If grades are eliminated, what will grades-obsessed students do?

An idea hatched by some private schools — including Blake in Minneapolis and Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul — may be about to revolutionize how your kids get into college, let alone how they approach their work in high school.

They want to get rid of grades and course information in high school transcripts.

So that “A” in calculus, might not get your student anywhere.

The schools are members of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which is adopting a model in which students display a mastery of skills rather than memorize facts to get a particular grade.

Under the proposed redesign, grades on transcripts? Gone. Grade Point Average? Gone. The list of courses taken? Gone.

So how does a kid get into college?

“Secondary school grading systems and transcripts give colleges an estimate of how much a student has achieved day-to-day in the classroom and a way to measure a student’s readiness for college-level academic work,” William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s director of admissions tells the Boston Globe.

But the private schools say their plan would lead to students arriving at college in better intellectual and emotional shape.

For many of the private schools, the move is about more than just changing the content of a transcript. They want to shift the mindset of students who have become so obsessed with grades that they are whizzing through their studies without realizing what they have actually learned, and they are unwilling to take the kinds of risks necessary to succeed in an innovation economy because they fear failure.

“Students can’t think beyond that transcript and see the entire life ahead of them,” said Sarah Pelmas, head of school at the Winsor School in Boston. “The pressure has become so intense.”

And the course grades on the transcripts reveal little about the kind of work students put into their class and what skills they learned, they say.

Under the redesigned high school transcript, however, college admission officers would be able to see specific examples of student work in just a couple of clicks.

Although the exact design is still being hashed out, supporters envision the transcript would be online and contain three layers of information.

A teacher in the Globe’s comment section isn’t buying it:

As a teacher, I believe this is an exceptionally stupid idea. First, the names of courses are actually important. If a public school student wants to be a science major and takes a half dozen science electives, she may have “mastered” the same number of skills as a person who takes a few AP courses at a private school, but the depth of knowledge and level of interest is quite different in ways that are meaningful to college admissions officers.

Second, despite rampant and problematic grade inflation, grades still indicate a quality of work, especially compared to other students in the same school (class rank.) A student earning a B in contemporary literature may have “mastered” the skills for a literary analysis, but that analysis will be materially distinct from a student who earned an A+ in the same class or a B in AP Lit or Shakespeare.

If grade inflation and student stress are problems, the adults need to solve those problems. This “solution” will only send stressed-out high achievers scrambling to master every skill on the list instead of scrambling for A-pluses. If the goal is instilling a love of learning, this won’t do it.

The Globe says if the consortium can succeed in its attempt to create the grades- and course-free transcripts, public high schools will have little choice but to follow.

  • jon

    That would mean that teachers would have to teach mastery rather than just providing a list of facts to memorize to get the grade.

    It was my experience in highschool that outside of AP courses few teachers had a desire to do that, and inside of AP courses the drive was predicated by the fact that mastery was required to pass the AP tests.

    Here is to the teachers that already believe in teaching mastery rather than teaching enough to pass the test… they have been, in my life, few and far between, but the most influential.

  • J-dawg

    Not listing the names of courses taken seems problematic.

  • Jack Ungerleider

    It would seem that the private high schools can do this, but if the colleges and universities don’t buy in then the result will be students unable to apply to those institutions. So unless the consortium includes admissions officers from the schools most desired by the students at those private schools, this will be a short lived initiative.

  • lindblomeagles

    Let me get this straight. The public demands more testing for students of color attending public schools. The private schools want to eliminate grades altogether because their students memorize information instead of learning how to think. So, my question to everybody is which school is under performing, the public one that is overly scrutinized or the private one whose students might be trained seals?