What if your high school transcript didn’t include grades?

Andrew Krech/Citizens’ Voice/AP/File

For years, students have been stacking their high school transcripts with as many advanced courses and A’s as possible in an effort to get into the best colleges. But under a radical redesign of the document — being led by dozens of private schools nationwide — the practice of listing courses and grades could come to an end.

Instead, the new transcripts would detail a student’s mastery of specific skills, such as the ability to collaborate, think creatively and analytically, take initiative, assess risk, solve problems, or write coherently.

And what about that hard-earned A in calculus? Most schools would stop itemizing courses, credits, and grades on the transcripts. Not even grade point averages would appear.


The idea is to show colleges what students can do, rather than how good they are at memorizing information or taking tests. Supporters say the change should do a better job of predicting which students will thrive in higher education and ultimately in the workplace.

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“I think we overvalue content knowledge,” said Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Ohio, who is the founder and chairman of the Mastery Transcript Consortium , a group of schools that was created to spearhead the revisions and that includes several Massachusetts schools. “If you really think about what makes kids successful in college, it is the ability to think deeply, reason, write well, lead a team.”

But a move away from a standardized measurement could create a nightmare for college admission offices, as they grapple with a surge in applications generated by the ease at which students can apply online to multiple colleges at once.

William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College, said high school transcripts and standardized test scores play an important role in the admissions process and “provide a common measure that allows some comparison among applicants from very different backgrounds and academic institutions.”

“Secondary school grading systems and transcripts give colleges an estimate of how much a student has achieved day-to-day in the classroom and a way to measure a student’s readiness for college-level academic work,” Fitzsimmons said in a statement. “We hope that the proposed proficiency-based transcripts will provide such information as well.”


The redesign could be the biggest change to the high school transcript since the documents came into vogue more than a century ago, when colleges began setting admission standards for the number of hours students needed to study certain subjects.

Behind the effort locally are some big-name private schools: Phillips Academy, Milton Academy, Noble and Greenough, Newton Country Day School, Brooks School, Gann Academy, and Northfield Mount Hermon. The dean of studies at Phillips is taking a leave of absence to lead the group.

Several experts say that if these schools pull off the change, then public schools — some of which have already been experimenting with alternative transcripts — will follow. Most notably, the New England Secondary School Consortium, which includes education commissioners and public school educators from all New England states except Massachusetts, has been pushing for proficiency-based transcripts for the last few years.

For many of the private schools, the move is about more than just changing the content of a transcript. They want to shift the mindset of students who have become so obsessed with grades that they are whizzing through their studies without realizing what they have actually learned, and they are unwilling to take the kinds of risks necessary to succeed in an innovation economy because they fear failure.

“Students can’t think beyond that transcript and see the entire life ahead of them,” said Sarah Pelmas, head of school at the Winsor School in Boston. “The pressure has become so intense.”


And the course grades on the transcripts reveal little about the kind of work students put into their class and what skills they learned, they say.

‘If you really think about what makes kids successful in college, it is the ability to think deeply, reason, write well, lead a team.’

Scott Looney, leading a push to overhaul transcripts without grades 

Under the redesigned high school transcript, however, college admission officers would be able to see specific examples of student work in just a couple of clicks.

Although the exact design is still being hashed out, supporters envision the transcript would be online and contain three layers of information.

The first layer would summarize a student’s mastery of specific skills. Then the admission officer could click on a skill to see how that student’s school defined mastery. With one more click, the admission officer could see the various examples of student work that a school used to judge mastery.

“We will run some pilots over the next couple of years,” said Patricia Russell of Phillips Academy and interim executive director of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. “Once we think the transcript is working well, we will make it available to any school.”

Eliminating courses and grades from the transcripts could create a host of problems, especially for applicants to colleges that require students to have passed certain classes, admission experts said.

For instance, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education requires applicants to the University of Massachusetts and the state universities to have taken four years of English and math, three years of science, and two years of foreign languages, as well as other courses.

Beyond the requirements, judging an applicant’s performance in high school courses — especially those related to the major the applicant hopes to pursue — is useful in determining if the applicant can handle the rigor of a college-level program, said James Roche, associate provost for enrollment management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

He questioned the need to drastically overhaul transcripts. Many of the skills the consortium hopes to detail in the transcripts are typically conveyed in letters of recommendation the colleges receive, Roche said.

“I’m not sure the world understands how thorough college applications are now,” Roche said. “I’m always impressed with the amount of work and energy that goes into the applications and the letters of recommendation.”

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVaznis.