• Joanne Jacobs

Grade-free transcripts help prep-school kids

High school grades are rising, even as SAT scores remain flat, reports the College Board. In 2013, the average 12th grader earned a 2.90 — nearly a B — average, yet only 43 percent of SAT takers were prepared for college work.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium, a group of 100 elite prep schools, proposes to eliminate grades in favor of creating digital transcripts showing “micro-credits” earned for skills such as “analytic and creative thinking, leadership and teamwork, global perspective, etc.,” reports Medium.

Among the soft skills to be mastered is the ability to “sustain an empathetic and compassionate outlook.”

College admissions officers would be able to “click down” to see “individual items of student work (videos, art work, writing).”


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“This brave new grade-free world would have at least one very pernicious effect,” writes columnist Catherine Rampell.”It would probably help mediocre (generally rich) prep school kids and hurt high-achieving (generally less well-off) public school students.”

Grades are imprecise and imperfect measures of achievement. But they do provide some useful information about relative achievement among students. Obfuscating distinctions — whether through grade inflation or grade elimination — helps students in schools where average achievement is high and hurts those where that average is low.

At elite universities, the average grade is an A. “The impressive school name does the work of signaling a student’s abilities, rather than a more finely grained assessment of the student’s actual abilities,” writes Rampell. “By contrast, lower-ranked schools really want superstars to stand out, lest they get written off because of the less-elite brand.”

Non-elite high schools aren’t likely to adopt a “mastery” transcript, she predicts. But “signal jamming” by prep schools could help their students and make it harder for others.

Additionally, less digestible transcripts might lead colleges to place more weight on something that’s more easily comparable across students: standardized test scores. SATs happen to be strongly correlated with income. Again, that’s likely to hurt kids at non-elite schools (and also scholarship students at elites).

As long as there are more ambitious 12th graders than there are seats at elite colleges, there will be pressure to pump up transcripts. I don’t think it matters if teens are stressed about grades or stressed about micro-credits.

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