A New Grading System for Hawken

Scott Looney, Director of Hawken School, has begun to work with the heads of prestigious high schools in the nation in order to revolutionize the American high school grading system we see today. The traditional layout of a student’s grades are seen in a written record, or transcript compiled with courses regarding academic content such as Humanities, Language, and Math. Around ninety-five percent of high schools in this nation use what is called a Carnegie unit; a given amount of time for a student to complete a high school credit. This time frame is composed of a year of material which is summarized as a letter grade: A, B, C, D, F. Looking at how modern schooling is structured, Mr. Looney observes that “[b]efore [this], a lot of learning was disciplinary. And a lot of learning wasn’t as much toward content, but knowledge and skills: the act of being able to do something. You can measure character traits. So, what if we had a high school transcript that wasn’t all about content? What if it measured content plus skills and character?” Looney suggests that a transition into a grading system that relies on a student’s capabilities opposed to the traditionally seen academic fundamentals would prove beneficial to the growth mindset development towards adulthood. This unique system is known as Mastery Learning or The Mastery Transcript, which differs greatly from the model known as points-based grading seen in present-day education.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is an association of high schools founded by Looney that are “organized around the development and dissemination of an alternative model of assessment, crediting and transcript generation. This model calls for students to demonstrate a mastery of skills, knowledge and habits of mind by presenting evidence that is then assessed against an institutionally specific standard of mastery.” The opportunities students at Hawken receive while working towards a high school credit are no longer available once that certain class is finished for the school year. Instead, certain topics are signified by a figurative badge that can be mastered through completion of requirements of the course. For instance, if a student receives a B- in a class at the end of the school year, this is considered the “final grade” earned in that subject. However, the mission of Mastery Learning is similar to a pass-or-fail concept. Each topic in a school’s curriculum is filtered into a large, electronic database that compiles four years of high school credits. In order to pass and receive the credit for the concept, one must obtain evidence such as quizzes, and teacher recommendations, not letter grades. The “evidence”is then examined by Hawken faculty and is designated as mastery or inadequate knowledge of a mastered topic. Students are not required to complete an assignment within a deadline, they are given as much time needed to prove that they have mastered the learning material. The system is constructed for students to, “worry about what [they’re] learning, not what [their] grade is. By thinking around mastery, students are encouraged to keep working.”

The radical change with the transition into the Mastery Transcript is the opportunity to obtain high school credits such as Leadership Skills, Empathy, Public-Speaking, Character, Resilience, and other honorable character traits. The MTC is working toward making these human-relation skill developments the center of focus “rather than, academic departments like English, History, Math, and Science. [The MTC] would organize the curriculum around these performance/mastery areas.” Key skills such as persuasive writing or knowledge of current events are important in our school’s curriculum; however, some may argue that resilience or teamwork are also useful attributes needed to succeed in a career inside, outside, and after school. The Mastery Transcript would be implemented for students to react and apply the feedback they are given, instead of simply being tested on the content taught.  Although this is an uncommon approach toward high school level academics, The Mastery Transcript can provide a detailed analysis of a student’s growth, strengths, and interests. The database is constructed in the same format for all students. Traditional courses remain  in the curriculum, as well as these beneficial behavioral skills that are treated with equal importance. All micro-badges are supported with the evidence selected by the students, also available in this index.  This easy to reach online source can be a helpful and non-strenuous method for colleges to view a broad variety of accomplishments that clearly convey the talents or interests demonstrated by the student.

Regarding when this process will be implemented into the Hawken community, Mr. Looney estimates that, “in around five to seven years, we will start offering the option of Mastery Learning to incoming ninth graders; however, it might take as long as a decade before we see the first [Hawken School] graduates with a Mastery Transcript.”. For the next four years at Hawken Upper School, the freshmen of 2016, and students at Hawken Lower School might not be able to experience this new method of teaching. However, The MTC has already heard from twenty-five notable schools such as Laurel, Phillips Academy, Lakeside School, College Preparatory School, Cranbrook Schools, and Kings Academy. Additionally, a representative from Georgetown University has taken an interest in the large-scale plans for implementation Hawken has planned for the Mastery Learning curriculum. It is important to keep in mind that “[The MTC is] fundamentally changing the American high school transcript forever, and that’s not something you do quickly. This is a really complex idea, and it’s not coming anytime soon. I think it’s good to know that Hawken’s leading this. A national conversation with the most prestigious schools in the country and Hawken’s in the middle of it.”