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  • Sara Needleman

The Intersection Between Proficiency-Based and Traditional Transcripts

As the field of education begins to shift toward a mastery-based model, at least in some places, several questions loom large for teachers, administrators, and parents. A big one: "How will a mastery-based model affect a student's chances for college admission?"

Maine, my home state, seemed a logical place to search for answers. First, the Maine Department of Education is implementing its program Getting to Proficiency: Helping Maine Graduate Every Student Prepared, which "provides technical assistance, resources, and guidance for school districts to implement proficiency-based education and the proficiency-based diploma." But several Maine schools have already started this important proficiency-based work and have done it long enough to have established themselves as highly credible in the field. In fact, what I discovered reflects the experiences of two schools: Poland Regional High School in Poland, Maine and founded in 1998 and Casco Bay High School, which is in Portland and was founded in 2005. The two schools share the common thread of Derek Pierce, one of Poland's original administrators, who later went on to launch Casco Bay.

In addition to the experiences of these schools, my findings also reflect the collaboration between the South Portland School Department and Great Schools Partnership (GSP) as they work to develop a proficiency-based transcript.

(A note to the reader: For the sake of clarity through the rest of this post, I will continue to use the term "proficiency" as opposed to "standards" or "mastery." While the three are not uniformly interchangeable, in this case, my intention is that you read them as such.)

And so: Just what are the intersections between proficiency-based and traditional transcripts?

First, I discovered that every student application to college and university is accompanied by the school's profile which explains, among other things, the school's grading system. This practice is not unique to a proficiency-based system. Profiles have long accompanied students' applications as a way for high schools to share a bit of who they are, their collective achievements, and their academic program. This document is typically one double-sided page with information such as courses required for graduation, course offerings, and typical years of enrollment.

Secondly, I found that school administrators agree that, with college admissions, nobody wants the transcript to distract. They recognize the need for students' experiences to stand out, hence the desire for transcripts to look more or less the same as those from other schools. One key to this idea is the inclusion of the overall grade for each course. Not unlike a traditional transcript, the proficiency-based transcripts currently in use (and those slated for proposed use) derive the course grade from an aggregate of what lies beneath it. In a traditional system, this would be the assessment data generated. In a proficiency-based system, the course grade is based on the standards addressed within the course. Proficiency-based transcripts often report data using a system of 1-4, 1-6 or something similar. In any case, these systems are familiar to colleges and universities.

Lastly, as schools try to make their students competitive when it comes to college admissions, they see the need to address recognition through honors and awards earned. Both high schools that gave me info for this post group students heterogeneously in their courses and acknowledge honors for students who earn a 3.75 for their academic course grade. The emerging thinking from South Portland and GSP continues to reflect homogeneously grouped courses with some at the honors level. South Portland and GSP also agree that including the proficiency-based performance summary for graduation standards on the back side of the transcript is important in accurately representing what the student has learned, while the transcript's front side should reflect course grades and honors earned. As Becky Brown from South Portland said, "It's the one chance to show colleges the kid took six AP courses." Regardless of the format a transcript takes, this information is critical in the college application process. Additionally, the latest thinking from South Portland and GSP maintains the use of the Latin system (summa cum laude, etc.), with the caveat that a student must earn at least a 3 for Habits of Work as well as the possible inclusion of academic awards on the transcript.

Yes, change is hard. Moving to a proficiency-based model presents real and sometimes scary changes for schools and districts. As they consider the most effective ways to make these changes, they need to remain mindful of the greatest "pain points." Recognizing transcripts as one of those pain points, the schools and districts with which I talked have wisely chosen to maintain some consistency with traditional transcripts while staying true to their proficiency-based philosophies.

While JumpRope now works with schools at all grade levels, the product actually grew out of a high school in the Bronx that faced many of the same issues, addressing questions such as, "How can we ensure that our students are not at a disadvantage with colleges and universities because we've chosen to change the way we assess and give them feedback?" Since 2009 we've been working on these very issues by adding features to JumpRope and developing and supporting best practices in the area of proficiency-based teaching and learning. We look forward to working in a state that's fully moving in this direction.

The above photograph came from this page.

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