Could the Mastery Transcript prompt an assessment transformation?

Growing a movement of schools committed to student centered learning

Sarah Cottenden Education Consultant, FRSA

My educational background is varied. As a child I attended English state schools and went on to university. I have taught in the UK and abroad, in state and private settings and visited schools in different countries pursuing my passion for education reform. As my world expanded, my eyes were increasingly opened to a broader spectrum of local and world society.

These experiences have led me to a simple conclusion: Our whole education system needs to change. But change to what?

I started to uncover one answer in the summer of 2018 when I was introduced to an educational not-for-profit organisation called the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), and its founder Scott Looney, Head of Hawken School in Cleveland USA. Formally launched in March 2016, the MTC is a growing network of over 375 public and private schools around the world who are introducing a digital high school transcript that opens up opportunity for each and every student – from all backgrounds, locations, and types of schools – to have their unique strengths, abilities, interests, and histories fostered, understood and celebrated. It provides schools the flexibility and support necessary to think differently about how they assess and capture their students’ growth, without reducing the complex and unique individuals in their care to a single grade or number.

Allowing for a rigorous yet benign way to assess the students in our sphere of influence without one set of exam results being the Holy Grail, MTC is a resource that can help schools create rounded students by supporting design of a curriculum that is both broad and deep. Succinctly put “at its core, mastery learning enables students to move forward at their own pace as they master knowledge, skills, and dispositions.” Over 80 US universities accepted students from MTC member schools last year. This current academic year that number will more than triple as the number of MTC member schools using the transcript in the university application process increases.

Covid-19 has provided a unique opportunity to choose to say ‘no more’ to our ‘one size fits all’ approach to schooling in the UK: what some call averagarianism.  As a recent article from the Edge Foundation notes: “We are once again locked down, and the government has just announced that exams will again be cancelled. This poses an important question: if we can get through two years without exams, why insist on high-stakes testing at all?”

So how can the adoption of a MTC approach to assessment bring transformation to schooling in England?

My initial response is that adopting such an approach to our schooling means that we could teach and assess in natural tandem that immediately benefits each individual we are nurturing rather than everything ostensibly leading to high pressure exams where you either pass or fail. This holistic approach to education is being adopted in a variety of settings around the world with closely aligning educational philosophies with the MTC.

Having spoken with children, parents, teachers, friends in the UK and abroad, not one person can see how an exam taken on one day can possibly be truly representative of an individual’s ability and potential and reflect their current and future contribution to the world as a global citizen. Of course, this does not mean that exams need to be thrown out entirely: I do believe they can have a place in our assessment/schooling but that they can no longer be justified in their current format with ever expanding evidence as to why not.

Both Latymer Upper in London and Biddenham International school and Sports college in Bedford are part of the MTC network of schools. Although their settings and many other aspects of their school life are rather different, their commitment to educating the individual and seeking the best approach to schooling of the future are shared aims.

Biddenham has just been through a process led by the Principal David Bailey, whereby they have been giving students the opportunity to provide evidence of what they can do covering the whole curriculum which – in turn – builds into a portfolio; albeit related to assessment objectives. The results will be close to what the individuals would have got had they sat a multitude of exams. In taking this approach, Biddenham are prioritising the individual and placing them at the centre of their own learning. When asked how this MTC style of assessment’ would help them, teenagers gave the following replies:

  • A sense of what can be achieved rather than what can’t
  • Greater ownership of learning and evaluation of what ‘good’ looks like
  • Opportunities for cross curricular connections
  • Less ‘norm’ referencing
  • A move away from a pass fail system
  • A  move away from the Knowledge V skills false dichotomy
  • Potentially the opportunity to specialise in areas of passion

Latymer Upper are also using digital portfolios akin to those used by MTC schools, in a few subjects. Charlie Ben-Nathan, Assistant Head, said ‘It is much better evidence of what students can actually do than a letter or a number, for parents as well as universities or employers, but also the process of curation of their portfolios encourages other elements of metacognition that we are trying to promote such as reflection and a growth mind-setBy allowing students options regarding how they can show their understanding and knowledge we approach a way of measuring outcomes that is much closer to how these young people will be assessed in the world of work, where they will be choosing careers that best suit their ways of working.’ 

In short, the Mastery Transcript is already leading an assessment transformation in the US and around the world from the individual kindergarten student up to the highest Ivy League levels. This same transformation can happen on this side of the pond too.

We have no legitimate reason why not to act on readily available and highly documented education research which shows why this change is necessary and how to go about it. The MTC – amongst others – are modelling a viable alternative approach to schooling and assessment which is a testament to brave individuals who have dared to imagine and put into practice an education system that’s based on and nurtures each child’s unique skills, attributes and personality.

This kind of systemic change could be a challenge but we owe it to our children to unlock their potential in the now as well as for their futures. We must begin by asking what the purpose of our schooling system is, both as children are going through it, and when they emerge from it. To implement an education system where the assessment focus is on the individual presenting their current capabilities and next steps are agreed upon is attainable and desirable and needs to be adopted as a societal priority.

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