• Sara Needleman

Proficiency-Based Transcripts: What Do High School Counselors have to say?

The college applications and admissions process can be pretty stressful. One of the stressors specific to the time we live in is the question of the challenges posed for admissions officers reading proficiency-based transcripts. Our most recent and excellent post by Michael Stefanowicz, admissions officer at St. Michael’s College in Vermont, helps our readers see how admissions officers actually interact with proficiency-based transcripts. I recently spoke with Hillary Bush, Director of Guidance, at Poland Regional High School in Maine, to hear about the admissions process from her perspective. Hillary’s wisdom comes from the 8 years she worked as a college admissions officer and her 17 years of work with PRHS as it has graduated each class since 2000 with a proficiency-based transcript. She knows how important it is to make their process clear and as concise as it can be.

The primary take-away from my conversation is that college admissions officers rely heavily on the school profile that accompanies the transcript to interpret it. The reason for this is that every high school has its own grading and reporting system and style of transcript. That has always been true. Even before proficiency-based transcripts. Admissions officers need the school profile, their knowledge of the school itself, conversations with school counselors and any other intelligence they can find to really understand what an “A” or a “Distinguished” or a “3.95” means from Atlantic High School and to thoughtfully compare that data to the “Meets with Distinction” or “A- in Honors” from Pacific High School.

As an example, Hillary shared with me that PRHS uses their school profile to explain their transcript language “Competent”, “Advanced”, and “Distinguished” as well as anything that might be less common, like “heterogeneous classes” and “integrated classes”. I heard this same message from Derek Pierce, Principal of Casco Bay High School, and other college admissions officers when I first wrote about this topic in 2014. Hillary went on to affirm that an A at one school is not an A at a different school, so the initial read of the profile and follow up with questions and answers is deeply important to the process. She mentioned that even before proficiency-based education, there were myriad GPA scales. College admissions people have always needed to interpret this too and as a result, many colleges recalculate GPAs using their own systems. They take the reporting systems they get from all their sending high schools and translate them in an attempt to make fair comparisons.

Hillary mentioned that also crucial to the admissions process is the follow-up conversations and the questions and answers between high school counselors and college admissions officers. They cultivate positive professional relationships that enable them to make informed decisions. The conversations I have had with admissions and school counseling folks leave me confident that they want to do what’s good for our students. They are, in no way, compelled to leave something as important as the commitment to college to a single document. They do all they can to reveal the truth of the document.

High schools just starting to think about proficiency-based transcripts can take comfort in knowing that schools like PRHS and school counselors like Hillary have done a great deal of the legwork for them. School counselors can build on Hillary’s good work by replicating some of her steps. She went to college fairs and composed a college advisory committee so she could both give and get information to help her students. She sought a lot of input from admissions officers, knowing that if the materials submitted by a student from PRHS could be easily interpreted by them, all would be fine. When she heard from parents or students of situations where colleges did not understand, or where they had questions, she always followed up. Back in 2000, Hillary made and responded to lots of phone calls about proficiency-based transcripts. Now she fields one or two yearly from colleges that are new to them. That’s a big change.

There is so much to feel nervous about in applying to college. Even as my own first child is only a high school freshman, we are starting to feel that buzz. And while there is no part of the process where a student, parent or school counselor can really rest easy (until that fat letter shows up in the mail!) one part I truly think we can devote less frenzied energy to is the interpretation of proficiency-based transcripts. I tip my hat to Hillary and Michael and all the other school counselors and admissions officers who have forged this path for so many students. Where interpreting transcripts is concerned, they have convinced me we are in very good hands.

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