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Base Graduation on Performance, Not Seat Time

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The suburban Denver schools in which we work are among the first large, comprehensive public high schools in the nation to convert to a performance-based system. That is to say, to graduate from our high schools (beginning with the class of 1995 at one and the class of 1996 at the other), students must demonstrate that they know and can do those things identified in our two, somewhat different, sets of board of education approved performance-based graduation requirements. There are no Carnegie units or credits required for graduation at either school, nor are there any required courses in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, in order to demonstrate that they understand the processes of science, for example, students at our schools must be able to set up and conduct a scientific experiment. To show their command of the English language, they must be able not simply to eke out a C- in English class, but to compose a multiparagraph piece of expository writing that meets certain standards.

Given the pioneering work our two schools have done in this area (See Education Week, April 22, 1992), we are often asked to provide a rationale for our position. Below are 13 reasons why we believe graduation should be based on performance rather than seat time.

Performance-based graduation requirements:

  • Have universal appeal; they align education with the world outside the school. Requiring students to prove that they know something in order to get a diploma makes sense to most Americans. There is a perception that much of what goes on in school is not aligned with the realities of the outside world. The global economy and this country's steadily declining share of world markets has focused the attention of the business world on performance. Employers demand performance from their employees. Educators must do the same.
  • Communicate clearly what is expected of students to students, parents, and the tax-paying public; they define graduation. Go to almost any high school and ask members of the professional staff (not to mention students, parents, or members of the general public) exactly what it is that students will know and be able to do when they graduate and you will get as many different answers as people asked. Part of our recent credibility problem in education may be due to the fact that we have failed to define for the public, in concrete, specific, understandable terms, exactly what it is that we are trying to accomplish. How can we convince people outside the school that we are being productive when those of us inside the school do not know what the product is? With performance-based graduation requirements and their attendant assessments and standards, students, parents, and the public are told "up front'' exactly what the school expects of its graduates.
  • Make students responsible for learning. Teachers become very frustrated with students who simply put in their time, doing as little as possible but still earning credits toward graduation. In a performance-based system students are held responsible for demonstrating that they actually know and can do some specific things. In other words, four years of English with C's and D's will not get you a diploma if you cannot write the essay, read for comprehension, and speak articulately and effectively.
  • Hold schools accountable. When a school states up front exactly what students must know and be able to do it is also identifying exactly what it is that the school is accepting responsibility for teaching. Schools can successfully answer the public cries for accountability when everyone in the school community is measuring the school's performance against the same set of expectations.
  • Promote interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Performance-based graduation requirements (assuming that they are few in number) do not all fall neatly into subject matter or departmental categories. Understanding broad concepts and applying important skills cut across disciplines. It has been our experience that, when graduation is defined in performance-based terms, teachers begin to see the interrelatedness of the disciplines and look for ways to tie learning together across the curriculum.
  • Free teachers from the impossible burden of "covering the material.'' Teachers in the traditional time-based system are constantly battling against the pressure to get through the book or cover the curriculum. It is a battle that we cannot win. Given the knowledge explosion that is sure to continue, covering the material is no longer a realistic option (if it ever was). We must find new ways to guide and direct our work and abandon the system that forces history teachers to cover the decades of the 50's, 60's, 70's, and 80's in the last two weeks of the school year. Using our scarce time to teach the knowledge and the skills leading to performance-based graduation requirements can focus our efforts.
  • Focus the efforts of the professional staff. In a performance-based system, members of the professional staff work from a precise set of performance expectations. Consequently those requirements become the focal points for the entire school. They are so important that everything revolves around them, and all education in some way is directed toward helping students master them. Teachers will do a better job when they know exactly what the school's educational targets are.
  • Promote student involvement. Performance-based graduation requirements, by definition, require activity (performances) on the part of students. Students cannot sit through a performance-based system. Teachers in such a system approach lesson design with the realization that learning (instruction), like assessment, must include active student involvement. When the system rewards seat time, students sit. When the system rewards performance, students perform.
  • Allow for educational programs/progress tailored to individual student needs. In a traditional time-based system, courses are the ends of the system. Complete the required number of courses with grades of D- or higher and you get a diploma. In a performance-based system, student performance becomes the end of the system and coursework becomes the means to that end. Therefore, individualized programs of study can be designed for each student given that student's strengths, weaknesses, goals, and interests. Students can be remediated and accelerated without worrying about collecting the right number and kinds of credits needed for graduation. No longer is every student required to take 10th-grade English just because it is required for graduation. For older students, seminars, internships, independent studies, community-service work, and co-enrollments with neighboring colleges and universities become viable options for learning.
  • Focus on learning itself, not the artificial symbols or the "game'' of learning. How many times have teachers heard a student say, "What is the lowest grade I can get on the final and still get a C in the class?'' Or how about the student who refuses to take a difficult course or a non-weighted course in a weighted-grade system because it might affect his or her grade-point average by some fraction of a point? Such questions are legitimate from a student's perspective in the system operating in most of our high schools today. A system that rewards students based on performance and not just grades can help focus students' attention on learning.
  • Promote frequent, meaningful revision. In the traditional system of Carnegie units, every few years we add a semester of "this'' and reduce a semester of "that'' in response to prevailing political winds or pressure from powerful special-interest groups. But those changes usually do not result in meaningful changes for students because the requirements are so vague and general. Performance-based graduation requirements, assessments, and standards are specific and well-defined. Specific and well-defined requirements are unacceptable when they are misaligned with outside-of-school realities. Five credits of business education may always be appropriate. Having to perform keyboarding skills in a voice-input world may not.
  • Create a system in which curriculum revision, staff development, and changes in the structure of the school (master schedule, allocation of resources, staffing, etc.) are tied together in a natural way. For years teachers have been involved in staff-development activities in which they are herded into some common area and "inserviced'' on the latest educational development. Writing across the curriculum and cooperative learning come to mind. Teachers in these situations are polite, correct their papers, and work on their knitting. Although well-intentioned in most cases, after the inservice they go back to doing things the way they have always done them. The problem is that these staff-development activities are added on to the old system rather than made an integral part of it. Curriculum revision in most schools happens because "it's your turn,'' not because of a specific need. Likewise, schedule changes, staffing changes, and other changes in the way the school works are introduced without regard to the system as a whole. Adopting performance-based graduation requirements means accepting the notion of beginning with the end clearly in mind. Pedagogical, curricular, and system changes all come about in response to needs dictated by the graduation requirements. In our schools curriculum is modified when it is discovered that students lack the curricular opportunities necessary to meet the graduation requirements. Staff development arises out of the needs of teachers (the need to know more about alternative assessment, for example). And new schedules are evaluated for their effect on our ability to help students reach school goals. Performance-based graduation requirements form the foundation of systemic school change.
  • Reverse the "tide of mediocrity.'' Performance-based education is not to be confused with the minimum-competency movement of the 1970's. Our schools have been motivated by a strong desire to increase academic standards. The graduation requirements encompass the knowledge, skills, and standards that equip students to thrive in the 21st century. Make no mistake, students will have to be truly well educated to graduate from either of our schools in the future.

Performance-based graduation requirements are not a panacea for all of society's ills. The systems in our schools are relatively new, and there remain in both schools many unanswered questions. What we do know is that the traditional time-based system is not working well for many students, and that a sound rationale exists for moving toward performance-based graduation requirements. We think that the answer to the question, "Should graduation be based on performance rather than seat time?'' has become quite clear.

Judy Westerberg is a mathematics teacher at Heritage High School, and Tim Westerberg is the principal of Littleton High School. Both schools are part of the Littleton Public School System in Littleton, Colo.

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