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The Movement to Replace High School Grades

In a feature piece in the October 26, 2021 issue of The Washington Post Magazine, FutureEd Director Thomas Toch and Senior Fellow Alina Tugend explore the efforts of 400 public and private high schools to abandon grades in favor of a more comprehensive way of capturing students' high school experiences. We are grateful to the Barr Foundation for supporting the project.

Scott Looney, the head of the Hawken School near Cleveland and a leader in private education, had become disenchanted. The majority of American high schools, even the best money could buy, he believed, were delivering a misguided education. They treated students as passive receptacles and downplayed the importance of attributes such as collaboration and the many types of learning taking place outside classrooms. They reduced the high school experience of students with college aspirations to a formulaic pursuit of success in a narrow set of advanced courses that blocked many from exploring their passions.

Looney wanted to create a new secondary-school model, not just at Hawken and other privileged private schools, but also for the public school system that educated the vast majority of the nation’s students. “The industrial production model of putting kids on an assembly line when they’re 4 and moving them through at the same pace, asking them to do functionally the same work, is toxic,” he told us at his Hawken office in May.

He envisioned schools where students learned math, history and science not as isolated subjects in classroom-bound courses but while working together to address real-world issues like soil conservation, homelessness and illegal immigration. Such learning would make schooling more meaningful for students and thus more engaging, Looney believed. It would let students demonstrate more talents to colleges, holding out the prospect of a wider, more diverse range of students entering higher education’s top ranks.

The existing high school transcript, however, with its simple summary of courses and grades, wouldn’t do justice to the interdisciplinary, project-based learning he wanted. It wouldn’t capture students’ creativity, persistence and other qualities. Looney needed a radically different way to portray students’ high school experiences, one that replaced grades with a richer picture. But he didn’t know what it was.

[Listen: Should We Eliminate Grades in Schools?]

Neil Mehta changed that. Mehta was a Hawken parent and faculty member at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine in 2013 when he attended one of Looney’s early presentations on his frustrations with high school education. Looney included grades among schooling’s “sacred cows” that should be abandoned, proposing instead that students be awarded credits for achieving a school’s standards on a range of knowledge, skills and learning traits.

After the presentation, Mehta mentioned to Looney that the Lerner medical school didn’t give grades and measured its students’ grasp of patient care, health-care systems and other topics by evaluating essays and supporting evidence gathered in electronic portfolios. “We’re already doing what you’re talking about,” he told Looney. Looney met with Mehta, studied the Lerner model, visited its campus and was convinced he could track on a single digital platform the knowledge and skills students acquired during high school, without grades — what he would go on to call a mastery transcript. “I thought, hell, if they could do it at a medical school, I should be able to do it in high schools, where no one dies if you get it wrong.”

Today, 275 private high schools and 125 public schools are part of the nonprofit Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). They are in various stages of designing and launching the transcript — and working to make Looney’s radical vision a reality. Started in 2017, the organization is expanding rapidly.

The head of the Cleveland public school system recently joined the consortium’s board of directors, and the consortium is in discussions with state and education officials in North Dakota, Vermont, Utah and elsewhere to bring the transcript to hundreds more public high schools. And after a pilot year, the consortium officially introduced the new transcript last fall, with 250 students in 14 of the member schools applying to more than 200 colleges and universities with the transcript — and earning admission to 170 schools as different as Middlebury College, MIT and the University of Oklahoma.

And yet, despite its early victories, Looney’s crusade for a fundamentally different way of capturing students’ high school experience has alsodrawn skeptics. They say that the mastery transcript is a bridge too far for already overburdened schools and college admission offices, and that abandoning grades would hurt disadvantaged students’ college prospects.

Indeed, the trajectory thus far of the mastery transcript illuminates how hard it is both to change entrenched educational practices and to level the educational playing field for students from communities with fewer resources. It remains possible that the concept will turn out to be merely an idealistic and flawed pursuit from a passionate educator. Then again, maybe the mastery transcript is, in fact, the harbinger Looney wants it to be — the start of an evolution that expands what learning is, where it happens and how it’s measured.

Looney, 57, was an unlikely revolutionary. He grew up in a working-class Chicago suburb, the son of a police officer and a customer service rep for a manufacturing company; he was born when his parents were teenagers. He went to desultory public schools, worked as a drugstore stock clerk at night, and was the first in his family to finish college, DePauw University in Indiana, where he showed up in a black Rush T-shirt. He graduated with a degree in psychology and went to work for schools that were a world apart from those he encountered growing up.

Looney parlayed a DePauw connection into a low-level admissions job at the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., a quintessential New England boarding school serving the wealthy and well-connected since 1778. Next, as an admissions director at Lake Forest Academy, he catered to Chicago elites. During a decade in admissions and administration at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., he educated auto-industry scions.

Then, in 2006, he was named head of Hawken, a school founded in 1915, when Cleveland was a leading industrial center. Before long, Looney ascended to the executive committee of the National Association of Independent Schools, the professional organization of the private school world. For years, he ran a respected three-day summer retreat for private-school admissions officers in Kennebunkport, Maine.

But if many private school leaders hewed to the status quo, Looney was different. In 2011 he brought Doris Korda, a Bell Laboratories engineer and software entrepreneur turned high school math teacher, to Hawken to revamp the school’s instruction. Later, she would help Looney launch a new Hawken high school to serve as a laboratory for his education ideas. It would be a school based entirely on “real world” learning, without traditional teaching and grades.

Looney and Korda built the mastery transcript together, combining the concept of “micro-credentials” emerging in higher education with a version of the digital portfolio — featuring students’ work samples — that Looney had discovered at the Lerner medical school. The transcript would reflect students’ mastery of competencies in half a dozen curriculum areas selected by their schools, many of them reaching beyond the borders of conventional high school subjects and classrooms. Students might earn mastery credits for “understanding cultural differences” in a school’s “global perspectives” curriculum category, for example, by studying non-Western history or by working on immigration issues at a local nonprofit.

In a sharp break with tradition, mastery credits would be based on a school’s standards rather than teacher judgment — in the same way that Advanced Placement tests are scored against national AP standards. Students would submit work to teams of teachers and outside experts, earning credit if they met school benchmarks. If not, they’d improve their work and resubmit it, a process stressing student growth. “Grades are teacher-level credits, not institutional credits, and given the arbitrariness of teacher grading, class rankings are absurd,” Looney told us.

An early sketch of the transcript looked like a page full of Boy Scout badges. With the help of a Seattle consulting company, Looney settled on a landing page with students’ contact information and personal statements, a school profile and a graphic akin to a theater-in-the-round seating chart showing the number of credits students earned in each of their schools’ focus areas. It also included summaries of the work students submitted to earn mastery credits — writing, presentations, performances, charts, graphs and photographs, all of which could be uploaded into the transcript and were clickable — as well as a statement of the school’s standards, a description of how many advanced credits students at the school typically earn, and teacher comments. There would be no grades.

Looney and Korda knew that if they couldn’t get leading colleges and universities to support the mastery model, the transcript and the educational insurgency it represented would be a non-starter. But convincing higher-ed officials wouldn’t be easy, given that the traditional transcript, introduced a century ago, was the single most influential component of college admissions.

It meant adding features to the transcript that addressed higher education’s concerns, including distinguishing between “foundational credits” that represented graduation requirements and “advanced credits.” It also meant that a summary page had to be readable in three minutes, the amount of time admissions officers said they could give the transcript during a first read. The transcripts would live on the MTC website, reached through a student ID number, and they would be printable as PDFs to put in admissions folders — another nod to colleges. (Ultimately, Looney patented the transcript and gave the patent to the MTC.)

But winning over higher education’s elites also meant persuading other leading private schools to join his crusade. Private schools educate some 7 percent of the nation’s high school students but a third or more of many top colleges’ enrollees. And so, Looney reasoned, leveraging their influence could get the Harvards and Stanfords of the world on board while sending a powerful signal to the rest of higher education.

“Higher education takes its signals from the elites, so we had to convince them to take us seriously,” he says. Similarly, if he could enlist more brand-name private schools, many other high schools, public and private, would follow, he sensed, in the same way Advanced Placement courses had started in elite private schools and spread throughout public education. “I want to use both the independence that I have as an independent school head and the privilege I have by being proximate to powerful people to put as big a dent in the traditional school model as I can,” he told us.

Read the full article in The Washington Post Magazine.

Thomas Toch is the director of FutureEd, and Alina Tugend is a FutureEd senior fellow.