The ‘External Review’ of Portfolios and Exhibitions

Many Coalition schools have begun regularly inviting a panel of outsiders-university people, legislators, members of the business community, and other educators-into the school to review and comment on a sample of student portfolios and exhibitions.

At University Heights High School in the Bronx, the External Review gathers some two dozen outsiders in for three hours to look at one particular student’s work across her career at the school. Students at University Heights use their project work (in the humanities; math, science, and technology; and service and health) to demonstrate in portfolios their competence in each of five cross-curricular domains: communicating, crafting, reflecting; taking responsibility for myself and my community; critical thinking and ethical decisionmaking; recognizing patterns and making connections; and working together and resolving conflicts. The Review works like this:

1. The large group splits into five small “base groups,” which review the five domains, discussing what the categories mean to them and what their own expectations might be in each domain. [30 minutes]

2. The large group comes together again and splits into five new “domain groups,” each of which uses one of the five domains as a focus to describe one student’s work in the Senior Portfolio, which contains evidence from throughout her time at the school. [90 minutes]

3. The “base groups” reconvene and members from each domain group report on what they found. Since everyone has been working with the same student’s portfolio, they discuss their differing perspectives on the work. [30 minutes]

4. The large group joins to make any recommendations to the school, based on their close look at one portfolio and their insights from small-group reflections. [30 minutes]

At Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS), the External Review consists of a day-long workshop also involving reading, reflection, and discussion about whether the school’s graduation standards measure up to outside expectations. The visitors-who are researchers, principals, and teachers from other schools as well as some district and state officials-interview publicly two recent graduates, and examine privately three full “graduation portfolios” compiled by still other recent graduates, then share their reactions frankly among themselves while the faculty looks on. In a variation on this protocol, CPESS has also asked experts in a particular field-say, college writing instructors or scientific researchers-to examine and comment on portfolios of student work in that area.