Education and Skills

Why it's time to change high school transcripts

Students wait for photos at a drive-thru graduation ceremony at University High School amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 12, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson - RC2Y7H9TEIYL

Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Conrad Hughes
Director General, International School of Geneva
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Education, Gender and Work

  • Current school transcripts only capture academic achievements and are geared towards assessments and testing;
  • Testimonies of character, competencies developed, out-of-school achievements and deep experiences do not feature;
  • Three steps can redesign school transcripts and certification systems to be more inclusive of all personality types, styles of personal growth and narratives.

When school students graduate, they must provide relevant evidence of proficiency in selected academic areas to be eligible for university or work.

Have you read?

British universities ask for examination results in selected subjects. They look through student statements that essentially argue for course eligibility. European universities ask for passing grades but rarely ask anything about a student’s interests or extracurricular achievements. North American universities tend to show more interest in the whole person, asking for a detailed personal statement showing evidence of character and social development. However, even in this more rounded approach, what comes first is the grade average.

The problem is not what is asked for, but what is not asked for. The current school certification system fails to capture the full picture; testimonies of character, competencies developed, out-of-school achievements and deep experiences will not feature on the transcript. This is because the curriculum is narrowed for pragmatic purposes and, in the end, school and learning become a transactional process driven by a cold set of numbers corresponding to subject scores.

Much damage is done in this narrowing process: disengagement of those who do not see themselves reflected in such metrics, uninspiring teaching to the test, systemic bias towards students sociologically, curriculum crunching in the classroom, stress, cramming for examinations, the instrumentalization of learning, jumping through hoops and the playing of systems. For many, self-esteem is damaged as they develop meta-stereotypes against themselves, epitomized by the simple self-damnation: “I’m not good at school”.

A broader social issue

Girls have historically been excluded from schools and to this day are not sufficiently integrated into school structures across the globe. When they are, the high status, highly remunerated professional area of STEM tends to be heavily predominated by boys. The culture of most schools tends to be masculine with playground dynamics amplifying masculine rather than feminine traits and assertions, sometimes reinforced by outdated, even misogynistic curricula and learning environments.

Number of children out of school between 1998 and 2014
Number of children out of school between 1998 and 2014 Image: Our World in Data

Because schools are forced to narrow the human experience to a grade transcript, they become less and less inclusive, catering for certain personality types, styles of personal growth and narratives at the expense of others.

Albert Einstein, often wrongly quoted for being bad at mathematics, was, on the contrary, clearly very gifted academically and excelled until he went to a school in Munich where he found the curriculum so narrow that, in the end, he dropped out. Einstein’s story is one of many gifted children who quit school because “the system” does not allow them to develop their passions.

Time for change: a new type of transcript

It is time to change the way students are described on transcripts. Grades are not enough and schools should be doing much more than preparing a factory line of examinations for admissions test takers. The time has come to establish the broadest and most inclusive parameters imaginable for human flourishing and to design assessment metrics that allow for the personal experience of each person to shine.

The time has come for schools around the world to federate and redesign high school transcripts and then, boldly, to present universities, colleges and industry with these new transcripts.

To do this, three steps must be taken:

1. Redesign the credits system

Schools must design a credit system that captures learning and competence development wherever it has happened. For this to happen, categories of competence should be established that describe academic subject achievement, extracurricular performance and personal and community initiatives that have been completed.

A starting point for these credit areas should be the powerful and rigorously documented work of UNESCO’s International Bureau of Education whose work on global competences has determined seven broad areas that cover all of the possible expressions of human flourishing. These areas are:

  • Lifelong learning
  • Self Agency
  • Interacting with others
  • Interacting with the world
  • Interacting with diverse tools and resources
  • Transdisciplinarity
  • Multi-literateness

These credit areas should cover as many imaginable activities as possible and allow for every type of intelligence to shine and every personality to excel, not just logical and verbal intelligence, extroverted and analytical types. Every story must be told.

2. Empower students

Once these credit areas have been delineated and as many imaginable iterations of human flourishing have been coded and placed within the credit areas (to be activated upon completion), students should be given access to this platform which will serve as a portfolio. Here students will be able to tell their stories and emblazon the world with their passions. This will allow schools to know their students better and allow students to feel that schools are places that are interested in more than just academics.

Crucially, it will allow students to take ownership of the curation of their learning. Students will no longer simply fit into an institutional grid; they will activate the lifeline of their narrative, their future CV, themselves. This act of empowerment and self-agency will shift the culture of schools significantly. It will also begin to influence the dynamic and culture of the workplace as we slowly shift from a 1950s model built on institutional values to a future-bound model based on human gifts.

3. Rally universities and industries

Schools then need to advocate to get universities on board. If pandemics or other worldwide social implosions continue to disrupt the monolithic structures of examinations and universities need to look for broader evidence of student achievement, this new type of transcript will be necessary. It may also help them make margin calls on admission.

Act now

There are platforms that already exist to allow schools to enact the steps outlined above. At my school, the International School of Geneva, we have nearly completed our new credit system and will pilot it with students this academic year.

This is a platform that can be used to curate a much fuller description of student gifts, capturing learning wherever it has happened, celebrating human flourishing and telling the whole story. This will not only lead to a more inclusive educational system but to a more inclusive world in which the most important thing won’t be slotting into a predetermined place in the social pyramid, but rather striving for a world where everyone has their place and where every light can shine.

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