(Matthew Benoit)

Think grade inflation has made grades less meaningful?

A consortium of 100 elite prep schools agrees. But rather than impose stricter grading curves, these schools plan to eliminate grades altogether.

“People are nonstandard,” says D. Scott Looney, head of Cleveland’s Hawken School and founder and board chair of the new Mastery Transcript Consortium. “They grow and evolve in the world in nonstandard ways. Distilling that down to a simple common number like a GPA shaves off a lot of humanity in that journey.”

These are not artsy-fartsy alternative schools; the consortium includes some of the most famous pressure-cooker private institutions in the country, such as Chapin, Phillips Academy and Holton-Arms. Their proposed two-page replacement transcript would exclude not only grades but even the names of the courses a student took.

A new digital transcript would instead display qualitative, soft-focus descriptions of skills that students have “mastered.”

For example, according to a preliminary template, a student wouldn’t receive an A-minus in Japanese; her transcript would say she can “understand and express ideas in two or more languages” and perhaps link to a video of her speaking Japanese. (If a college admissions officer reviewing the transcript doesn’t understand Japanese, well, sorry.)


This template is preliminary and still subject to revision. (Mastery Transcript Consortium)

Or rather than saying the student got a B-plus in trigonometry and an A in calculus, the transcript would report that he has been able to “master and use higher-level mathematics.”

Transcripts would also include “mastered” character traits and soft skills such as persistence, self-efficacy or the ability to “sustain an empathetic and compassionate outlook.”

You know, the qualitative stuff that usually goes in recommendation letters.

Looney says this is an “attempt to be more authentic and transparent to colleges” and to address rising student anxiety over the pressure to get A’s. The consortium hopes public schools will eventually ditch grades in favor of this “mastery transcript” model, too.

However well-intended, this brave new grade-free world would have at least one very pernicious effect: It would probably help mediocre (generally rich) prep school kids and hurt high-achieving (generally less well-off) public school students.

Grades are imprecise and imperfect measures of achievement. But they do provide some useful information about relative achievement among students. Obfuscating distinctions — whether through grade inflation or grade elimination — helps students in schools where average achievement is high and hurts those where that average is low.

Colleges know this trick well.

Lots of elite universities offer grades that are not terribly informative, at least relative to the traditional bell-shaped grading curve. At Yale Law School, students are awarded “honors,” “pass, “low pass” or “credit.” At the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, students receive grades but are not allowed to tell employers what they are.

At Harvard University, A’s have been the most common grade for nearly three decades; the distribution is similar at other competitive schools today. More broadly, grades are rising across the board, but selective schools still give out more A’s than non-selective ones.

It’s no surprise that elite schools have been less diligent at combating grade inflation. In fact, game theory predicts it.

If you’re a top-ranked school, having more “noise” in your grading system reduces the ability of potential employers (or admissions officers) to accurately judge particular students. On average, this can boost your school’s job/admissions placement rate. That’s because the impressive school name does the work of signaling a student’s abilities, rather than a more finely grained assessment of the student’s actual abilities.

By contrast, lower-ranked schools really want superstars to stand out, lest they get written off because of the less-elite brand. To be sure, students at these lesser-ranked institutions are still pressuring grades upward, but administrators know they need some segmentation at the very top.

Assuming high school administrators are rational, then, it seems unlikely that this convoluted new “mastery transcript” will be adopted by non-elite schools. But even if only rich prep schools phase out grades, less-advantaged high achievers could still get hurt.

Admissions at top colleges is a zero-sum game, after all. If signal-jamming by the Chapins of the world sufficiently confuses college admissions officers into accepting more of their students, fewer spots will be available for other schools.

Additionally, less digestible transcripts might lead colleges to place more weight on something that’s more easily comparable across students: standardized test scores. SATs happen to be strongly correlated with income. Again, that’s likely to hurt kids at non-elite schools (and also scholarship students at elites).

I get it. Grades are imperfect, and college applications are stressful. But this effort seems unlikely to lead to a more “authentic and transparent” — or just — world.