A consortium of 100 private schools, including New York City elites Dalton and Spence, have banded together to create a new kind of transcript for applying to college. Their proposed format would eschew grades and standardized test scores in favor of “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.”
But The Mastery Transcript Consortium doesn’t intend to limit its efforts to private schools. Instead, the Consortium expects its innovation to extend to public schools as well. Is this an approach that could prove beneficial to NYC high school students?
There already is a top-ranked NYC private school that doesn’t award grades, St. Ann’s in Brooklyn. The school has been around since 1965 and so college admissions officers happily read its transcripts and evaluate student competency without the benefit of grades. The same privilege is not extended to NYC’s private “free” schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, or public schools that have attempted the same model.
Predictably, there are several problems with tossing out any sort of standardization and relying solely on subjective teacher evaluations of students.
One is whether public school teachers would be willing to do the extra work required. Instead of merely entering a number into the computer system and sometimes also a code that spouts out a phrase like “student excels at subject,” they would need to write multiple paragraphs for every single teen in their class, focusing on strengths and weaknesses, and citing specific examples of outstanding work. Teacher work hours are already strictly regulated by their union. How much negotiation would be required to add more hours to their work week, and what would need to be sacrificed in exchange if they insist on their hours remaining the same?
A second obstacle is that different teachers have different standards, as this student realized too late and shared in her “Teens Take Charge Open Letter”: I didn’t realize that an A in Harlem was not the same as an A in a majority-white high school. One teacher’s “this student performs above grade level” is another’s “mediocre effort.”
This is especially relevant to minority students. A study recently determined that: Teachers’ Low Expectations for Students of Color Found to Affect Students’ Success. A standardized test — be it a state Regents exam, the SHSAT, the SAT, the ACT, or an A.P. test — doesn’t have preconceived notions about a child. It ranks everyone based on the questions they got right. You can’t say that about an individual teacher.
Finally, while the Mastery Transcript Consortium speculates that their new evaluation system will improve high school teaching in general, they are currently focused on getting it accepted broadly for the purpose of college admissions.
Unfortunately, as The Atlantic just asserted:
As enrollment in higher education reaches record-levels of 69.7 percent of all high-school graduates in 2016, a hidden danger awaits thousands at the starting line: Being “eligible” for college admission doesn’t mean that students are academically prepared. This collision of expectations and reality creates a revolving door in higher education that can stifle individual talent and exacerbate inequality at the highest levels of the American education system.
Students like the one featured in The Atlantic’s case study, working-class minorities not held to the highest academic standards and allowed to just “get by” due to a variety of excuses validated by their schools, are exactly those who are currently being failed the most by NYC’s Department of Education.
If public schools adopt the model touted by the Consortium, and high schools’ primary objective becomes merely getting kids into college, won’t that encourage teachers to write glowing reports of all students, regardless of objective achievement, especially since each school will be allowed to develop its own definition of mastery?
What’s even worse, having fulfilled their mission of facilitating an acceptance letter, high schools will be off the hook for whatever happens next. As long as a student leaves their school certified by their definition of mastery, they can confidently say they’ve done their job.
What sort of accountability is that? And how does it possibly benefit students in the long run?