Author: Tony Wagner

Reinventing High School: Measuring What Matters Most

July 22, 2019 by

Students in Graduation Gowns and Hats

This post originally appeared at the Mastery Transcript Consortium on June 23, 2019.

“Too many students … experience high school as a cutthroat competition for admission to a selective college,” writes Tony Wagner, a Mastery Transcript Consortium board member and globally recognized voice in education. “There is a better way.”

This month, approximately 3.5 million high school seniors will be granted diplomas. The rest of us will (and should) applaud their achievements, but we must also stop and consider: What did these students have to do to earn their diplomas, and what, exactly, has their schoolwork prepared them for? In 1892, The Committee of Ten, led by Harvard President Charles Eliot, created a standardized framework for the high school curriculum that, in turn, dictated essential prerequisites for college admissions. This system requires that students earn between 18 and 24 “Carnegie Units” in order to graduate. A Carnegie Unit is a standardized measure of “seat time served” in a given class — roughly 120 hours of a class over the course of a year. Students’ grades in a particular class are supposed to represent how well they served that time, and students’ grade point average and class rank are taken as measures of how well individuals have performed compared to peers. And these numbers still make up the typical high school transcript, which is required by virtually every college and university in America in order to be considered for admission.

But these measures are more than a century old, and hopelessly obsolete. In this era of innovation, all students need essential skills and dispositions for work, learning, and citizenship—habits of mind and heart that cannot be measured by Carnegie Units. Students who can take initiative, learn through trial and error, collaborate, persist, understand and solve problems through interdisciplinary approaches, and who have strong moral foundations are set up to thrive in the future. The students who are merely good at the “game of school”—those with high grades but without those skills—are not.

If school is a game, then “losing” comes with stark emotional consequences. Too many students in our “best” suburban and independent schools increasingly experience high school as a cutthroat competition for admission to a selective college. Bright and resilient students who receive poor grades or don’t get into the “right” college often see themselves as losers for life. And, as we have seen recently, the college admissions process is even more problematic than we might have imagined. Some parents are going to extreme measures that are harmful to their children and unfair to others.

There is a better way. The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC)™ is working with a growing network of nearly 300 public and private member schools to codesign the Mastery Transcript, which takes the high school transcript from a flat, two-dimensional accounting of student time spent on single subjects to an easy-to-read, interactive, digital transcript. It is an effort to change the game by creating an entirely new way to report the quality of student work and their readiness for postsecondary learning—one that is based on real evidence of mastery, rather than a grade or time spent in a particular class.

The new reporting will indicate the skills and knowledge that students have mastered. But it can also include qualities of character that make their humanity visible and help admissions officers make better decisions when it comes to an applicant’s “fit.” The design will help colleges better understand students’ skill sets and potential to succeed on campus, and allows students to present themselves more authentically to admissions officers. The MTC is still in development; it will be built, refined and tested over the next several years. But the goal is to finally see students’ educational record in clearer focus, and in three dimensions.


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