Exhibitions: Demonstrations of Mastery in Essential Schools

What is an exhibition? This issue of Horace features reflection, analysis, critique, description, and arguments from six Essential school educators. Their work provides compelling examples of how diverse schools—elementary and secondary, rural and urban, public, charter, and independent—employ exhibitions for four key purposes:

  • to ensure engagement among students, staff, and the larger community
  • to assess student learning and, therefore, school effectiveness authentically
  • to raise the stakes for students and a school in ways that support and advance an Essential school’s goals
  • to create schools that express the Common Principles in everything that they do

Exhibitions Ensure Internal and External Engagement

Exhibitions are not synonymous with performance based assessment, which happens in myriad ongoing formal and informal ways and settings. Exhibitions are performance based assessments made visible, public demonstrations of mastery that depend on participation of people from outside the school community as mentors and evaluators. This public dimension assures engagement both within and outside the school community.

In Reclaiming Assessment: A Better Alternative to the Accountability Agenda, Chris W. Gallagher asserts that engagement, not accountability, should both be the means to and end of school improvement. Public demonstrations of mastery constitute an engagement system for the entire school and serve a higher purpose as demonstrations of what’s possible to communities, policy makers, government officials, district personnel, other schools, and the media.

Exhibitions Assess Student Learning and School Effectiveness Authentically

Authentic achievement is “intellectual accomplishments that are worthwhile, significant, and meaningful, such as those undertaken by successful adults,” writes researcher Fred Newmann. “For children, we define authentic academic achievement through three criteria critical to significant intellectual accomplishment: construction of knowledge, disciplined inquiry, and the value of achievement beyond school.” Exhibitions make each aspect of that definition happen because they properly reflect the complexity of schooling. When a school is structured around the goal of promotion and graduation by exhibition, it provides personalized challenge, celebration and most important, choice.

Recently exhibitions have been described by some Essential school educators as “360-degree exams,” providing a comprehensive view rather than a limited slice of student achievement. Driven by and always responding to essential questions and individual student interests, exhibitions demonstrate that real intellectual work has no “right answers” that trump other responses. While demonstrating competence according to state, local, school, and personal standards, exhibitions are unique, personalized work products, representing each individual’s growth, interest, capacities, response to challenge, and effort.

Exhibitions authentically prepare young people for democratic participation, citizenship, and lifelong learning. They function as rites of passage that help students become poised self-advocates able to present themselves to the world. Exhibitions require that students develop the capacity to become intellectually curious independent learners. And exhibitions have the power to connect students to their callings as they develop essential skills for lifelong success. As former CES researcher Jodi Brown Podl wrote in “Anatomy of an Exhibition,” “Students must assume responsibility for their own learning. A well-structured exhibition often depends on a student-directed classroom. The students must be willing to find the answers themselves (even if the teacher already knows them). Discovering meaning takes persistence and patience. So much of high school feels like an intellectual charade to the students. When they are given the chance to do difficult work, students are surprised at the pleasure that comes from real intellectual achievement.”

Exhibitions Raise the Stakes

Just as an exhibition is an authentic piece of work from a particular student, exhibitions at a school are an authentic reflection of that school, dependent on a school culture, not just the product of a particular class. Schools that do this work successfully know that they need to devote time for the effort and habits of mind that exhibitions demand, provide suitable professional development, and use assessment methods that provide information that fuels continuous opportunities for reflection and improvement. Real tasks that are linked to real outcomes comprise exhibitions. Students and educators identify and agree in advance on what constitutes success in ways that are reliable and valid. Rubrics and detailed feedback tell students that a wide variety of evaluators agree that they’ve met their goals and have created meaningful, relevant work. Such measures turn what could be a low-stakes recital into powerful experiences for learning and growth.

Because exhibitions are high stakes assessments, aligned with standards and reliable and valid ways of assessing student performance, they do not work when an alternative system such as high stakes standardized tests is superimposed. Essential schools with fully articulate exhibitions programs are forced to shoehorn obligations created by state and federal assessment systems into the structures and systems. Linda Darling-Hammond’s comments on page eight’s “The Deep Irony of No Child Left Behind” offers insight into the crucial role Essential school educators and students have to play as advocates of and examples of better ways of assessing teaching and learning.

Exhibitions Create Schools that Express the Common Principles

Over time, one of the Common Principles, usually referred to in its short form as “Demonstration of Mastery,” has become most closely associated with the practice of exhibitions. As the essays that follow reveal, however, schools that have been designed for exhibitions express the ideas of the Common Principles in everything that they do.

Because exhibitions are not meaningless exercises sprung on students in their senior year, they are connected to every intentional action in a school community. If systems that assess performance through authentic, public demonstrations of mastery are used on a much wider scale—and the “tiny cracks” that Darling-Hammond discusses in this issue indicate that this is a possibility—many more students will enjoy the benefits of Essential education. The stories in this issue and the capacity for exhibitions work throughout the CES network are serving as powerful examples of practice and possibility.


Gallagher, Chris W. (2007) Reclaiming Assessment: A Better Alternative for the Accountability Agenda. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Newmann, Fred M. & Associates (1996) Authentic Achievement: Restructuring Schools for Intellectual Quality. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Podl, Jodi B., and Metzger, Margaret (1992) Anatomy of an Exhibition. Studies on Exhibitions (no. 6). Providence, RI: Coalition of Essential Schools, Brown University.

Related Resources:

Horace 18.2, “Personalized Assessment and Standards,” looks at how various assessment methods employed by CES schools, including exhibitions, align with local and state standards. Available online at: http://www.essentialschools.org/pub/ces_docs/resources/horace/18_2/18_2_toc.html

Horace 6.3, “Performance and Exhibitions: The Demonstration of Mastery” provides perspective on exhibitions from Ted Sizer and other early CES leaders, along with examples from the first generation of schools that consciously planned backwards to make graduation by exhibition possible. Available online at: http://www.essentialschools.org/cs/resources/view/ces_res/138

Exhibitions Project

As the Coalition of Essential Schools developed as an organization in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we focused on understanding, encouraging, and analyzing how exhibitions had the potential to transform all aspects of a school. From 1990-1993, the Exhibitions Project, funded by IBM, studied exhibitions within CES, focusing on six schools in particular. Among its work products, still available in various forms from CES National, were a series of “Studies on Exhibitions” papers and an electronically-based Digital Portfolio project, a set of course and exit-level exhibitions and samples of student work with accompanying commentary on vision, setting, standards, and reflections. The Exhibitions Project, the first in-depth effort to understand the transformative effect of high stakes public demonstrations of mastery, made exhibitions practices widespread and public and continues to have a powerful influence on our understanding of such assessments.