High Standards for Essential Learning Demand a Mix of Measures

What’s not on the test? Teachers, students, and parents are drawing new attention to the vital skills and habits that most state tests ignore — and asking for more and richer ways to show what they have learned.

A group of New Jersey fourth-graders spreads a map on the floor and calculates with a bar scale how far they must travel to reach Death Valley. They will use the information in the making of an animated film on national parks, including detailed material on their ecology, geography, and cultures.

At a large suburban high school near San Francisco, students spend weeks researching the school facilities crisis that faces not only their own area but the whole state of California. The project concludes with a trip to Sacramento, where students lobby legislators to enact solutions they propose.

In a year-long project required before graduation, seniors outside Seattle each choose a subject of intense personal interest, from observing gorilla communities to sound engineering technology. Guided by an outside mentor, they research their topics; apply what they learn by creating a product, service, system, or event; then defend and reflect on their learning in a public presentation.

What do we hope students learn from projects like these? How good is the evidence that they are learning it? The answers are vital — because in the energy, engagement, and hard work of these students and many more like them, we can find clues to knowledge that remains unrecognized by the assessments most of the nation’s districts and states currently use.

Teachers in Essential schools around the country are quick to reply to the first question. Using words like critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, teamwork, and persistence, they describe “habits of mind” that cut across narrowly academic disciplines. Though students must know and use subject-area content to carry out these tasks, their success depends even more on competency in these broader, cross-cutting skills.

But to the second question — how good is the evidence of student learning? — the answer is far less clear. What students learn through such thoughtful work does not usually show up on the kind of large-scale standardized test now common in virtually every district and state.

It’s Not on the Test

In the early days of the standards movement, states typically promised to hold schools accountable for student achievement in a number of ways. But because it can seem simpler and cheaper to use test scores alone, most states are now phasing in high-stakes standardized tests as the sole indicator of whether students and schools are up to snuff.

For students denied promotion or graduation on the basis of those tests — as well as for teachers who can lose their jobs, and schools that can face closing and “reconstitution” — that decision has serious consequences. As it grows harder to justify anything that takes time away from test preparation, many teachers have given up project work entirely. Instead, they focus the curriculum strictly on the tests — often using drills and worksheets sold by the testing companies themselves.

Alarmed by this trend, those who value the richly contextualized tasks that cross academic disciplines are increasingly realizing the need to assess, document, and report to the public what students are learning from such work. And they are also becoming more astute in making the political case for a mix of meaningful measures to demonstrate significant student learning.

What Knowledge Endures?

After students presented an impressive biology project on tide pools to an audience at a coastal California school, the moment of truth came for Kate Jamentz, who directs the Western Assessment Collaborative at the U.S. regional education laboratory in San Francisco, known as WestEd.

“So what do these kids know when they move to Montana?” one mother asked in the discussion that followed.

The question, says Jamentz, goes to the heart of the quandary that faces teachers in an era of information overload and multiple-choice standardized tests.

“We need to identify the enduring knowledge in these projects,” she declared at “Competencies That Count,” a March 2000 conference held in Oakland, California.

Jointly sponsored by the Coalition of Essential Schools and Jobs for the Future, a national organization that focuses on community-connected learning, the meeting brought together secondary teachers from around the country.

Looking closely at assignments and student work, they compared notes on how they teach and assess content, skills, and habits that transcend particular subject areas.

The tide pool project, they agreed, provides students specific knowledge about marine biology. But it also gives them vital training in scientific investigation, data analysis, presentation methods, and even teamwork — all of which could apply just as easily to the somewhat different environmental questions that might come up in a classroom in Montana.

Building this kind of enduring knowledge requires skills and habits of mind difficult to measure in standardized assessments, these teachers noted. But to capture evidence of such learning, they needed new ways to observe, assess, and document it.

At Henry M. Jackson High School north of Seattle, for example, Judith Gray wanted her ninth-grade science students to understand not only the theories that explain the physical world, but also how scientific knowledge builds as people in each era seek out and correct fallacies in prevailing theories. Drawing on a suggestion in Neil Postman’s 1996 book The End of Education, Gray designed a performance task for her final take-home exam.

“Describe five significant scientific errors scientists have made, as well as why these were errors, who made them, and who was mainly responsible for correcting them,” she told her students. For extra credit, they could point out an error made in correcting the error, suggest a possible error in current thinking about science, or describe a possible error in one of their own firm beliefs.

As students explained errors and corrections from Galileo to Hubble, Darwin to Einstein, continental drift to the ionosphere of Mars, Gray got a good sense of the science each understood, and of what it would take to move their understanding along. And students learned not only the scientific facts, but the enormous impact that individuals can wield when they question — in any field of knowledge — the assumptions that “everybody knows.”

Accountability Is Local

Once teachers like Gray have clearly defined the mix of content knowledge and habits of mind they most want students to acquire, they can arrange both instruction and assessment around those priorities. But most states also make students take standardized tests in an array of subjects. When their high stakes narrow curriculum to what will be tested, they can throw a wrench into teachers’ efforts to nurture Essential school habits of mind.

With this in mind, CES’s regional Center in Maine is working with four Essential high schools to dovetail state tests with a groundbreaking system of “learner-centered accountability.”

Maine has its own standardized assessments to test its Learning Results, which consist of broad outcomes in the form of “guiding principles” (valuing habits of mind) and content and performance standards in eight areas. But local assessments count for far more than state tests in decisions about promotion and graduation. In Maine’s tiny districts, the school itself typically remains the most important arbiter of student progress.

“Our Learner-Centered Accountability project asks each school to identify which of the Learning Results they consider most vital,” says David Ruff, who directs the CES Center at the Southern Maine Partnership. “Then we help them create assessments of students’ progress toward meeting those.”

Teachers of the same subject at a particular grade level (like high school U.S. history) agree on a set of vital outcomes for all students. Then they devise common assessments to ensure that all students master certain basic material. Individual classroom teachers may tailor additional assessments to suit their own course emphases.

At yet another level, schools use portfolios or exhibitions to assess broader habits and skills, such as communication. These may be linked to a course or not, as with a senior project. (See sidebar, page 4.)

“The state tests serve as a validity check,” Ruff says. “If we believe our students can read well, for instance, and state tests tell us they can’t, we check out where the problem lies. It may lie with the state or local assessment, or the student may simply have taken the test on a bad day. This puts the focus of accountability where it belongs: in the school and community.”

Standards of the Real World

As Maine’s example shows, part of any accountability effort involves teachers and communities deciding which “competencies” — among the huge number outlined in different sets of standards — are most important to a student’s future success. Many teachers at the CES-JFF conference brought examples of holding students not just to strictly academic standards, but to professional criteria used in the real world.

“The more meaningful the task in the community,” noted Anne Purdy, who coordinates senior internships at Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, “the more likely it is that legitimate external partners can validate the learning involved.”

At her school, older students complete 100-hour internships that culminate in a “service learning portfolio” required for graduation. If they choose to count this as one of five “major” portfolios they defend in juried presentations, students also develop a substantial project deriving from their workplace experience.

Working in the community relations office of Mount Sinai Hospital, for instance, senior Lynette Gonzalez created a bilingual newsletter aimed at reducing prenatal and early childhood exposure to toxic substances among community residents. Lynette researched and wrote informative articles on pest manage-ment, lead, head lice treatments, and PCB contaminants in fish. Then she laid out the newsletter, using desktop publishing techniques and meeting deadlines. “It felt like an endless process,” she wrote in one journal entry. But by her last day on the job she and her supervisor both assessed the newsletter as a success.

Another student, Naimah Mar-tin, worked with the Educational Video Center to produce a documentary on teenagers coping with death. Her portfolio included detailed assessments of not only the sound production, research, interviewing, and directing skills she mastered along the way, but also Naimah’s skills in collaboration, listening, and concentration. Finally, because Central Park East assesses all graduation portfolio presentations according to schoolwide cross-cutting standards, Naimah’s project was scrutinized for its viewpoint, connections, evidence, voice, and conventions.

The presence of adults who can mentor students in real-world standards for high-quality work makes an enormous difference in projects like these. Coached by graduate students from the University of Calif-ornia, for example, students at Oak-land Technical High School carried out a six-week urban design project in a neighborhood near their school. (See sidebar, page 5.)

They began by mapping their community, getting familiar with planning and design terminology and exploring local history by interviewing residents. Then they created a detailed physical survey of the area surrounding a local subway stop, and teams of students assessed the neighborhood’s politics and economy. After presenting their site analyses to each other, they held a design “charrette,” pooling their observations and ideas to create a viable plan complete with a financial feasibility analysis. Ultimately, the students presented their plan to a jury of city officials and planning professionals.

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Stranahan High School runs a six-week summer “science research institute” in which students conduct field studies on actual environmental projects from fire management to wetlands regeneration. Mentored by environmental scientists, they obtain samples, use professional methods to analyze field and lab data, summarize current research in writing, and present their work before local county audiences. The program has won such praise that Stranahan is seeking ways to conduct others like it during the year.

Assessing Rigor and Habits

After spending two days in critique of projects like these, the educators gathered at the CES-JFF conference agreed on several elements crucial to ensuring that student tasks and assessments expect both rigor and the habits of lifelong learners:

1. Tasks should involve research that expands a student’s ability to ask questions and seek answers.

2. Throughout the task, students should have adult coaches who can help them understand what high quality looks like in the areas the task involves.

3. Tasks should build in student revision, following critical feedback from key audiences, and continuing until the work meets the appropriate expectations.

4. Some means of follow-up should seek to determine what learning endures after the task is finished.

Schools can ratchet up the intellectual rigor and habits they expect, participants concluded, by requiring student exhibitions backed up with demonstrated research. Equally vital, teachers and other adults must pose hard questions to students about both the content and the process of their work. Exem-plars, too, are “at least as important as rubrics and project designs,” as one teacher said, “if we want students to act as apprentices in any field of knowledge.”

In Search of the Right Mix

Qualities like self-reflectiveness, persistence, creativity, collaboration, and learning by discovery are difficult to teach and assess by conventional methods, these educators worried. Equally tricky are the knowledge and ways of thinking that do not emerge when a teacher has one eye on a standardized test.

“You can test a student’s recall of the names of marine organisms, for example,” says Kathy Simon, CES’s director of research and professional development. “But it’s rare for a standardized test to get at what happens over a whole life cycle and in an entire ecosystem. What are the implications if the starfish die off?”

Schools cannot rely on state tests to assess such crucial elements of student learning, the teachers gathered in Oakland agreed. Instead, “We need a mix of pedagogical styles for kids to learn the range of knowledge, skills, and ways of thinking we’re looking for,” Simon asserted, “and a mix of measures to capture them.”

Deborah Meier, Vice-Chair of the Coalition of Essential Schools and director of the Mission Hill School in Boston is even more emphatic. Assessing the learning of children, she says, requires “a wide range of tools, always administered individually, alongside samples of real work, plus opportunities to check them out with the child and those who know him or her best.”

“If we’re talking about assessment for the purpose of ‘accountability’ or certifying students as properly ‘ready,'” she adds, “that’s another story.” The driver’s test provides an admirable standardized performance assessment in this last context, she suggests, conceding that “few intellectual skills lend themselves to this format.” Schools should leave the certifying to colleges or workplaces, Meier argues, and concentrate instead on meeting the learning needs of individual students.

Inventing New Methods

In fact, many interesting tries at assessing competencies that transcend academic areas have emerged for use in high schools, community colleges and workplaces, notes Lili Allen, a senior project manager at Jobs for the Future. She is assembling a “road map” describing these methodologies, including several in use at Essential Schools.

For example, transcripts developed by California’s Transitions Project and by the New Hampshire Department of Education focus on documenting such competencies for post-secondary institutions and em-ployers. And the Massachu-setts Work-Based Learning Plan has tools to give feedback to students in programs that link academic and career-related classes with work-based learning.

Schools in Fort Worth, Texas have tried out the “applied learning standards” designed by the New Standards Project, a partnership between the National Center on Education and the Economy and the University of Pittsburgh. Part of a package of performance standards that includes English Language Arts, Mathematics, and Science, these define skills like problem-solving and communication, calling for their integration and assessment as part of products or performances associated with academic assignments.

Finally, New York City’s small Essential high schools are among many who track data on how their graduates fare after high school, in what Theodore Sizer calls “the ultimate assessment.” One can learn much, he points out, from students whose strengths do not show up on test scores, but who are doing well in college and life because of habits they learned in school.

What Role for State Tests?

More conventional standardized tests can provide interesting large-scale data about issues of equity and access, these teachers agreed. Some states, for example, test only literacy and math skills, to identify programs that fail to give students equal opportunities to learn. And teachers at the conference praised certain state tests for prompting higher-order thinking.

But all emphatically objected to systems that reward or punish students and schools on the basis of such test scores. Instead, they called for a balanced assessment system that could guide their teaching practice day to day, honoring the real learning needs of students.

“A baseball coach doesn’t look only at win-loss records when he works with a team,” said Kate Jamentz. “What would that tell him? To build his players’ skills, he also needs to observe a lot of other things about what his players can and can’t do. He needs to see what’s getting in the way of their scoring, and work on those things until they’re doing better.”

It’s the relationship between the “win-loss record” and the diagnostic information that schools most need today, she asserted. “Other-wise, we’re like a hospital that has mortality statistics but no X-ray machines,” she said. “We know who’s not achieving, but we don’t know what to do about it.”