Assessment and Exhibitions: Do we rearrange the furniture we’ve got, or get new furniture instead?

One group began by naming a broad problem related to the topic of exhibitions: How do you figure out what you want kids to know and be able to do? And how do you tailor your school to suit such outcomes? The key dimensions of that problem, participants decided, were these:

  • THE AUTHORITY PROBLEM. What role does each of the following parties play in formulating a school’s goals (the first part of the problem), and in ensuring the vigorous and structurally embedded pursuit of them (the second part)? Principal? Departments? Community, including the business community? Parents? State-level authority? District-level authority? University, including local institutions and the larger research-and-development community? Teachers? Students?
  • THE IMPACT PROBLEM. Here the group took a look especially at the second part of their problem –what happens once goals have been established? What must be changed to better aim the school toward the achievement of these goals? They came up with a host of candidates: scheduling, course design, the budget, teachers’ habits, teachers’ skills, teachers’ sense of the range of their own competence, teachers’ autonomy (especially in the area of standard setting and assessment), transcripts, school-level transitions, the community’s sense of what the school is and of how it functions, graduation rate and timing, internal structures like departments.
  • THE KNOWLEDGE PROBLEM. How much should the establishment and pursuit of outcome-based goals in an Essential school be affected by the traditional division of knowledge into subject fields? How much should goals and structures deliberately ignore traditional subject boundaries? A related but somewhat different question: how discipline-bound should the outcome goals and structures of an Essential school be, and how interdisciplinary? How much account should the high school take of the ways in which knowledge is traditionally organized in higher education? Looking in another direction, how much should the high school consult with middle and elementary schools in the formulation of goals and standards and methods? Granted that schools ought to focus first and principally on intellectual goals, how much do intellectual goals depend upon social ones? Another way to ask this question: how much is cognitive change dependent upon social interaction? And what are the implications for instruction in this dependence? How much of what we want for kids is already known, and how much must still be discovered? Another way to ask this question: how much should our goal-setting be a matter of rearranging the furniture we’ve now got, and how much a matter of getting new furniture?
  • THE STANDARDS PROBLEM. How should a school set standards? How can it tune its standards to workplace and other community expectations? How much should standards vary over time and circumstance? How leveled should standards be in terms of developmental appropriateness and the nature of the challenges attempted? How can a school make sure its standards are pegged to the optimum rather than the minimum? How can a school tie graduation to the achievement of standards? Ho w can a school ensure that its standards are applied equitably across classrooms, subjects, experiences? How much should assessment operate coldly on the basis of standards alone, and how much should it take account of contextual things (how hard the kid worked, how much progress she made, how much the experience mattered to her, how much an encouraging word now will push her forward, etc.)? How can schools ensure honest and thorough assessment of individuals when the assessment process may involve public and cooperative activity?
  • THE EQUITY PROBLEM. How can we ensure that the processes we imagine –setting outcome goals, assessing kids in these terms, orienting the structures and culture of the school to this end –will be equitable? How do we know that they will treat kids equitably across the following dimensions: learning style (or dominant intelligence), gender, ability/disability, native language, economic and other family circumstances, developmental issues, learning preparedness?
  • THE METHODS OR TECHNOLOGY PROBLEM.Exhibitions can be more process-oriented, as in portfolio schemes, or more project-oriented, as in schemes that emphasize cumulative or integrative senior experiences and recitals –more like Walden III’s “rite of passage experience” (ROPE), or like their nineteenth-century namesakes. What’s the right mix of these two (soft) technologies? Meanwhile, what’s the proper role of (hard) information technology in the maintenance and achievement of standards, and in the management of information related to assessment? How much do kids’ and teachers’ information needs shift when the school begins to center its work on the achievement of specified outcomes? How can a school ensure equitable access to learning opportunities when these opportunities are dependent upon technology?
  • THE LEDGER PROBLEM. Schools are currently evaluated, and evaluate themselves, by means of what we called ledger entries: drop-out figures, standardized test scores, average daily attendance, number of students taking advanced placement courses, college acceptance rate, etc. This habit we have of ledger-like school evaluation can deeply affect how a school assesses its kids, and also how it structures itself. Solving the larger problem we’ve set ourselves requires a shift from the ledger method of school evaluation to a more dynamic method. What should be the new governing metaphor of school evaluation? Is graph better than ledger? Is portrait better than graph ? Is portfolio better than portrait? What are the practical consequences of each?

The group then set about identifying strategies for addressing these problems, and came up with these:

  • BE A VOID SEEKER. Seize every opportunity to fill a void –with ideas, provocations, and experiments in orienting the school to good outcomes, and the pursuit of them.
  • BUILD CONSTITUENCIES FOR PLANNING BACKWARDS –either directly or with flanking maneuvers. So, maybe the faculty is lukewarm now, but what do parents think? Maybe the superintendent has doubts, but what about the business community?
  • COLLECT LOTS OF IMAGES AND EXAMPLES OF WHAT YOU’RE AFTER –images of excellence, lists of outcomes, examples of standard-setting mechanisms, etc. Show them around to anyone who’s interested; promote them.
  • FOCUS ON THE KIDS whenever you’re faced with philosophical, political, or any other kind of objection. Say, “But what do we want for the kids?”
  • REMEMBER THAT THERE ARE MANY ROADS TO SUCCESS –many possible models, many possible reconfigurations of projects already in place (choice options, magnet programs, etc.). Take stock, then move forward using whatever you find.
  • SEEK ASSESSMENT PARTNERS both inside and outside ordinary authority structures. Remember that there are many legitimate stakeholders in this work, and most of them want to help: district supervisors, state department people, local scholars, parents, the business community, etc.
  • FACED WITH AN EQUITY ISSUE, FORCE IT OPEN –ask people to examine all kids’ best interests. Ask what equity means, what it entails, when it is most in evidence. Ask what the difference may be between an equity based on uniform deprivation, and one based on uniform excellence.
  • ASK PEOPLE CONTINUALLY TO FOCUS ON THE FUTURE: what the school will be like in two years, what the sixth graders will know when they graduate, what the workplace will demand in the year 2010, where mathematics education is heading, what kids will remember about American history a year after they’ve taken the course.
  • STRIVE TO STRIKE BALANCES. Avoid dichotomous choices –between homogeneous and heterogeneous grouping, authentic and ordinary assessment, a college-bound curriculum and a non-college-bound curriculum. All these apparently dichotomous options have their legitimate time and place, and their way of mixing well with each other.
  • APPROACH THE PROBLEM AS A MATTER REQUIRING NEGOTIATION, which is to say a matter requiring the identification of apparently competing interests. The point is “to get to yes” –to get resolution by means of satisfying key interests (as opposed to giving people what they say they want).
  • COMBINE EVALUATION AND ASSESSMENT. Assess the activity before you assess the performance. Find ways to make the school a center of inquiry, spending as much energy assessing itself as it does assessing its kids.
  • EXPLORE AND INVENT METHODS THAT COMBINE GROUP ASSESSMENT WITH INDIVIDUAL ASSESSMENT –that provide individual accountability without sacrificing authentic experience in collaborative work and study.
  • REMEMBER THAT THE PROBLEM ITSELF IS A SYSTEMIC ONE –one that touches many facets of school life. So, it must be approached systemically. One good tool for understanding systemic change is an analytical framework devised by Lee Bolman and Terry Deal. It assumes that all elements of school life take on a somewhat different meaning when viewed within each of four perceptual frames: the structural frame, the political frame, the human relations frame, and the symbolic frame. So, for example, an exhibition within the structural frame represents a change from the ordinary accumulation of Carnegie units; within the political frame, it is a threat to parents’ and kids’ sense of how long high school is; within the human relations frame, it is a challenge to the school’s habits of advising students; and within the symbolic frame, it is a ceremony and an endorsement of certain ways of knowing and presenting.

In another small group, participants wrestled with a particular aspect of the exhibitions problem: How does one arrive at a school-wide consensus on learner outcomes across the disciplines for promotion or graduation? They came up with four strategies:

  • Have faculty in every department develop lists of essential skills, content, and attitudes about learning. Keep the lists short, focusing on essentials. Invite students input through class discussions or workshops. Then get the departments together to review and share their lists, working it into one master list.
  • Bring in local professionals or university-level faculty from different fields to talk about what they’re looking for in high school graduates.
  • Draw on material from national associations of teachers, like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics guidelines. Look at the guidelines developed by other Essential Schools where exhibitions are central: The ROPE course at Walden III, Central Park East’s Senior Institute, Rochester’s School Without Walls. (See Horace, Vol. 6, No. 3.)

Next, the group turned to the consequences of their strategies. How would they tend to affect various constituencies–teachers, students, parents? What short-term or long-term effects might they have on people, organizational structure, the budget?

Starting with the departments, they noted, would be inherently divisive; the process of making choices that leads from “Less is more” can be very threatening. Why not instead lessen the territoriality by meeting across departments from the start? Work in small groups to define five individual goals first, they suggested, then hammer them into five group goals, then into five faculty goals.

Over the long term, this group suggested, a school might aim to structure itself in houses or teams instead of by departments. This would have its effect on the organizational structure; it might lead to basing hiring decisions more on whether a teacher could be a generalist, and to rethinking the school’s scheduling framework. It would also require money in the budget for staff development, as teachers are asked to think across disciplinary lines.

(Thanks to Joe McDonald of the Coalition staff for the comprehensive distillation of his group’s work that makes up for the major section of the above discussion.)