What happens when a school district boosts test scores for students in poverty, raises their graduation rates, and gets more of them to enroll in college, but the students’ lives just don’t improve in the long-term?
That was the nightmare scenario facing David Miyashiro, the superintendent of the Cajon Valley Union schools in California. Nearly a decade ago, the high-poverty district just east of San Diego had undergone an overhaul to boost student achievement and a massive technology upgrade to promote digital and personalized learning. But educators who kept in touch with their students after they graduated saw that “they were still going into generational gangs, … they were repeating a cycle of poverty,” Miyashiro said.
“We were doing the game of school better and faster,” he said, “but still we’re not changing the postsecondary trajectory for our students.”
To improve those outcomes, Cajon Valley, starting in 2015, developed and began piloting the “World of Work,” a K-8 program in which students explore career interests and learn how skills like organization, investigation, or interacting with people underlie different jobs. Now, the district is working with the testing group ETS and the University of San Diego to assess those skills.
The goal is to give students a digital transcript of both content mastery and skills across high school classes and in jobs, clubs, or volunteering. The transcript could ultimately be converted into a resume aligned with the students’ career interests after graduation. This spring, the first class to participate in the program throughout all of secondary school will graduate.
Cajon Valley is part of a growing wave of efforts to assess students’ educational progress not just through content knowledge or classroom seat time, but through the so-called “durable skills” that are transferable across many different careers: skills like critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, digital literacy, and civic engagement. Many of these have previously been called “soft skills” to contrast with career-specific “hard skills” like programming for a software developer. But experts consider these skills “durable” because they benefit students regardless of the career they pursue.
So, a transcript showing progress in these skills can help a student make a case for themselves to a variety of colleges or employers.
“For 40 years, we’ve heard from employers that we need more people who have these skills and we know that they are actually highly predictive of student success,” said Timothy Knowles, the president of the Carnegie Foundation, the education policy and research center.
Assessment and accountability systems, by their nature, focus on the things easiest to measure, like testing facts and procedures, or tracking students’ learning time in class. But as the saying goes, “what gets tested gets taught.” And to have students better prepared for life after high school, they need systems that credit broader skills.
‘A longer set of lenses’
The Carnegie Foundation developed the time-based credit system most used in high schools and colleges today. A standard Carnegie unit equates to 7,200 minutes of instruction—an hour each weekday for 24 weeks—to earn one credit in a given subject. A regular high school diploma in most districts requires 18 to 24 credit hours.
Now it’s spearheading the nationwide coalition working to push past the Carnegie unit and develop better systems for measuring student progress. Carnegie, ETS, the nation’s largest nonprofit assessment group, the nonprofit high school reform group XQ Institute, and the Chan-Zuckerburg Initiative education philanthropy, are working with districts across more than a dozen states to develop new systems to assess students’ content mastery.
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But as states explore project- and competency-based assessments in subjects like math and reading, they also need “a longer set of lenses focused on how young people are developing skills” across both formal settings, like school, and informal settings, like sports or jobs, Knowles said. That’s where efforts like Cajon Valley’s come in.
Skills-based systems are already used or being developed in college and career settings. For example, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has been developing learning and employment records, intended to be the educational equivalent of digital health records, and job networking sites like LinkedIn allow users to post commendations from others on a user’s skills. But these can be trickier to implement in a K-12 system.
Difficult to measure
The possibilities are wide-ranging. In the past year, ETS researchers analyzed a national sample of districts’ learning priorities—often called a “portrait of a learner” or a “portrait of a graduate.” Thirty of the most often-prioritized skills—from academic habits and creativity to empathy and perseverance—are the most associated with long-term success in college and careers after high school.
Because these skills are developed across a wide range of environments, schools will need measure them within their subject-area assessments, said Lydia Liu, ETS associate vice president of research.
That might means their analyzing a student’s creativity in approaching a science experiment or their communication skills in algebra.
And technology has evolved to help obtain those measures. For example, Liu noted, educational software programs now can track students’ gestures, facial expression, and time on task to measure communication and collaborative problem-solving within a group project. Companies already track and use this kind of data, but advocates argue this approach would give students more control over their records.
“In the past, we didn’t really have an adequate way to capture the interactions, to reflect the collaboration,” she said. “But now we have digital tools and platforms that could allow us to, for example, randomly assign the task to a group of four people and observe how they exchange information on the platform, how they present their own arguments, how they reconcile with somebody else’s opinions, and finally, how the group reaches a conclusion on how it’s best to solve the problem.”
The technology tools already exist to collect the data, but it’s a challenge to structure and validate assessments to award students credit.
Cajon Valley so far has used teacher observations and projects to show students’ growth.
Banaowsha Mikhael, for example, came to the district’s Magnolia Elementary School as an Iraqi refugee in 2015. As a 5th grader (shown in the video below), she gave a “TED-style” talk about how her refugee status affected her education, and how she had started to build on what she had learned to help translate for other students.
As a high schooler who now does regular public speaking (below), she called the early experience one of her “biggest accomplishments so far.”
Now, Miyashiro said, he hopes to work with ETS to develop objective measures to track student skills—and give students like Mikhael credit for their successes.
“We have been doing the work for seven years,” he said. “We just don’t have the assessments or the data system to capture it.”