Do-It-Yourself Accountability: How One School Took Stock of Its Standards

Half our life is spent on internal accountability-talking about whether this or that piece of student work is good enough,” says Paul Schwarz, co-principal of Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) in New York City. “But because we gave up using standardized tests and the accumulation of Carnegie units in favor of exhibitions and portfolios as a way to graduate kids from school, we had to worry about external accountability, too.” The school has solved that problem in the most direct way possible-by opening its doors to well-informed outsiders, who look at student work and judge whether it meets their own graduation standards.

“Schools and teachers are not used to doing this,” Schwarz says. “It’s very frightening, to hand over a piece of work and say, ‘Would you have passed this in your school? How would you grade it?'”

CPESS started by asking nine professors from local colleges and universities to visit the school and review the writing quality of five portfolio items in the presence of the staff. “Their ratings and ours were very much in sync,” Schwarz says. “We’ve done it now in history and math as well, and we’ve found the same thing.” More important, the discussion among visitors and staff afterward always turned to curriculum-why certain papers were assigned, how to narrow topics usefully, the role of students in choosing work they cared about.

Next the school decided to look at the entire body of a student’s work. “Just because a kid was strong in math or writing didn’t necessarily mean they were strong in other areas,” Schwarz says. “Together the staff and perhaps a couple of outsiders put all fourteen graduation portfolios on the table and asked what it told us. Were we proud to have graduated this kid? Did we have enough evidence?” The process was incomplete, Schwarz says, because it lacked a key element of CPESS’s “graduation by exhibition”-seeing the actual student present and defend the portfolio work before a graduation committee.

Finally, in May 1993 the staff invited some fifteen outside “critical friends” for a day of graduation portfolio review. Schwarz lists them off: “Three teachers from traditional public schools in New York City, three state education department people, some principals of comprehensive high schools, some principals and teachers from our sister schools, a couple of foundation people, and a few outside experts like Columbia’s Linda Darling-Hammond, Harvard’s Dennie Wolf, and Brown’s Joe McDonald.”

In a complicated round robin, the visitors inspected three or four complete graduation portfolios (“one who barely passed, one in the middle, one very strong”), interviewed students of comparable achievement (two seniors and one recent graduate) about their skills, and watched videotapes of students defending their work. They talked to teachers about academic requirements and to co-principals Schwarz and Deborah Meier about the structure of the school, and finally they offered their own critique and recommendations.

“The group agreed that our graduation process generated plenty of evidence on which to grant diplomas in New York State,” Schwarz says. “They raised some important issues about quality: for instance, should we require one paper to be perfect in form? Different people had different perspectives-the principal of a comprehensive high school in Brooklyn would react one way, and someone whose daughter goes a private school another way.”

The whole event served, this principal says, to satisfy the school’s obligation to share its curriculum and assessment with others and get critical feedback. “We want to open the process of standard setting to the outside world- to let people look at what kids are really doing,” he says. “As one of the pioneers in performance assessment, we’ve embarked on a serious accountability process.”

(The school has produced a 30-minute film on the CPESS graduation exhibition process; it will be available for viewing at the annual CES Fall Forum in November 1993.)