(Michael Stefanowicz is the Assistant Director of Admission at Saint Michael's College and the President of the Consortium of Vermont Colleges.)
As a college admissions officer in Vermont and president of our statewide admissions network, I’m asked a lot of questions about how colleges will react to standards-based grading as well as the Personalized Learning Plans that Vermont must roll out by the time next year’s freshmen start high school. Research shows that students know, understand, and do more when standards-based learning is implemented successfully. We know that grades serve lots of purposes and that standards-based grades do an excellent job of giving immediate feedback to kids and teachers, helping to drive classroom learning. But will colleges be able to make sense of all this talk of meeting/exceeding the standard? How will the most selective colleges identify gifted students if more of their peers start “meeting the standard?” Will colleges still be able to award scholarships fairly?
One bit of good news in all of these cases is that transcripts have always varied from school to school, and consequently admissions officers have developed an ability to make effective decisions even when the information about academic achievement is presented in multiple formats. My colleagues and I in Vermont have spent lots of time in recent months engaging in professional development to understand the pedagogy of standards-based learning and planning for transcripts to come in this new format. Here are my big takeaways as I consider standards-based learning (SBL) and the college admissions process.
We need to stick to our core values. High school counselors and college admissions counselors belong to the same professional association, the National Association of College Admission Counseling. At our roots, we share the same core values of professionalism, collaboration, trust, education, fairness and equity, and social responsibility. We are on the same team, we collaborate, and our goal is to serve students the best we can.
It’s all about the school profile. Every time a school counselor sends a transcript to accompany a student’s college application, there is a school profile enclosed. This document highlights course offerings, lists graduation requirements, explains what constitutes a challenging course selection, and describes the high school’s grading system. Students and families can ask to see their high school’s profile. High schools should strive to be as clear as possible stating that, “Our high school is implementing standards-based learning in the 2016-2017 academic year. This is what our new grading scale means…”
Habits of work are still important. Assessing students based on their ultimate academic achievement in light of approved standards is a pillar of SBL,and that’s what should constitute a student’s final grade in a high school course. However, habits of work are important to colleges. Students have more freedom in college and are expected to take charge of homework completion, study habits, time management, and the seeking out of academic support. Habits of work should be reported somewhere on the transcript or narratively in the school counselor’s recommendation letter. Ideally, high schools should articulate standards for habits of work and devise a system to assess them objectively, based on evidence.
Some colleges or majors still have very specific prerequisites. This is especially true with scientific, technical, or fine arts disciplines. A student may still meet high school standards in these disciplines through a personalized learning plan option like an internship, technical center course, or independent study. It’s important to make certain that the learning targets are clearly articulated on the transcript or in a letter of recommendation so that colleges know a prerequisite has been fulfilled. The student could also offer a similar explanation through the Common Application’s Additional Information section or during an admissions interview.
Scholarships still run on numerical data. These data might include a GPA, class rank, SAT or ACT scores, or a rubric designed by the college admissions counselors themselves. If a high school does not include a GPA or class rank as part of their standards-based transcript, students should send standardized test scores to the colleges to qualify for the most competitive merit-based aid. The new SAT launching in March 2016 has made some great changes to align with the standards most schools are using, and I’m hopeful that these changes will lessen the discrepancy some students experience between classroom achievement and test performance, especially because there are new free, high-quality test prep resources through Khan Academy, available to all students.
Colleges at all levels have expressed support for SBL. We know that when SBL is implemented effectively, it moves all students forward. A variety of colleges and universities (at many levels of selectivity) have voiced their support. In the end, admission to a college comes down to fit, and that’s where the application, essay, letters of recommendation, demonstrated interest, and good advice of school counselors work in concert with a student’s transcript.