Changing High School Transcripts

Opening a new way for schools and universities to look at student achievement

Conrad Hughes Campus & Secondary Principal, International School of Geneva

It is a major irony that the older students get, the more narrow the curriculum becomes. In the primary years, learning tends to be transdisciplinary, creative and holistic: healthy behaviour is encouraged, children nap, school is not too long, teachers read stories and every day seems full of the wonder of some simple but profound discovery, like the structure of a snowball, the veins of a leaf or what happens when you mix colours.

Often children learn outdoors, perhaps tending a vegetable patch. If it is a good school, that has not been completely hypnotised by what can become excessive inquiry-based learning and constructivism, there will still be a rigorous literacy and numeracy programme: students increase their vocabulary, they learn how to spell and use arithmetic.

As students progress to Middle School, they study the Ancient Egyptians, Mesopotamia, India and China during the great agricultural revolutions; they start to open their thinking to more complex grammatical, mathematical and scientific propositions. There tends to be a healthy emphasis on student wellness and the ethics of social interaction. The curriculum is broad, still energised by the childish imagination and at the same time, matured by more abstract thought.

However, by the end of Secondary School, stress abounds, some students are already drinking coffee and fretting over deadlines, the timetable is a freight train of different subjects. Examinations cast a threatening shadow over everything while universities publish demanding criteria for admission. Classes tend to follow a similar format: note-taking, lecturing, curriculum crunching. The culture of school becomes competitive with grades, those anti-pedagogic symbols of judgement, crushing down on everything. School becomes high stakes and narrow and many of the passions and interests of early youth (musical instruments, artistic endeavours, sports) are cast aside or even forgotten completely.

These are sweeping statements of course and are only partially true. However, the general typology of school being a narrowing process is not entirely false either, and for the vast majority of schools and students, this is exactly what happens.

Why is this the case? The answer is in what could be called a high school transcript, which is the minimalistic description of academic achievement that universities request for each student. Essentially, there is a pressure from the Secondary-Tertiary nexus of university admissions to produce high grades as these are what open the door to opportunities after school. These grades tend to be generated from terminal examinations for European and British universities and from the end of year grade over the last years of schooling for North American Universities in the form of a grade average.

Studies by researchers such as Butler (1988), Wiliam (2011) and Kohn (2011), have shown, quite clearly that:

  • Grades wash out the effects of formative feedback
  • Grades create fairly and sometimes extremely aggressive competition and stress
  • Grading falls foul of many problems of assessment reliability

The situation is complex because those advocating for no grades whatsoever can create situations that are very murky, ironically worse because anxious inferences are made about teacher signaling (expressions, tone, vocabulary) as the student seeks a stick in the mud and the situation can lead to a Medieval power game where the transparence of grading gives way to an excessive amount of power placed in the whimsical hands of a guess-what’s-in-my head guru-like teacher. Students need clarity and feedback and grading systems give that.

But there is another problem: what is graded. Despite successive waves of Romantic rhetoric about learning life skills, educating the whole child and ensuring that schools foster character, what ends up on the transcript is merely a list of academic subjects.

Many of the popular so-called 21st Century Skills such as critical thinking, creativity and communication are embedded in many contemporary courses anyway and it can be pointed out – quite rightly – that a subject like history engenders critical thinking, scientific experiments enhance problem-solving skills, language learning enhances communication and, at a broader level, a number of examination assessments (textual analysis for example) actually bring out creative thinking.

In fact, educators have been arguing that education is much more than knowledge alone for centuries, there is nothing new about the discussion, and academic constructs contain within them plentiful higher skills development. Successive waves of assessment reform, such as the PISA 21 project, will no doubt increase the degree of skills development embedded in academic constructs. So the problem is not which academic subjects are on the transcript, nor necessarily that they are graded.

The problem is not what is on the transcript, the problem is what is not on the transcript. And this is where schools and universities can open a new way of looking at student achievement.

Each student’s story goes beyond the classroom: young people might be practicing musicians or artists, or be YouTubers, entrepreneurs, sportspeople, social activists, coders, website designers, hikers, nature conservationists, cooks, the list goes on. So much is not known, so many gifts are not recognised and so many stories not told.

This is why the new transcript need not be yet another attempt to rewrite skills over subjects, or even to invent new subjects with a concentration of skills that are already present in other subjects. The new transcript needs to be inclusive: showcasing learning wherever it has happened and allowing students, in a thoughtful manner, to present their strengths.

At the international School of Geneva’s La Grande Boiossière campus, our Universal Learning Programme, developed with UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education, focusses on the core dimensions of a 21st Century education (deep conceptual knowledge, the development of lifeworthy competences to create social impact).

An integral part of the design of this curriculum framework is project-based learning:

  • Students engage in a character project based on the question “who am I?” in which they set themselves cognitive, emotional and social challenges. For example, a student used the theory and application of deliberate practice to consciously improve her running and documented the personal progress made through this intentionality.
  • Students do a passion project based on the question “what is my purpose?” on something they love and are good at and would like to share with the school community. For example, a student interviewed women in positions of leadership as part of a project on equal treatment of different genders in the workplace whereas another student, only 12 years old, wrote an entire novel and presented this to the school as his passion project.
  • Students complete a mastery project, based on the question “how can I go further?”, centered around making transdisciplinary connections between their academic subjects and the real world. For example, a student ran a statistical analysis of the correlations between happiness and GDP whereas another used statistical modelling to map some of the patterns related to Covid infection and prevention. Students discuss the social impact of scientific discoveries in science class and reflect on broad transdisciplinary questions created by the community and used for an academic year. This year, questions included “how do you know how to make good decisions?”, “Are you sure?” and “What creates prejudice?” These projects anchor academics in real-life situations and stimulate associative thinking.
  • Students engage in active service learning related to the concept of collaboration and the question “how can we work together?’”. For example, an ongoing project has involved students visiting a local old age home to engage the elderly in cognitively stimulating games.

Importantly, lifeworthy competences are not just referenced rhetorically but assessed formally through the school reporting system. Competences assessed include, for example, balancing rights with responsibilities, accountability, initiative, self-management and interfacing with tools.

The work done on competences will contribute to the completion of a learner passport, which is our school’s certifying diploma, currently being trialled by students. The passport is different for each learner, showing not only what they have done in school but what their projects have developed in them and, perhaps most significantly, allowing them to celebrate and communicate to universities everything else they have done that corresponds to the development of a competence.

A large group of schools from across the globe is federating around the general idea of a more inclusive certification of student competences that universities should look at in order to better understand the profile, capabilities and personal story of a candidate.

This is how we might change high school transcripts, university admissions, the way we look at each other’s qualifications and, therefore, the very fabric of what it means to have a recognised, appreciated place in society. By playing on strengths and not conforming to a mould, human activity in all fields will become more creative, more diverse and more personalised.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology,58(1), 1-14.

Kohn, A. (2011). The Case Against Grades.

William, D. (2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

Discuss this post