Moving Beyond GPA: Using the Mastery Transcript to Drive Equity and Engagement

Voices from the Field   31 October 2018
By Susan Bell, Mastery Transcript Consortium, and Edgar Montes, Mastery Transcript Consortium, and Patricia Russell, Mastery Transcript Consortium


It is our shared responsibility to continue the quest of meeting the needs of our diverse student population and creating welcoming, safe, and thriving learning communities.

Edgar Montes
Director of Higher Education Engagement

At the 2018 iNACOL Symposium, Education Reimagined hosted a conversation on learner outcomes with Mastery Transcript Consortium’s (MTC) Chief Education and Operations Officer, Patricia Russell, Big Picture Learning’s Co-Founder, Elliot Washor, and young learner, Angel Velez. Highlighting MTC’s work more fully, we invited members from their team to tell their story as to why MTC’s work is so meaningful to their communities.

High school assessment too often encourages learners to game the grading system rather than focus on demonstration of mastery. A transcript, although limited in its current form, has the potential to amplify the many qualities and talents students develop and demonstrate during their high school career. 

With more than fifty years of combined professional experience in education, Susan Bell, Edgar Montes, and Patricia Russell have joined the Mastery Transcript Consortium because they are committed to the MTC’s mission to create a high school transcript that reflects the unique skills, strengths, and interests of each learner. Their perspectives below reflect their unique journeys and experiences, at the student, district, and state level, that have provided purpose for their joining the MTC team.

The Students

Patricia Russell, former Dean of Studies, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA

I have watched an increasing number of students feel significant pressure to avoid the courses and extracurricular projects they really want to tackle because they would either be perceived  as “insignificant” on their transcript or result in a lower than desired grade.

My students who did pursue meaningful projects in high schoolediting the school newspaper, collaborating with an international aid organization on disaster relief, organizing a church mission trip, captaining an athletic team, printing experimental prosthetics, founding a community garden, performing a concerto, painting a public mural, mentoring middle schoolers, teaching recent immigrants English, and morealmost always cited these as some of their most valuable high school learning experiences. Yet, these experiences were almost always in addition to a full course load and beyond the school’s formal schedule and crediting system—the four-year transcript.

I gravitated toward MTC’s work because I watched too many motivated and talented young people avoid difficult and meaningful challenges that would have taught them essential skills and habits for college, work, and life, all because of the constraints of and in service to their high-school transcripts. A mastery transcript motivates deep engagement and reflects the unique skills, strengths, and interests of each learner. Students will still need to make difficult choices and work very hard to grow and thrive, but they will do so without having to avoid interesting and authentic projects.

The District

Susan Bell, former Superintendent of Schools, Windsor Locks, CT

Not too long ago, low expectations and an obsession with negative student behaviors created a culture at Windsor Locks High School in which students weren’t seen as the talented, bright stars they could become. The dream of college, by ninth grade, had diminished drastically for many students who were told they might not measure up to what colleges require.

Full of promise and potential in sixth grade, the dreams of college opportunities were soon all but extinguished. Students were held to very low minimum standards for high school graduation, and with a few notable exceptions, instructional quality had diminished by the mid 1990’s as years of budget cuts resulted in drastic cuts to student programs.

Then in 2011, a new superintendent, Wayne Sweeney, came onto the scene. Superintendent Sweeney spent a great deal of time in classrooms across the district, assessing student, teacher, administrator, and community needs. He sought to understand the underlying problems in Windsor Locks.

His quick but careful evaluation found that low overall expectations for a majority of students—minus those perceived to be the most able—pervaded the learning and assessment culture. And, historically underserved students were performing the lowest on achievement scales. Instructional quality was dictated by the teacher in the classroom and their willingness to engage students in rigorous activities, casting students in the role of passive learners. Assessments and instruction were about recalling low levels of knowledge rather than developing deeper learning skills needed for college, work, and life.

After working with a combined group of 400 stakeholders to craft a mission statement and set of guiding beliefs for the district, Superintendent Sweeney began creating the conditions and structures to improve teaching and learning to support students in meeting their individual learning needs. The stage was also set for the district to graduate its first class with mastery-based diplomas in 2020.

By 2014, when I became superintendent, students in grades K-8 were already engaged in transitioning from a traditional grading system to a mastery-based learning and grading system. This required significant changes in approaches to instruction and assessment for teachers. The district invested heavily in professional learning focused on how to engage students in the process of assessment and in the development of their own learning aims to meet and go beyond the minimum curriculum.

The movement to a mastery-based assessment system has now continued into the high school, where students are given the time, support, and flexibility to determine their own assessment pathways to success. All of this change, however, will be for naught, if a change in the ultimate way student learning is assessed is never realized.

The traditional transcript honors courses, grades, and a single GPA. It ignores rich evidence of a student’s performance in both foundational and advanced learning domains. Windsor Locks and other districts seeking to change the system of assessment are relying on the MTC to deliver a transcript that truly highlights every student’s talents, strengths, and accomplishments. Joining the MTC team has allowed me to take the lessons I learned at Windsor Locks and impact change across even more communities.

The State

Edgar Montes, former Executive Director of California MTSS at the Orange County Department of Education, Costa Mesa, CA

California, like many states, has been on a trajectory to redesign the supports and structures necessary to prepare students for college, career, and life. During the last five years, California has introduced a variety of changes, including a new equitable and transparent funding system, revised educational standards to improve student readiness, and an enhanced accountability system to measure student success through multiple measures and indicators. Driving the change in California is a relentless pursuit to meet the needs of each and every student.   

As the executive director of a statewide initiative to introduce a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) framework, I have witnessed the heavy lift the California education system has experienced in laying the foundation for an integrated statewide support system. The California MTSS framework focuses on instruction, differentiated learning, student-centered learning, individualized student needs, and the alignment of systems necessary for all students’ academic, behavioral, and social success.

Whole system engagement leverages local, regional, state, and federal resources in efficient and innovative ways by meeting educators and educational leaders in the promising progress they have made. And, propelling them forward with renewed vision and practices.

Yet, more can be done, and it is our shared responsibility to continue the quest of meeting the needs of our diverse student population and creating welcoming, safe, and thriving learning communities. I joined the MTC to honor the many gifts our students bring into the classroom, the experience and accomplishments that guide their self-confidence, and the multiple means by which they can demonstrate their readiness for life after high school.

The MTC presents an opportunity for high schools to advance the transformational work they have done to support the development of the whole child. It helps students to communicate authentically with colleges and employers about the many skills and talents they have cultivated to become college, career, and life ready.  Most importantly, it will help students know themselves, understand their personalized growth opportunities, and enable them to confidently pursue educational endeavors to fulfill their passions, realize their potential, and create a meaningful impact in their lives and communities.

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.