Don’t know how many readers are already aware of the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), but probably a pretty high proportion: it has recently received a fair amount of media attention, including in Insider Higher Ed, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Washington Post.  My friend and consulting colleague Grant Lichtman has written on it several times as well, including here.  The E.E. Ford Foundation, headed by another friend and colleague of mine John Gulla, recently awarded the MTC its largest-ever donation, of two million dollars

I’m a fan, and feel privileged and grateful for having had the opportunity to attend and participate in the MTC inaugural meeting in Cleveland in April 2016 and the NAIS launch meeting in Atlanta in March, 2017.  I’ve also been, in a small way, advising the MTC in its preparation of sample rubrics for establishing mastery and, this summer, in developing sample student portfolios.

 The journal and website Education Next recently published a sharply framed critique of the MTC, entitled “Fancy Private Schools Want to Abandon High School Transcripts and Grades,” by Chester Finn, President Emeritus of the Fordham Institute, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and longstanding conservative commentator on education. 

After I pointed out on Twitter that as much as I appreciated the value of debate, and thought the piece added some important perspective to the topic, I believe the piece was plagued by error, mis-interpretation, and misunderstanding (at least seven such errors, I wrote).  Having been asked to itemize them, I’ve prepared the following, citing several sections of the Finn piece and then offering my reaction.   My responses are arranged only in the order the items they respond to appear in the Finn piece, and not by any order of importance or priority. 

“A founding group of one hundred of them—dubbing itself the Mastery Transcript Consortium—has set out to eliminate the high-school transcript and the pupil grades that go onto it, seeking instead to press colleges (and presumably employers and graduate schools) to evaluate their applicants holistically, basing those judgments on subjective reviews of the skills and competencies that individual pupils are said to have acquired during high school.”

  1. “Holistically?”   That  is simply not the correct word here; the transcript clearly breaks down analytically each skill or competency and asks teachers to assess them individually, not holistically.   Holistically might be when schools write a single narrative summarizing a student’s overall quality as an applicant, not where it reports with supporting evidence on mastery in a set of distinct competencies.
  2. “Subjective.”  True in the sense that judgment of student work generally is subjective, but not significant in that this is the norm in the evaluation of students: there is nothing distinctive in the MTC anticipated practice.  Because the MTC will support schools in the use of carefully developed and practiced rubrics, and to work to strengthen inter-rater reliability, the resulting awarding of credits and determination of mastery will in the end be less subjective than most current grading practice.
  3. “Said to have acquired.”  The MTC will entail “judgments” being accompanied by evidence, easily available to college admission evaluators, as evidence for the “judgment,” rather than relying exclusively on letter grade “judgments” as is currently the case.   In practice it is quite the opposite of “said to have acquired;” it rather could be better characterized as “demonstrated by evidence as having acquired.”

“No longer would they see applicants’ GPAs and class ranks. Instead, they would see teachers’ opinions.”   

4. But this is to suggest that GPA, which is based on grades awarded by teachers, is somehow less opinion-based than the awarding of credits for competencies.  The two things being contrasted here, GPA and the MTS approach, are in one way exactly the same, both based on judgments (or “opinions”) made by teachers, with the difference being that with the MTC, evidence is support those judgments, provided in the form of links to artifacts of student work, offering the ability to evaluate independently the teacher judgement (or opinion).

“This scheme strikes me (and other observers, including the Washington Post editorial board).”   

5.  The link goes to an op-ed by a Post reporter, not to an editorial published by the “editorial board,” which would have much greater standing in its opposition.

“But what happened to Newton’s laws of motion, the causes of the Civil War, the ability to write a grammatical sentence, and the trained capacity to solve equations with two unknowns?”

6. The website clearly says that the MTC allows each school to set its own performance areas, and there is every reason to expect that writing skills and mathematical problem solving could be or would likely be included.  I myself prepared sample rubrics being distributed by the MTC, including one designed for use in evaluating the knowledge of understanding historical cause and effect.

“Without ever quite saying so, consortium founders have drunk deeply at the well of “multiple intelligences.If kids don’t reason the same way, don’t think the same way, and don’t learn the same way, it’s obviously unfair to evaluate them on a uniform transcript with grading rubrics and such. Never mind that modern cognitive science has thoroughly debunked the whole scheme.”

7. What’s “obviously unfair” is to attack an organization for adopting a “thoroughly debunked scheme” after acknowledging that there is no evidence they have done so, as is even acknowledged in the piece (“without ever quite saying so.”)  Furthermore, any close review of the MTC system finds a far closer parallel in its sample competencies to the National Research Council landmark 2012 publication, Education for Life and Work tripartite framework of competencies than to the Howard Gardner’s MI model.  The NRC, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, published the report based on findings of a dozen leading scientists in this field, and no, it has not at all been “debunked.” 

[The MTC wants to] “use portfolios instead of standardized tests.”

8.  Nothing in the MTC plan suggests that its new transcript will be used “instead” of standardized tests,  but rather “instead” of traditional transcripts.  Indeed, there is some expectation, at least among some MTC participants, though not any particular desire for, that for MTC transcript submitters, at least in the initial few years,  standardized tests will take on a larger, not smaller role, in the evaluation of applicants by colleges.  

[The MTC doesn’t]  “want kids to be compared at all, at least not academically, because we [they]  don’t believe in competitiveness in the classroom.”

9.  I believe this represents a deep misunderstanding.  The MTC is intended and being designed so as to allow students applying to selective universities to be compared far more substantially than the status quo traditional transcript, in which the vast majority of applicants to selective schools have all or nearly all As or A-s in a near-exact array of coursework.  The MTC is intended to demonstrate students’ “spikiness” by allowing them, after meeting the common threshold for each school-determined competency area, to go far beyond that threshold in select areas, differentiating themselves sharply, and then to provide easily accessible evidence of their differentiation and their level of mastery with the digitally archived student work artifacts.  This will allow college admission officers to compare student applicants not by scanning nearly identical transcripts but by reviewing sample student writing, speaking, science labs, artistic work, statistical analysis, mathematical problem-sets, and much more. This approach will provide far, far more depth of comparison.

Certainly both those excited about and those intrigued by the Mastery Transcript Consortium and mastery/competence based grading and crediting generally, should welcome the media attention and be prepared to participate in a national, perhaps even global, conversation about its merits and potential gaps or flaws.    Doing so will only, in the end, strengthen the success of the eventual program.  Accordingly, Professor Finn’s piece should be welcomed and appreciated, and I look forward to the continued discussion and debate about this potentially transformative approach to teaching and learning.