By Devin Vodicka
Several years ago when we were running competency-based K-8 microschools in San Francisco and New York City we were confronted with the challenge of helping our students navigate competitive admissions procedures as they applied for selective high schools. We quickly learned that the vast majority of the high schools wanted to see traditional letter grade transcripts and when we asked why the most frequent responses were related to “preparing” for college admissions. The consequence of this approach was that it put pressure on us to also use letter grades in middle school to “prepare” for high school. It quickly becomes apparent that the university admissions process is a significant constraint when we imagine new and different forms of feedback to promote learning.
This is a legitimate problem when we consider the research regarding letter grades. Consider the following summary from Lahey (2014):
… if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.
If our education system was designed to promote meaningful learning for all learners, we would take an “inside out” approach with respect to assessment and accountability systems. We would think first about the individual learner, their goals, their strengths, their interests as the primary stakeholder. In classrooms, schools, and systems throughout our country we are seeing pockets of such learner-centered practices. In these settings, we frequently see whole-child outcomes that are clearly articulated as competencies that allow students to demonstrate their learning in different ways at different points in time to provide for maximum flexibility and to increase the likelihood of long-term success.
Unfortunately, even when situated in a supportive policy context, students matriculate into higher education systems that continue to be relentlessly focused on seat time, grade-point averages, and standardized tests in their admissions decisions. As a result, even when students, families, educators, and the K-12 system promote competency- or mastery-based learning the transition to higher education ignores that information to the detriment of learners.
For example, the 91-page quick-reference guide for the University of California system first lists pages of required courses and then with detailed explanations of how grade-point averages are calculated and validated. Inherent in the current process is an inference that completion of a course is equivalent to learning. Unfortunately, we know that this is not necessarily true – research has shown that even first-year college students “forget” up to 60% of high school material. Imagine what the data would look like for those who don’t go on to college or for similar studies years later. In addition, I’ve previously written about the ridiculousness of seat time, something that even the Carnegie Foundation has suggested is long overdue for modernization. Finally, we should be horrified to see that high-stakes standardized testing results often serve as a proxy for socio-economic status as evidenced by the visual below that demonstrates a stunning correlation between family income and ACT outcomes.
So why do we persist with conventional letter grades and seat-time based transcripts? Unfortunately, it appears that as a society we place a greater value on the efficiency of higher education admissions procedures instead of focusing on meaningful learning for millions of students. This problem is so pervasive that the University of California Santa Cruz (my alma mater!) eliminated narrative evaluations at the undergraduate level due to concerns about admissions into graduate schools. This in spite of the fact that only about one in eight adults ends up with a graduate degree.
I confess that I have not worked in a college admissions office and I can only speculate on what their experience must be like. And yet I am aware that college enrollments are down across the country and enrollment declines are particularly severe for male students. Given the reality that enrollment leads to revenue, I am fairly certain that most colleges are looking to increase applications and that they would like more students to attend their schools. Even before the pandemic, the majority of colleges admitted the majority of their applicants and enrollment has been on the decline since 2010. In fact, more than half of all universities had fewer students in fall 2020 than they did a decade ago.
I believe that the solution is to modernize the college admissions process to one that better promotes actual learning. Additionally, this modernized process should be designed to promote equitable access and eliminate the advantages that higher-income students have had by virtue of their access to test preparation and enrollment in schools that can provide more individualized experiences due to uneven access to resources.
This modernized admissions system will be competency-based and would also include opportunities for qualitative demonstrations of learning. Examples of these approaches have been in place for fields like performing arts for many years and a similar model including demonstrations of learning and references from advisors (similar to what we do in the employment process) could be extended to other areas of study.
This modernized, competency-based system will also enable opportunities for flexible pathways that promote lifelong learning beyond college degrees. In terms of an analogy, we can imagine the K-12 competency backpack becoming the digital briefcase for college, career, and beyond.
Declining enrollment in colleges, clear inequities in the ways that standardized testing creates an uneven playing field, and archaic seat time and grading systems are obvious reasons to reconsider our approach at a systems level. The world around us continues to change at accelerating rates of speed. Add a global pandemic and massive societal disruptions and it is abundantly evident that now is the time for us to lean into the challenges and opportunities inherent in reimagining lifelong learning pathways.
Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.
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