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Richness And Rigor

May 01, 2002 3 min read
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Portfolios, not tests, accurately reflect students.

Last month, I argued that states and districts, instead of relying solely on standardized test scores, should craft a system of multiple measures to assess student achievement—a system that would evaluate children more richly and comprehensively than the single measure of a test score. Student portfolios are one form of assessment that should weigh heavily in such a system.

I know of several nontraditional schools that use portfolios, but none to the extent that Beacon High School does. Housed in a converted warehouse in Manhattan, Beacon offers its 900 students a rich and rigorous curriculum. Teachers collaborate across disciplines. Students take on internships, and each does a service project in one of many community agencies that cooperate with the school.

But what really distinguishes Beacon from most schools is that student performance is largely evaluated through projects—many of them interdisciplinary—that kids complete individually and in teams. To graduate from Beacon, each student must prepare, present, and defend an elaborate graduation portfolio that contains these projects. The portfolio is a showcase of a kid’s best high school work, which is revised, synthesized, and integrated into a coherent reflection of what’s been learned. Included are at least three projects each in the subjects of math, science, history, English, and a foreign language.

The hour-long oral presentations are made to two teachers, an outside evaluator, and a student observer. The panel questions the student and discusses his or her work. The senior and student observer are then excused, and the panel arrives at a score based on rubrics that have been honed over the years. There are three levels of competence: the Honors Standard, 100-86; the Beacon Standard, 85-65; and the Competency Standard, 64-55.

In addition, all seniors must participate in a yearlong seminar in which they “synthesize” their educational experiences and “try something bold and new and find success,” according to the student handbook. This may include an internship, a college course, a senior project, or a performance workshop. The seminar also affords students the time to reflect on what they’ve done and anticipate what lies ahead.

Although Beacon teaches to state standards, the school’s mission statement declares that “students are more likely to discover meaning in a curriculum that cuts across traditional subject borders. Interdisciplinary projects provide a chance to discover unifying themes and to make connections which enrich the student’s world.” The Beacon staff also believes that expectations and assessments “should be individualized to reflect student preference and ability.” The goal is to develop the creativity, strength, and integrity of each child—a goal worthy of every school.

Until this year, Beacon students didn’t have to take the New York State Regents exams. Tom Sobol, the former state commissioner of education, exempted kids at a number of nontraditional schools on the grounds that their personalized learning philosophy and flexible curricula were out of sync with standardized tests. He believed that use of multiple measures in these small schools provides a deeper assessment.

But his successor, Richard Mills, has rescinded the exemption. He thinks assessing portfolios is too subjective, relying on the judgment of individual teachers. He’s obviously not bothered by the fact that teachers also grade the Regents exams.

Mills’ decision is wreaking havoc on schools like Beacon. They may have to abandon or modify their curricula, and they may not be able to continue with portfolios if they have to spend valuable time preparing for state tests.

After studying the Regents with a dozen teachers and others, I’m convinced that they don’t begin to compare with Beacon’s portfolios in richness and rigor. Last year, a federal commission studied the senior year and lamented “senioritis”—a condition in which seniors do little constructive work. That is not a problem at Beacon, where students are totally engaged in their graduation portfolios.

Why is it that when solutions to problems are patently obvious, policymakers and educators, more often than not, are too closed-minded and inflexible to recognize them?

—Ronald A. Wolk

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