High school graduation may require more than grades, test scores

BY BRENDA IASEVOLI
THE HECHINGER REPORT/TNS

Looking smart in a blue button-down shirt, Jorge Magana, 18, zipped through a PowerPoint presentation with the confidence of a Fortune 500 CEO.

Seated in front Magana in a classroom at Los Angeles High School of the Arts was a panel of three judges: the school’s assistant principal, a school coordinator and a former student. It was time for his senior defense. Magana had to convince the panel that he was ready to graduate.

If you thought high school graduation remains solely dependent on report cards and standardized tests, a quick, less costly measure of student performance, welcome to high school graduation 2.0.

It could be coming to a school near you.

Magana had 45 minutes to present a portfolio emblematic of his high school work. His also included a personal expression: A piece he wrote for AP English about his father’s alcoholism and its effect on his family.

Then came the grilling by the panel: What was your research process? What obstacles did you face? How did you overcome them? How will the skills you learned help with your future plans?

The readiness factor
Portfolio assessments like this one, which look a lot like doctoral dissertation defenses, are on the rise in California and across the nation.

“When you see your students reflect on what they’ve learned, and see how that learning has affected them, it’s hard to say this isn’t a good idea,” said Isabel Morales, a 12th-grade social studies teacher at Magana’s school, where many faculty members initially viewed the portfolio defense as unnecessary torture.

“Watching the defenses taught me how much my lessons count, how crucial it is for me to provide a transformative learning experience for my students.”

Since 1999, California has primarily tied school rankings to test scores, using the Academic Performance Index. Under a new index set to debut in the fall, test scores will account for only 60 percent of a school’s ranking. The balance will factor in graduation data and “proof of readiness for college and career.”

Measuring a portfolio
Portfolio assessments can supply this data. The tricky part is convincing skeptics that they’re reliable. Harvard education professor Daniel Koretz said the criteria for what makes a good portfolio can vary widely from school to school, making comparisons difficult.

“The standardized assessment is standardized precisely so that there is nothing extraneous that differs between kids or between schools,” he said.

The question is how can portfolios meet that same test of objectivity.

In a recent report, Stanford University professors Soung Bae and Linda Darling-Hammond recommend that the state allow schools to use “well-designed” portfolios, comprised of work from each of five subject areas. It would include research essays, artwork and other sophisticated projects that can’t be captured on a test in place of traditional exit exams.

“Some say U.S. kids are the most tested and the least examined in the world,” Darling-Hammond said. “We have a lot of tests, but we don’t have high-quality examinations of thinking and performance.”

‘Linked learning’
Stanford’s Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity has teamed up with ConnectEd, a Berkeley-based organization that promotes a mix of academic and career-centered school programs called “linked learning” to develop reliable data.

The result: An online tool, ConnectEd Studios, which tries to take the subjectivity out of evaluating portfolios. A student writing an argumentative essay, for example, can upload the essay to the site where his teacher can evaluate the work according to a scoring rubric with criteria for grading.

Dave Yanofsky, director of strategic communications for ConnectEd, estimates that 20 school districts, including Houston and Philadelphia, have expressed interest in working with the group to build portfolio programs.

Portfolio over resume
The expectation is that an online platform like ConnectEd Studios would create a secure place for students to share videos, audio files, photos, writing samples, resumes and letters of recommendation, showcasing their qualifications for universities and potential employers.

“Students can sell themselves short,” said Nadia Schafer, a digital specialist with Philadelphia Academies, a nonprofit that works with area high schools to provide students with career training and college preparation. “But the portfolio shows them all that they’ve accomplished. A portfolio tells their stories so much better than just a resume ever could.”

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