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Capturing and Communicating Learning Requires More Than Time-Based Measures

June 23, 2022

By: Jon Alfuth

I like to think that my five-year-old daughter exemplifies the many experiences through which students today learn.

She engages with shapes, letters and her peers at preschool, and she continues to build these skills by watching PBS shows, exercising with friends in a gymnastics class and reading many books. And while I hope this pattern of learning at school and beyond continues as she grows older, I worry that our existing education system is woefully inadequate to capture and communicate such a rich diversity of experiences. I dream that she will have a chance to go to schools that encourage and reward learning that occurs outside of the classroom by providing easy-to-use structures that record and communicate her learning to schools, possible colleges and potential employers.

How a mastery-based transcript meets the demands of future-focused teaching and learning

What I’m articulating can best be described as a transcript that records and reports student learning based on mastery. Instead of using classic letter grades that provide a singular measure based on time spent in a classroom, this type of transcript paints a much broader picture of a student’s skills and knowledge, typically articulated through a set of essential skills laid out via a Portrait of a Graduate or grade-level competencies that collectively define what a student who has successfully completed K-12 education should know and be able to do.

And the transcript doesn’t act as a static snapshot of a student’s knowledge at a single point in time: It can be constantly updated as a student progresses in their mastery of these skills over time.

The need for this kind of transcript isn’t just hypothetical; because of the increasing number of schools implementing mastery-based learning instructional approaches, the demand is already there. States across the country are recognizing and responding to this demand. This year alone, we’ve identified almost 200 bills introduced in dozens of states that, if passed, would advance student-centered learning policies where a transcript based on mastery is valuable.

However, it isn’t enough to just give schools flexibility from state laws; schools often need support in navigating the many roadblocks that they encounter when seeking to develop a transcript based on mastery. To truly transform education systems so that they encourage and support students as they pursue learning whenever and wherever it happens, states need to consider how to both create needed flexibilities and provide support to spur the adoption of alternative competency-based transcripts.

Three ways a mastery-based transcript better measures learning – and ensures graduates are ready for an uncertain future

To gain a better understanding of what both the barriers and the supports for this type of transcript can look like, I sat down with staff from Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). The organization was started in 2017 to rethink how to document high school learning and has since created a digital record that has been accepted by nearly 250 colleges nationwide. Chief Executive Officer Mike Flanagan, Director of Higher Education Engagement Edgar Montes and Chief Learning Officer Patricia Russell were kind enough to dive deep into the rationale behind a transcript based on mastery, identify barriers to its adoption and implementation and provide questions that state-level policymakers can ask themselves when determining how friendly their state policy environments are to schools interested in adopting these transcripts.

MTC staff identified several compelling reasons for states to encourage and support mastery transcript adoption.

First and foremost, the design of traditional ways of communicating student learning leaves too many of them behind. Educational systems focused on ensuring that all students are learning to their full potential within a competency-based approach necessitates a different type of summative record. If the value of an education is going to be placed on the mastery of skills versus time spent in a classroom, the record used to catalog that learning must reflect that reality.

During the pandemic, many learners mastered sought-after skills in ways that traditional transcripts and classrooms are not designed to capture. Mastery learning approaches not only reflect these strides in ways that make sense to partners in higher education but also motivate schools to foster the kinds of environments and conditions that showcase how learners are growing.

Second, students facing an uncertain future cannot thrive without mastering higher order skills, including critical thinking, problem solving and interpersonal communication. Shifting the record of learning to one that embraces these skills naturally leads to greater emphasis on developing these skills within every student.

Third, a mastery transcript captures a much more vivid picture of each individual student’s knowledge and capability. Traditional transcripts reduce a student to a simple list of classes with a letter next to their name. By contrast, a mastery transcript can much more holistically capture each student’s skills, strengths and interests. It can also allow for capturing learning that occurs outside of the classroom, either elsewhere in the school or in the broader community. The result is that all students have a more equitable opportunity to showcase evidence of their unique competencies as they pursue a range of flexible postsecondary pathways.

Barriers to implementation of a mastery-based transcript – and what to do about it

MTC staff identified several state-level policy barriers that may discourage or prevent a school from using a transcript based on mastery. For K-12, not every state provides whole-school flexibility from traditional seat-time requirements. And even when they do, they may not allow the flexibility for grading beyond GPA at the whole-school level to provide credit based on mastery. States may even allow grading based on mastery but may still require traditional grade reporting at the state level. Even when mastery is allowed, state K-12 finance systems may still penalize schools that use non-traditional measures of student learning.

Higher education can also create barriers that disincentivize the use of a mastery transcript. States with merit aid systems may require a traditional high school GPA for eligibility. And while MTC has clearly demonstrated that institutions can and will accept a mastery-based transcript, parents and students often remain concerned about how the use of non-traditional grading metrics will affect their ability to transition successfully to postsecondary institutions.

As they consider how friendly their states are to transcripts based on mastery, as well as to student-centered learning in general, state policymakers can start by asking the following questions:

  • Does your state have a set of common essential skills for students to master, or does it allow schools to create those on their own? Schools may not even know where to start when considering how to award and measure credit based on mastery. States can create structures such as a Portrait of a Graduate and statewide competencies, which will in turn be needed to allow schools to pursue these types of models. South Carolina provides an excellent example of what this can look like.
  • Does your state give schools the flexibility to pursue mastery-based learning? Even the most energetic school can only work within the systems created by state law. States can allow for flexibility from requirements related to seat-time flexibility and create innovation zones that give schools freedom from existing constraints. ExcelinEd has a resource on seat-time flexibilities and innovation zones to get policymakers started.
  • Does your state support schools looking to transition to mastery-based learning? Shifting to an entirely new education delivery system is hard work, and states can play a key role in providing the technical and financial support districts seeking to make this change may need. The Washington State Board of Education’s Mastery-Based Learning Collaborative gives a great ongoing example of this type of support.
  • How do higher education systems support (or hinder) adoption of mastery transcripts? Higher education must be at the table when states are considering how to support the implementation of mastery-based K-12 education records. They can not only identify barriers like GPA requirements in merit aid systems but can also help spread the word to encourage hesitant parents or schools that mastery transcripts are a positive development for their kids!

What’s next for mastery-based transcripts?

MTC staff and member schools have already seen tremendous impact on those students who have used the Mastery Transcript. Over the past two pandemic years, they related that students from school communities utilizing the Mastery Transcript were much better prepared for what came next and stood out more in the college application process. College admission officers have also spoken to the value they see in having a much more expansive student record. And with hundreds of schools already having accepted students using the organization’s transcript, they’ve clearly demonstrated that grading based on mastery has no negative impact on the accessibility of higher education.

Learn how states can change policy to support personalized, competency-based learning and mastery transcripts in our recommendations.


Jon Alfuth
Senior Director of State Policy

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