Debate Magazine

The High School Transcript is the Most Nefarious Force in Education That No One is Talking About

By Stevemiranda

I’m a big fan of the William Goldman movie The Princess Bride. There’s a famous line uttered by the character Inigo Montoya to the character Vizzini, who keeps referring to various phenomena as “inconceivable.”

Montoya finally responds: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

* * *

The high school transcript. It does not mean what you think it means.

Consider this scenario:

A student—we’ll call her Jane—is enrolled in my English class. She raises her hand every 15 seconds in class to respond to a question or offer an opinion. She has a perfect 4.0 GPA. Her parents are wealthy professionals. Her writing is mediocre; there’s nothing wrong with it, but there’s not a whole lot right with it either. She doesn’t seem to enjoy writing very much or work particularly hard at it, but she is always vigilant about knowing exactly what the assignment is, what the parameters are, how many points it’s worth, and when it’s due.

As a teacher, I could tell within the first three or four days of the semester that Jane was going to get an A. Not because I could somehow magically predict the quality of her academic work, but simply because it was clear that she would not accept anything less.

Here’s another one:

Andrew is also enrolled in my English class. He’s perhaps the finest writer I’ve ever had the privilege of having in class. He shows no outward interest in what his grade is. Mostly he wants to listen to music, talk about music, write about music, and talk about writing about music. He writes with a voice that is so alive that I find myself nodding my head rhythmically to the beat of his prose. He misses a few assignments throughout the course of the semester, and ends up with a B. When his report card comes, he questions me about the B. I show him my gradebook and point to the missed assignments. He shrugs, puts his headphones back on, and rejoins his friends.

One more:

Zelia is an elite writer, competing with Andrew for perhaps the finest writer I’ve ever worked with. Her sentences and paragraphs sing. She’s very humble about her talent, and has dreams that are not nearly ambitious enough considering her talent. However, she takes the craft of writing so seriously that she suffers from a pathological condition: she refuses to let anyone read her work unless it is perfect. In fact, she doesn’t even let herself read her own work unless it’s perfect. Her method is to write in her head, and only type the words on the computer after she’s edited them to perfection in her head.

It’s an impossibly inefficient method, and Zelia misses a series of crucial deadlines for a major writing assignment. She gets an F.

* * *

High school is a game that’s played by a certain set of rules. Those who are good at understanding and following the rules are rewarded with A’s. The problem is that, often, these rules have nothing to do with a student’s command of academic content.

So all the complexity of Jane, Andrew, and Zelia are reduced to this:

Jane – A
Andrew – B

As their classroom teacher, I can tell you with certainty: these letters, they do not mean what you think they mean.

* * *

At PSCS, we’re in the process of completely reimagining what a high school transcript might look like. Perhaps the first step in this process might be to figure out what information should be included.

If you’re a college admissions representative, surely you want to know something personal about the applicant. For example, instead of just listing a bunch of course titles next to letter grades, you want to know what makes this person unique. So maybe the transcript starts with the student’s declaration of what they’re passionate about.

But talk is cheap, right? So maybe there’s a section listing things the student has done: performed the lead role in the school musical, organized the church youth group retreat, earned a brown belt in taekwondo.

Colleges want to know if you’ve got the academic chops to handle higher education, so there should be a list of academic competencies. This is different from grades, which are just reflections of how well students understand and follow the rules of school. Academic competencies are things like “I can apply the Pythagorean Theorem,” “I can write a thoughtful literary analysis of Amiri Baraka’s poetry,” and “I can conceive an original hypothesis and test it by designing and executing an experiment using the scientific method.”

I use the present tense because academic competencies are skills you possess right now. Grades, on the other hand, are a measure of skills you may (or may not) have possessed at some point during a previous semester.

Of course, all these declarations of academic competency are hyperlinked to real examples of the student’s work.

* * *

The structure of the high school transcript is an unbelievably powerful force that shapes how students spend their high school years.

But there’s no law—believe me, we’ve checked—that says that the way transcripts look now is the way they must look. By a simple reinvention of this piece of paper, we can transform schools. Instead of being places where student success is dependent on learning a set of arbitrary rules, schools can be places that support students as they get busy trying to do something awesome, something meaningful to them.

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