thoughts on transcripts and portfolios

Shaun’s comment on a minor point in my last post about this topic made me start to question something. She said

On another note, love all the thoughts on grades. We also teach to “mastery” though I define mastery in math as 80% on review tests. I’m not sure that’s working well.

(she actually said this at the end of a comment on another post) Basically, she made me realize that I was making that statement about mastery based on a vague sense of what we were doing and feeling comfortable with that description when others used it. I don’t give Tigger review tests and it made me wonder whether we actually do teach to mastery.

Basically, I am not going to push Tigger to keep working on something if she has had enough. I push her to give things a good try, but we change topics to keep things fresh. And return to them later to go deeper. And we don’t set out an annual plan. We don’t have annual objectives that get reported to anyone. We don’t have to report results. So I’m quite flexible about when and how we cover things. How the heck do I know if we’ve done it to mastery? And what might that mean, particularly for subjects that might be covered to a different level in different years?

I got thinking that maybe I shouldn’t use that phrase. I still don’t think grading a class of one is meaningful. I like the way Meg graded everything on her son’s transcript on a Pass/Fail basis (unless it was done as an outside class that actually gave grades). That suggests to me that for those that are a “Pass”, he learned a sufficient proportion of the material to deserve a credit at that level.

All of that got me thinking about the general structure of transcripts because, of course, there are other issues that bother me. Like the definition of credits based on hours. Seems to me that hours spent on a subject in the homeschool are not at all equivalent to hours spent on a subject in a school school. In particular, the hours in a school are “instructional hours” and don’t include homework time, but do include all kinds of time settling folks down, dealing with administrative issues, etc. And if you aren’t teaching “courses” what criteria do you use to give a credit? Or if you decide to organize the material differently? Or if you are counting things that were covered in activities schooled kids would consider extra-curricular as part of a course?

You can see how the whole transcript thing is just not working for me. But today I had a little light bulb moment. It occurred to me that there has been a sort of revolution in the advice given about how to construct a résumé when job hunting. Instead of just listing what schools you’ve attended and your past employment with a list of duties, the advice nowadays is to list skills and achievements. You still need that basic information about where you might have gained these, but the focus is different.

One place this difference shows up is in what you say about past employment. A list of duties doesn’t tell a prospective employer anything about what you actually did, the skills required to do it, or how well you did it. It tells them what you were supposed to do.  In the new model, you don’t list duties. You list achievements. These probably won’t cover everything you did on a day to day basis in the job. Rather, they will highlight your skills and the contributions you made to the employer. Things like “increased sales by x% in y months” or “developed a new system for z that enabled more efficient ….”. You get the idea.

When you think of a standard transcript, you have a basic description of what was supposed to be covered/learned and a grade. It doesn’t actually tell a college admissions officer (or prospective employer) very much about what you know or can do, nor about how well you know it/can do it. And most of the time the description only focuses on the content and not the skills. Is a particular student a good exam taker? Or can s/he use the knowledge s/he’s gained in the course in other contexts?

Seems to me that this is where the portfolio really wins out. My big problem with a portfolio, particularly now (pre-highschool) is that we aren’t really product-oriented. There is not a lot of stuff that you can put on a table, or in a binder, or whatever. So thinking forward to high school level stuff means thinking not only about record keeping but about what kinds of products it might be useful to have. I’m starting to think that the portfolio might start with something like a skills-based résumé, listing areas of knowledge, academic skills, etc. Then there would be samples of work providing supporting evidence. There might also be evaluative documents (something like the external assessments that university professors need in a tenure or promotion file).

As such, a portfolio is not something you put together at the end to summarize a body of work covered (with a transcript in the front, objectives you were aiming for, etc), but rather a living document that is constructed as you go along to make sure that there is concrete evidence of things that you might need concrete evidence for. So if we’d been working on something, we might stop and say — is there anything we need to do to demonstrate to others that you know this stuff? We might then write an essay or a research paper, or take an appropriate test or exam (maybe an externally recognized one, like a subject SAT or whatever).

This format also offers a framework that integrates formal learning, “extra-curricular” activities, and work experience (paid and voluntary) into one document. Particular skills and knowledge might have been acquired as part of a job, for example, and the evidence in the portfolio might be a sample of work done for an employer and an employer reference.

I’m thinking out loud here, as usual, but I think that the sort of portfolio that might be required for university admission (or an employer) is different from that required by some states as “proof of progress”. College admissions folks are not interested in knowing how much you progressed during high school. They want to know if you are ready for university. Where you started from is irrelevant to them. Achievements are not.

As may be obvious (or maybe not), I’m not very good at doing things for the sake of it, or because of some bureaucratic requirement. This may be why I am self-employed and homeschool. Wink If I’m going to put effort into something, like keeping records and compiling a portfolio, I want it to be meaningful. These thoughts are part of how I’m working out what a meaningful portfolio might look like.

As always comments welcome. This whole train of thought got started by a comment, after all.

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4 thoughts on “thoughts on transcripts and portfolios

  1. Discussing the use of the word “mastery” reminds me of my piano lessons as a child.

    Instead of picking the requisite 4 songs to perfect for year-end examination, my teacher had me play a song until, as you suggest, I’d “got what I needed out of it.” This way, we covered about 80% of each grade’s book.

    Three things stand out that relate to your post:

    Firstly, my second piano teacher knew that it would be a real waste to have me perfect a few pieces so I could play the formal conservatory examination at the end of the year. At age 16, I didn’t need a Grade 3 piano certificate — I needed to improve my musicality since performing (singing) was a huge part of my life at the time and I felt that I needed at least a certain comfort on the piano to keep my options open. Consequently, I benefited from experiencing as many different songs as possible, expanding my horizons.

    Secondly, my progress would have been slowed if I had followed the set exam schedule, waiting an entire year to progress from one grade to the next. My teacher understood that if we let the exam system dictate my rate of progress, I wouldn’t be able to reach my goal of achieving a decent skill level while still in high school — Grade 6 or if the stars aligned, perhaps Grade 7.

    Thirdly, for my first end-of year recital, my piano teacher chose two songs for me, each from two different grades. I think it’s interesting from the perspective of mastery that that higher grade piece flew off my fingers without conscious thought or effort. It was the lower-graded piece that was the bane of my existence. In fact, during the recital, I tanked on the “easier” piece. I ended up just quitting mid-song, putting the book away, then retrieving the more difficult piece and playing it as if I had written it myself.

    What if I’d never been allowed to progress to the higher grade because I couldn’t master that earlier song? This was a HUGE issue for me working as a math tutor because every concept in grade 8 math, for example, is not automatically “easier” than every concept in grade 9 math, and certainly not for every student!

    The thinking that one has to perfect Grade 8 math before one should attempt Grade 9 math is flawed. Some of those Grade 8 topics simply aren’t continued into Grade 9, so busting your butt to perfect them isn’t going to help you progress. Many times I’ve had to really convince parents that the way to make it successfully through Grade “n” is *not* to spend time with their child working on Grade “n-1” material.

    Also, some kids are naturals at one particular strain of math, and being a little slow with the algebra shouldn’t hold you back from a natural affinity for geometry. (Just as perhaps some people can channel Romantic composers, but the simplest Baroque piece might drive them crazy.)

    The whole notion of a transcript is, ironically, predicated on a LACK of mastery. (If everything were learned to mastery, why would we have grades? Why wouldn’t the mere inclusion of the subject on a transcript imply 100%?)

    This comment has already gone on way too long, and sorry for taking up so much space! I think I’ll continue my thoughts about transcripts over on my own blog. 🙂

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  4. Hmmm … there is a lot of food for thought here. I’ll re-read this tomorrow and get back to you with any thoughts and reactions I have. 🙂 I am thoroughly enjoying reading your ideas, but it is almost midnight, it’s VERY hot, and I am on my second glass of wine. *LOL* I’m not likely to string any coherent thoughts together right now.

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