In an effort to accelerate the conversation about competency-based education and all its implications, we’re sharing this piece in the hope that educators will read, discuss and consider it carefully. You should feel free to distribute it via social media as well. 

The opinions expressed in this Op-Ed belong to the authors and should not be construed as those of the Edward E. Ford Foundation’s Board. 

The MTC is grateful to the Edward E. Ford Foundation and John Gulla for their support and leadership.

It’s broken.

How do we fix it? Many high school students and their parents, and even more secondary school teachers and their higher education counterparts, believe we’ve created an unhealthy – often counter-productive — means by which we assess student progress and a deeply flawed way in which we consider records of student achievement when making admission decisions to selective colleges and universities. We agree, and we’re excited to outline a project that might help lead us out of this thicket of our own creation.

Few realize that in the long history of formal education, letter grades are a relatively recent phenomenon. The now almost universal A-to-F linear scale was introduced at Mount Holyoke College in 1897, just five years after what is known as the Committee of Ten recommended the standardization of the American high school curriculum. For the next century plus, education rushed headlong in this direction of standardization.

The widely-publicized and broadly-supported Turning the Tide report raised challenging questions upon its release in January, 2016 and implores us to change what is emphasized in college admission. We all decry the lack of psychological resilience of our most “excellent sheep,” but what are we doing about it?

According to the 2013 National College Health Assessment which examined data from over 125,000 students from more than 150 colleges and universities, about one-third of the students had difficulty functioning in the last 12 months due to depression.

Now, a group of more than 100 independent schools from around the world have joined forces to try to begin to change high school by inventing a new kind of transcript. Soon this group plans to add partners from public, charter and parochial schools to this effort. As of April 20th, they have a new partner in the Edward E. Ford Foundation, which has awarded them the largest grant in its 60-year history.

What started at Hawken School in Cleveland — and what has now spread around the globe — is the idea that there is a better way. We are building a new version of that most basic of all high school documents– the transcript by harnessing technology to allow necessary efficiencies and supporting a tailored approach to assessment that could eventually allow the rural school in Oregon and the urban school in Brooklyn to design their own areas of emphasis and produce graphic displays of data inconceivable to the Mount Holyoke professors.

What is being called the Mastery Transcript will focus on mastery standards and credits rather than letter grades and Carnegie units. This Mastery Transcript will be electronic and provide not only a one-page overview of a student’s achievement, but with a mouse click reveal the underlying institutional standards that credit represents. And with one more mouse click, it will reveal the actual student work product and teacher feedback that earned the Mastery Credit. This new transcript presents a transparent, detailed and authentic picture of the whole student as it can provide credit for the knowledge and skills learned outside, as well as within, the classroom.

That 99 percent of the high school transcripts follow an identical format is a vestige of an outdated industrial age. The Mastery Transcript hopes to reflect a new age that demands a new approach to education.

It’s important to note that participation in the Mastery Transcript will be voluntary at most participating schools and that the MTC will spend the next years designing and refining the Transcript in partnership with colleges, public and parochial schools and educational leaders. The goal is to work as a team to change the way schools communicate with colleges in order to make room for a whole different way to teach students in high school.

The MTC hopes to attract as many schools as possible in order to generate momentum and familiarity. We believe that this project might help us finally unlock the chains that have bound us to a form of measurement that was perhaps once useful but that has become a tyrannical force whose costs far outweigh any benefits.

About John Gulla & Scott Looney

John Gulla has served as the Executive Director of The Edward E. Ford Foundation since 2013. He has also served as Head of School at The Blake School, Associate Headmaster and Head of Upper School at Riverdale Country School and Head of Upper School at Isidore Newman School. Scott Looney is the MTC's Founder and Board Chair. He joined Hawken School as its 10th head of school in July 2006. Since that time he has enlivened the school with a variety of forward-focused initiatives that have earned national recognition. His belief in student-centered and authentic learning has fueled each effort including the founding of the Mastery Transcript Consortium in 2017.