe risks in our classrooms, to have an opportunity to experience and recover from failure, and to develop skills that allow them to persevere.

Every day our faculty members are on the frontlines of our students’ emotional health and well-being. Harpeth Hall remains a progressive school with innovative teachers, and yet we hesitate to adopt the latest open gradebook trend. Based on our research and experience teaching girls, we question how an open gradebook would benefit our students’ well-being and emotional health or increase their ability to own their successes and failures, take risks, or succeed dramatically better in the classroom or more importantly, at life.

Multiple Grades: The First Step to Improving Grading and Reporting

Education Week

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Thomas R. Guskey Ph.D.* returns as a guest blog author. He is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Kentucky and known throughout the world for his teaching about  student assessment, grading and reporting, professional learning, and educational change.

Imagine going to your physician for a medical examination. During the exam, the physician records data on your height, weight, blood pressure, and heart rate, and asks you questions about your lifestyle and how you are feeling. After gathering all this information, imagine the physician entering the data into a computer that uses a mathematical algorithm to calculate a single number describing your physical condition. The physician then reports the number to you, suggests how you might improve it, and sends you on your way.

Would you be satisfied with such an examination? Would you have faith in a physician who analyzed information about you in this way? Would you trust a computer algorithm to tally the information and offer an accurate assessment of your health? Would you find a single number generated by a computer to be informative or helpful?

Few people would answer “Yes” to any of these questions. Many would even find such a process insulting. We need and expect more. In particular, we want our physician to be a thoughtful and knowledgeable professional who looks carefully at the different aspects of the data in assessing our health. We expect that individual to evaluate this information thoroughly and understand its nuances. And we certainly want more than a single number tallied by a computer from the diverse types of information gathered.

One Single Grade is Inadequate

Yet even though most of us find such a process unacceptable in a physical examination, few object to teachers using a nearly identical process when determining the grades they record on students’ report cards. Every marking period, teachers gather evidence on students’ performance from scores attained on major examinations, compositions, and classroom quizzes. They record data on students’ homework completion, class participation, and punctuality in turning in assignments. Some teachers gather additional information on students’ behavior in class, collaboration with classmates, respect, and effort. They then enter these data into a computer grading program that calculates a single number or grade that is recorded on a report card.

Sadly, a single number used to describe students’ performance in school is just as inadequate and difficult to interpret as would be a single number describing our health or physical condition. That number or grade combines highly diverse data, gathered through different means, and measuring a variety of different attributes. And just like a single number representing our health would be, it’s not particularly informative or helpful.

Product, Process and Progress Criteria Matter

A more useful and meaningful description of students’ performance includes multiple grades. At a minimum, it provides grades that distinguish productprocess, and progress learning criteria.

Product criteria reflect how well students have achieved specific learning goals, standards, or competencies. These might be determined by students’ performance on major examinations, compositions, projects, reports, or other culminating demonstrations of learning. Product criteria describe students’ academic achievements; that is, what they have learned and are able to do as a result of their experiences in school.

Process criteria describe student behaviors that facilitate or broaden learning. These may be things that enable learning, such as formative assessments, homework, and class participation. They also may reflect extended learning goals related to collaboration, responsibility, communication, perseverance, habits of mind, or citizenship. In some cases process criteria relate to students’ compliance with class procedures, like turning in assignments on time or not interrupting during class discussions.

Progress criteria show how much students have gained or improved. Sometimes these are referred to as “value-added” criteria. Although related to product criteria, progress criteria are distinct. It would be possible, for example, for students to make outstanding progress but still not be meeting course academic goals or achieving at grade level. It also would be possible for highly skilled and talented students to show they have achieved the product criteria without making notable progress or improvement.

Multiple Grades Don’t Require More Work

Although these types of learning criteria vary in their importance depending on the subject area and grade level, all three are essential to school success. Meaningful communication about that success, however, requires that they be reported separately. In other words, students must receive different grades for whatever product, process, and progress criteria are considered most important in their learning.

Ironically, reporting multiple grades for these different criteria does not require extra work for teachers. In fact, it’s less work. Teachers already gather evidence on different product, process, and progress criteria. They keep detailed records of students’ scores on various measures of achievement, as well as formative assessment results, homework completion, class participation, collaboration in teamwork, etc. By simply reporting separate grades for these different aspects of learning, teachers avoid the dilemmas involved in determining how much each should be weighted in calculating a single grade.

Reporting multiple grades on the report card and on the transcript further emphasizes to students that these different aspects of their performance are all important. Parents gain advantages because the report card now provides a more detailed and comprehensive picture of their child’s performance in school. In addition, because product grades are no longer tainted by evidence based on students’ behavior or compliance, those grades more closely align with external measures of achievement and content mastery, such as AP exam results and ACT or SAT scores – a quality that college and university admissions officers have been shown to favor.

Products, Processes, and Progress Criteria

The biggest challenge for teachers and school leaders rests in determining what particular product, process, and progress criteria to report. This requires deep thinking about the learning criteria that are most important to students’ success in school and beyond. From a practical perspective, it also involves finding an acceptable balance between providing enough detail to be meaningful but not so exhaustive that it creates a book-keeping burden for teachers.

Clear Rubrics Matter

An additional challenge in reporting multiple grades involves developing clear rubrics that describe each type of criteria so that expectations for students’ performance are well-defined. If teachers decide to offer a separate grade for homework, for example, they must articulate the difference in scores between students who complete an assignment but do so incorrectly, versus others who complete only half of the assignment but what they complete is done well. Similarly in assigning a grade for class participation, teachers must consider if frequently contributing to class discussions is all that is necessary or if the quality of those contributions also must be taken into account.

In the End

Grading and reporting are much more a challenge in effective communication than simply a task of quantifying data on students’ performance. Providing multiple grades that reflect product, process, and progress criteria enhance the meaning and accuracy of that communication. Without adding to the workload of teachers, this simple strategy can do much to improve the effectiveness of grading and reporting. It provides more meaningful information, facilitates communication between school and home, and offers specific direction in efforts to improve students’ learning.

*More about Thomas R. Guskey can be found here. and he can be reached at guskey@uky.edu . 

Will Letter Grades Survive?

Edutopia

A century-old pillar of the school system is under fire as schools look to modernize student assessment.

Under pressure from an unprecedented constellation of forces—from state lawmakers to prestigious private schools and college admissions offices—the ubiquitous one-page high school transcript lined with A–F letter grades may soon be a relic of the past.

In the last decade, at least 15 state legislatures and boards of education have adopted policies incentivizing their public schools to prioritize measures other than grades when assessing students’ skills and competencies. And more recently, over 150 of the top private high schools in the U.S., including Phillips Exeter and Dalton—storied institutions which have long relied on the status conveyed by student ranking—have pledged to shift to new transcripts that provide more comprehensive, qualitative feedback on students while ruling out any mention of credit hours, GPAs, or A–F grades.

Public Domain

Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut is one of 157 private schools that are part of MTC.

Somewhat independently, schools and lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: The old models of student assessment are out of step with the needs of the 21st-century workplace and society, with their emphasis on hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, problem solving, persistence, and collaboration.

“Competency-based education is a growing movement driven by educators and communities focused on ensuring that students have the knowledge they need to flourish in a global economy,” said Susan Patrick, chief executive officer of iNACOL, a nonprofit that runs the website CompetencyWorks. “The future of jobs and the workforce will demand a new set of skills, and students’ capacity to solve complex problems for an unknown future will be essential.”

For their part, colleges—the final arbiters of high school performance—are signaling a surprising willingness to depart from traditional assessments that have been in place since the early 19th century. From Harvard and Dartmouth to small community colleges, more than 70 U.S. institutions of higher learning have weighed in, signing formal statements asserting that competency-based transcripts will not hurt students in the admissions process.

The emerging alignment of K–12 schools with colleges and legislators builds on a growing consensus among educators who believe that longstanding benchmarks like grades, SATs, AP test scores, and even homework are poor measures of students’ skills and can deepen inequities between them. If the momentum holds, a century-old pillar of the school system could crumble entirely, leading to dramatic transitions and potential pitfalls for students and schools alike.

PICKING UP STEAM

Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland, was frustrated. His school had recently begun offering real-world, full-day courses in subjects like engineering and entrepreneurship, but he was finding it difficult to measure and credit the new types of skills students were learning using A–F grades. Looney started reaching out to private high schools and colleges looking for alternatives.

Courtesy of Scott Looney

Scott Looney, head of school at the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio.

Though he found that many educators shared his desires for a new assessment system, he came up empty-handed.

“The grading system right now is demoralizing and is designed to produce winners and losers,” said Looney. “The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids. Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges. I think we can show the unique abilities of kids without stratifying them.”

Looney began brainstorming a new type of transcript for the Hawken School, but quickly realized he would need a critical mass of schools to influence college admissions offices to accept it. With the initial support of 28 other independent schools, Looney formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) in April 2017. The group has since expanded to 157 schools, including both historic institutions like Phillips Exeter and newer alternative schools like the Khan Lab School.

In joining the MTC, each school commits to phase out its existing GPA- and grade-based transcripts for a digital, interactive format that showcases students’ academic and enrichment skills, areas for growth, and samples of work or talents, such as a video of a public speaking competition or a portfolio of artwork.

The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids. Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges.

While the transcript is still in its infancy, organizers say it will resemble a websitethat each school will be able customize by choosing from a menu of skills like critical thinking, creativity, and self-directed learning, along with core content areas such as algebraic reasoning. Instead of earning credit hours and receiving grades, students will take courses to prove they’ve developed key skills and competencies. Looney insists that the transcripts will be readable by admissions officers in two minutes or less.

The MTC’s work is not entirely original, though, and takes its lead from a number of public schools—most notably in New England—that have been rethinking traditional methods of assessing students for more than a decade.

Some are supported by the nonprofit group Great Schools Partnership, which helped influence Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to adopt state board of education policies or legislation in the last decade on proficiency-based assessment systems. Other districts, in Florida, California, and Georgia, have made similar changes more recently, and pilot programs have emerged in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Illinois, Ohio, and Oregon.

©iNACOL

A map from iNACOL estimates that 48 states have at least some policy supporting competency-based education.

There’s also backing from colleges. The Great Schools Partnership was able to garner the support of more than 70 colleges and universities, suggesting that higher ed admissions offices are ready for the change.

“We are accustomed to academic reports from around the world, including those from students who have been privately instructed and even self-taught,” said Marlyn McGrath, Harvard University’s director of admissions, replying via email about the transcripts. “In cases where we need additional information, we typically ask for it. So we are not concerned that students presenting alternative transcripts will be disadvantaged because of format.”

MASTERY VERSUS SEAT TIME

But the new transcripts are just the tip of the iceberg, according to supporters, part of a larger movement to do away with a system where kids can progress through grades or courses without really understanding material and be promoted for seat time and good behavior. When students move on to harder topics, they continue to accumulate gaps in their knowledge—a setup for failure in the later grades or collegiate years.

Under a competency model, kids can no longer just “get by,” said Derek Pierce, principal of Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, which has used a proficiency-based transcript since 2005.

The new transcripts “get kids focused on doing their personal best on meeting or exceeding standards rather than getting a better grade than the kid next to them,” said Pierce. “There is no longer a ‘gentleman’s C’.”

However, without widespread agreement on the necessary skills and knowledge required for core classes, proving mastery may be just as elusive and arbitrary as the current system. Even MTC member schools won’t rely on a shared understanding of what mastery means. Instead, each school will be able to quantify it independently, leaving college admissions officers—according to critics—without a clear basis of comparison.

Our learning structures have to be much more nimble to allow today’s learners to navigate through opportunities where they can see themselves as the authors of their own education.

While competency-based education proponents argue that the new transcripts will identify students with skills that academia has traditionally overlooked, others worry about equity for marginalized students, who already struggle in the current system. Some critics have suggested that the new transcripts may be a way for wealthier schools, especially private schools like those in the MTC, to give their students an even greater advantage when competing for limited positions at the best universities.

©Khan Lab School

Competency-based transcript proponents like the Khan Lab School, pictured here, believe the new assessments are necessary to foster 21st-century skills.

There are other unanswered questions and challenges to be worked out, too. Will college admissions counselors have enough time, especially at large public colleges, to look meaningfully at dense digital portfolios of student work? Will the new transcripts create too much work and new training for K-12 teachers, as they struggle to measure hard-to-define categories of learning? Perhaps most importantly, will parents buy in?

“There’s still plenty of work ahead and some pretty radical changes taking place,” explained Mike Martin, director of curriculum and technology at Montpelier Public Schools in Vermont, whose district starting transitioning to a competency-based model in 2013.

Many public and private schools, like Martin’s, are still years away from full implementation, and others are grappling with the nuts and bolts of how to implement dramatically new systems for student learning and assessment. Those on the forefront of these changes, though, remain hopeful that the new system will push all students to develop the skills they need to succeed in college and careers.

“Our learning structures have to be much more nimble to allow today’s learners to navigate through opportunities where they can see themselves as the authors of their education,” said Martin. “Proficiency-based education is about getting every single student up to a certain skill level and ensuring every student can succeed.”

A Plan to Kill High School Transcripts … and Transform College Admissions

More than 100 elite private high schools aim to replace traditional transcripts with competency-based, nonstandardized documents — with no grades. They plan to expand to public high schools, with goal of completely changing how students are evaluated.

May 10, 2017

What if traditional high school transcripts — lists of courses taken, grades earned and so forth — didn’t exist?

That’s the ambition of a new education reform movement, which wants to rebuild how high schools record the abilities of students — and in turn to change the way colleges evaluate applicants. Sounds like quite a task. But the idea is from a group with considerable clout and money: more than 100 private schools around the country, including such elite institutions as the Dalton School and the Spence School in New York City, plus such big guns as the Cranbrook Schools in Michigan, the Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut.

The organizers of the effort believe all kinds of high schools and colleges are ready for change, but they argue that it will take the establishment to lead this particular revolution. Organizers believe that if more than 100 such elite private schools embrace a new transcript, they will attract supporters in higher ed who will embrace the approach for fear of losing top applicants (both in terms of their academics and ability to pay). And then the plan could spread — over perhaps a decade — to public high schools as well. Along the way, the group hopes to use the ideas of competency-based education — in which demonstration of mastery matters and seat time does not — to change the way high schoolers are taught.

The group is called the Mastery Transcript Consortium, and the product it hopes to create is the mastery transcript. It would not include courses or grades, but levels of proficiency in various areas. Instead of saying a student earned a certain grade in Spanish 2, the mastery transcript might say the student can understand and express ideas in some number of languages. And there could be different levels of mastery. Instead of a grade in algebra or geometry, the mastery transcript would indicate whether a student can understand and use various kinds of concepts. The document above is a model for what a list of credits might look like, but officials stressed this could change considerably.

Further, the model envisions that each credit earned would be backed up by examples of student work, so an admissions officer could see lab reports, essays and so forth.

In some ways, the project sounds like the “digital locker” the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is promoting as an option for college applicants — one that could start well before someone is ready to apply to college. And the mastery project organizers have been in touch with coalition leaders. But the difference with mastery is that there is no additional digital requirement to build something — this would be the natural result of going through high school.

The Edward E. Ford Foundation on Tuesday announced a $2 million grant to support the effort, and the initial schools involved have pledged to raise money to match that grant.

Patricia Russell has taken a yearlong leave from her position as a dean at Phillips Academy to help get the effort moving toward pilots with a small group of high schools and colleges. Among the requirements to participate: no grades and no standardization. She said each high school would be required to come up with its own system for evaluating student knowledge and skills. “It has to vary from school to school,” she said, and the idea is to move away from identifying students by some number representing their achievement.

Mastery in this context is closely related to the competency idea much discussed these days in higher education. A student could earn mastery after completing a program of study with a teacher or simply by showing mastery gained independently. “What the mastery transcript does is completely disentangle seat time and course credits,” she said.

Public high schools should be part of the process, Russell said, and they are already being consulted. But she said private schools, with their ability to operate free from politicians who might interfere, are best suited to get this process off the ground. She also said the great respect of top colleges for the graduates of these schools means the process will be taken seriously.

“The distinct reason why this project is being founded by a group of independent schools is that we are more nimble and have had disproportionate access to highly selective higher education.”

But she said “absolutely this can scale” and the long-term goal is to have this approach do away with traditional high school grades and transcripts.

The original idea for the project came from Scott Looney, head of school of the Hawken School, a private institution in Cleveland. In an interview, he said that he wanted to experiment with a transcript of the sort the consortium is designing. When he spoke to contacts in the college admissions world, they said that if his school acted alone, they would hate the idea, as they would need to figure out how to read the new transcript and how to compare applicants using it with those at schools with more traditional transcripts. So he asked them how they would feel if he got 25 other schools to join in the effort, and they liked the idea. (The model above comes from the initial efforts at Hawken.)

Looney said he realized then that he couldn’t act alone.

He also said he wants all students — including those at public schools — to have the options being created. One possibility, he said, is that if public schools lag a bit in producing these new mastery transcripts, teachers at his school (and others) could review portfolios of their work and certify their masteries. “Why do you have to attend Hawken to have Hawken certify you?” he asked.

Once the new mastery transcript takes hold, he said, colleges will value it over traditional materials they currently receive.

Looney said that, initially, he expected the use of the mastery transcript might encourage colleges to pay more attention to standardized-test scores. Admissions officers “may default to measures that they know,” he said.

But once they get comfortable with the new transcript, Looney predicted, they will find it superior to any information they currently get from test scores. In some cases, state legislation would be needed to allow public universities to alter admissions standards, but he said he thought that could happen in time.

Eventually, he said, many of the elements that make up rankings methodologies could be challenged as well. The transcript is designed to avoid not only grades but class rank (part of the U.S. News & World Report methodology). If more colleges drop standardized-test requirements, something happening already, that could undercut another part of the rankings methodology.

Much work remains to be done, he said, describing the process as taking up to 10 years, and longer in states where laws would need to change to permit high schools to report student achievement in new ways. In some cases, schools might use both approaches. But Looney said that when top colleges embrace this idea, which he predicted they would in time, the current system would be replaced. Already, he said, the organization has been having discussions with college admissions leaders and presidents anxious for change.

He pledged one thing amid the pilots and work ahead: “We will design this intentionally to make it impossible to distill a student into a single number.”

Reactions and Questions

Several admissions experts, reached late Tuesday, said they were just learning about the concept and needed to study it.

Michael Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said via email that he saw both potential and challenges in the idea, about which he said he needs to learn more.

“My initial read is that this would be a good set of information to augment a traditional transcript but, by itself, could harm students seeking to attend institutions that are mandated to evaluate admissions, at least in part, on completion of a core set of courses and the performance (grades) in those courses,” he said. “It is not unlike the challenge of higher education institutions looking to develop outcome or competency transcripts. Until these are common currency, students would be negatively impacted when they seek to transfer to more traditional institutions if that is the only document they present. Promising, but I’d like to hear how it would be transitioned into the existing processes.”

How I Turned Formative Assessment into a Dialogue with My Students

When formative feedback felt like a dead end, this teacher dug in and figured out how to empower students by making the process a two-way street.

March 14, 2017
James Denby

Educator/Curriculum Developer

A few years ago, formative assessment returned as a frequent topic of discussion in faculty meetings and professional development sessions. I started mulling it over — examining how I did it, how I used it, and how I saw students using it.

Like most teachers, I always knew there were things I could do better, but with formative assessment, I couldn’t really figure out what that was. I made a list of all the things I already engaged in on a regular basis:

  • Meetings with students about ongoing work
  • Writing extensive comments on student work related to specific learning goals
  • Knowledge/learning checks
  • Peer work (editing, revising, commenting, and so on)
  • Good old-fashioned quizzes
  • Goal-setting activities at different points during the year

After some careful reflection, I realized I didn’t need to give more feedback, nor did I need a new formative feedback tool. The problem I faced with formative assessment, I realized, was that the students who needed that feedback the most were the ones not using it. It wasn’t a big group, but in each of my classes I could easily identify a few students who, no matter what I seemed to do, ignored all that formative work.

We needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning.

Those Google Doc comments on the project we were doing? William turned in a final draft that didn’t reflect any of the improvements I’d suggested. The one-on-one conference in which we talked about how to support an argument with evidence? Michelle didn’t do anything we talked about. The learning-check activities we did about common characteristics in urban civilization? Aaron clearly saw that he couldn’t explain them but seemingly did nothing to remedy the problem.

If I thought about it, it made me crazy, but at least now I knew where to focus. Other students were revising work, studying things they weren’t sure about, and practicing skills. These three weren’t, and the first thing I needed to do was find out why.

Helping Students Own the Process

In the next regular meeting I had with each student, I told each one that we needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning. The answers they gave weren’t all that surprising, when you think about it. William wasn’t actually sure where to begin or how to incorporate the suggestions I made. Michelle felt like it really wouldn’t make a difference because she just simply wasn’t a good writer. Aaron was somewhere in the middle; he often felt like it was too late to “fix” the problems because there was often too much to do.

This was a good start. Now it was time to formulate a plan.

I asked each student to commit to making one substantive change based on comments or our meeting discussion before they turned in their final draft of the project we were working on. Since the writing portion was in Google Docs, they decided that they would explain how they were following through on feedback in a comment to me.

We talked about how they could use their peer-conferencing and -editing sessions better by incorporating what they wanted to improve into their meeting with a partner. Though it seemed obvious to me, each student was kind of at a loss about how to do that. We settled on asking specific questions (“How can I __?,” “Where can I __?,” or “Is this a good place to __?”). Each student committed to writing down the questions they asked. I followed up on those conversations with a similar discussion and modeling before our next peer-editing session.

Michelle, who previously had never followed through on the ideas we talked about in conferences, decided to focus on her use of evidence. She partnered with another student and asked specifically where she should include her examples and facts. She had the examples and facts, but she just didn’t know where they really fit. I actually heard her say, “But how do I make it fit?” With me, she started asking if the evidence was convincing.

I had already tried to give William focused feedback, but in his first peer conference he asked whether he should work on transitions between ideas or on his introduction. (Remember, this was the guy whose idea of revision had always been clicking “resolve” on a Google Doc comment.) In his final comment response to me, he explained that once he saw the difference in the introduction, it “felt like it was a check-box done” and he could move on to other steps.

Aaron ended up doing something of a combination of William’s and Michelle’s strategies. He worked with me and another student to prioritize what he should work on and how to do it, but he also asked me, through a written comment, if it would be OK to “just focus on sentence structure this time?” He wanted to get that skill down before he worked on anything else. For the first time, I was seeing him address his “gaps,” so how could I not agree?

I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback.

What We Learned

In the end, the strategies the three of us agreed to seemed like something every student would benefit from. I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback. William, Aaron, and Michelle did not magically transform, but they (and my other students) definitely started to “feel formative” (as we now call it). That idea, that we are still taking shape and not yet fully formed, is what prompts real change.