Editor’s Note: Evaluating transcripts of incoming English Language Learner students can often be tricky – for both schools with large numbers of ELLs and those with fewer ones.

I previously published a guest post from Mary M. Martin offering some good advice on how to handle this situation:


Here’s a second one on the same topic.  It’s written by Alycia Owen.

Alycia Owen is an international educator, instructional coach, and EAL specialist who has implemented the co-teaching model in math, science, and language arts. She has provided professional development for schools in the US and abroad and has been a workshop presenter at NESA, AASSA, and EARCOS international teachers’ conferences. She currently lives in China where she serves on the faculty, consults with teachers, and develops professional learning opportunities at the American International School of Guangzhou.


On the surface, evaluating high school transcripts and other records of academic achievement appears to be a straightforward process of calculating the number of courses a student has successfully completed and documenting the degree to which these courses satisfy the requirements of the school or program the student is about to enter.  Some might even call it tedious; an exercise in number-crunching and ticking boxes. But what about examining the transcripts of a foreign student who seeks admission to a US school and whose previous coursework was completed in his home country? Or the student who wants to transfer from a local school abroad to an American accredited international school?  What happens when those transcripts arrive to the admissions office, written in a language other than English? It gets messy. Figuring out what courses have been completed and how much credit should be awarded for each can leave even the most seasoned principals and counselors perplexed, highlighting the need for a system that can streamline the process.

Students who apply to a new school deserve to have their prior schooling honored and validated, wherever that schooling took place and in whatever language it was experienced. Schools deserve to have their academic integrity preserved and the right to set rigorous requirements for transfer credits.  Satisfying the needs of both the students and the schools is a balancing act best achieved through strict adherence to procedures carried out by people who care deeply about the well-being of students and who have mastered the art of examining incoming student records on a case-by-case basis within a fixed structure.

To ensure consistency for both schools and students, the framework comes first.  It must include explicit procedures to follow in several key areas: determining the authenticity of documents, how to determine transfer credits, and rules to govern the translation of documents presented in a foreign language.  Additionally, guidelines for interviewing families and defining which offices or personnel are responsible for each step of the process are central to providing a solid structure upon which administrators and counselors can prepare a bona fide record of a student’s academic history.

But there’s also the process beyond the paper record and counting credits.  Julie Lindsay, a high school counselor at the American International School of Guangzhou (AISG), often finds herself conferring with parents who want to be reassured that the system they are bringing their child into values them. They may be accustomed to seeing grades as the best indicator of their child’s success, whereas schools may be more concerned with whether or not particular courses are equivalent to those required by their institution. She notes “Their biggest concern is that we are giving credit hours, and not looking at the grades their child received.” Though grades are evaluated when students apply to college, they are not always relevant when determining course credit. The willingness of school personnel to confer with students and parents from diverse backgrounds is vital to making the evaluation process a smooth one for both schools and families. Parents need to know how our system works for the benefit of their child and that we respect their previous work.

Bernadette Brown, who is also a high school counselor at AISG adds, “We work with families to make sure students get their credits, but we also discuss their plans after high school.”  It’s not enough to just focus on academics. Cultural backgrounds and norms should be considered when placement decisions are made. Brown highlights the importance of understanding “…how and why the student came to our school…or barriers they might have to their learning,” so that students are placed in classes that best serve their needs.  

In classrooms, teachers lead the charge in reaching out to families.  The best ones make sure parents and students understand how the classroom system functions and how students can succeed within it.  They make sure students are valued as individuals and capitalize on the assets and interests a child brings to the classroom so that effective lessons can be developed. They meet the needs of each learner, one student at a time, while simultaneously following expected standards and guidelines for their implementation. The art of teaching, as it is often referred to, is what makes the best classrooms come alive and turns them into places where students are nurtured in ways that transcend the written curriculum.

The process used by a school or district to evaluate incoming student records and transcripts is a similarly nuanced art form. When schools receive applications from foreign students, the process should start with a framework that is followed to the letter.  If the academic integrity of the school is to be maintained, there can be no exception to this. But in doing so, the students behind those incoming applications and documents deserve our undivided and individual attention as they are welcomed into our communities.  Anything less devalues the assets they bring and undermines our ability to help them become the best people they can be.