Joy St. John, Wellesley’s dean of admission and financial aid, was among those tapped by WGBH Radio’s new higher education program, On Campus Radio, to weigh in on new grading systems being adopted in high schools around the country, specifically those in Maine. A few years ago, the Maine legislature found that half of its high school graduates who went on to college needed remedial help with math and writing. In response, the state mandated that all high school seniors show they have mastered their core subjects in order to graduate.

The program’s host, Aaron Schachter, tackled this topic with input from St. John and Jim Roche, associate provost for enrollment management at UMass Amherst. The discussion focused on how Maine’s new grading system might change the way colleges assess transcripts. 

The conversation also touched on the use of student evaluations called “mastery transcripts.” Schachter mentioned that a group of about 100 private high schools have created the Mastery Transcript Consortium in an effort encourage schools to replace numbers and letters with a document that would rely more on qualitative description than quantitative assessment.

Schachter asked his guests how these mastery transcripts might affect the admission process at their respective colleges.

St. John replied that there are already many instances where Wellesley does not receive traditional grades from applicants. “Currently we see, for example, home-schooled students, who often have more evaluative prose to describe their performance,” she said. “And we often see students whose schools do not provide them with grades, and in fact [we] have been reading those transcripts for decades.”

She added that Wellesley has always taken a holistic approach to evaluating college applicants. “Often a transcript reader is moving from applicant to applicant coming from very different schools with very different transcripts,” she said. “So the reader’s responsibility is to deal with each individual student before them at the time, and try to understand how the school is evaluating the student’s performance, and what skills the student has developed that would be applicable to her performance at Wellesley.”

St. John said Wellesley sees a tremendous amount of variation in how schools report student performance. “But what’s interesting and new is the technology; mastery transcripts are all on a website, which would be very useful to transcript readers, as they research student information,” she said.

Proponents of mastery transcripts say that they can help colleges diversify their student body by leveling the playing field between students in upper-tier private prep schools and those in public high schools who may need more time and mentoring.

When Schachter asked about the importance of diverse campuses, St. John responded with the example of two current students at Wellesley who live in the same residence hall: one from California whose mother had emigrated from South Korea to the United States, and the other who was raised mostly in South Africa. (The students had met previously at a summer enrichment program in Southern California.)

“These two young women are from two completely different parts of the world…and I am confident they will have a friendship for life,” said St. John. “What they major in is important, but what they are learning from each other about the world will inform what they’re able to do professionally and academically…and that will make a difference in the world.