In 2017, Connecticut created a new graduation requirement that would start with the class of 2023: Students would put together an assessment of their own learning growth over four years of high school.
Adding a one-credit statewide graduation requirement for high school seniors, many of whom typically begin to exhibit “senioritis,” seems like a tough sell. When the high school seniors tasked with completing this inaugural requirement happen to be the same students who bore the brunt of pandemic-related school closures, the new mandate might have been considered downright doomed.
“The state launched new graduation requirements just before all hell broke loose with COVID,” said Donna Hayward, the principal of Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum and the state’s 2022 Principal of the Year. “Like any new requirement, I can’t name a person who was really psyched about it. But the hardest part of this is that it started with the class of 2023.”
And yet, for at least some among the first class of students at Haddam-Killingworth to complete the project, it proved to be a rewarding experience.
Students who might otherwise begin to experience the malaise so often associated with senior year shared with Education Week that their new one-credit project has kept them engaged throughout their last year of high school and better prepared to face the future. The carefully designed project forced seniors to slow down and reflect on their growth as students from their freshman to senior years.
The new requirement took shape in the shadows of the pandemic
While navigating the transition back to in-person learning after almost two years of disrupted schooling, Connecticut high schools also had to focus on implementing the never-before-done project reflecting on a high school tenure that might have looked very different if they hadn’t attended school remotely for much of the time.
“The state is looking for one full credit towards graduation that is somehow mastery-based. But they [state officials] left it up to each individual school to determine what that means,” said Hayward.
The project requires students to share their findings and reflections in spring of senior year during a presentation before a few key faculty members, she explained.
Students can’t include just any work in their portfolio. They must select work that reflects individual mastery around the following five core learning expectations:
- personal responsibility, character, cultural understanding, and ethical behavior;
- clear and effective communication in order to express ideas and connect with others;
- investigate, evaluate, and apply information;
- work both independently and collaboratively toward a specific outcome;
- employ creative, innovative, and reflective thinking.
“We had heard the concept–mastery-based diploma assessment,” said Hayward. “But ours is completely homegrown. We started from scratch and built our own.”
Hayward led a team of teachers, the school counselor, and the media specialist to brainstorm ideas. After getting feedback from faculty members, the core team moved to design the project with the goal of giving students ownership over their work, Hayward said.
“We wanted our students to start thinking about their own learning and their own growth, and owning it.”
Every student stored their work in a school-issued Chromebook that they would eventually present to three faculty members. Along with the chosen pieces of work, students were required to write a reflection piece to align with the five core learning expectations. In late March, all 160 seniors presented their portfolios.
“There were about eight [out of a class of 160] seniors who didn’t quite stick the landing then,” said Hayward, explaining that they would have another opportunity to earn the requisite credit before the end of the year. Others nailed it the first time, even in spite of some initial skepticism.
Students share initial thoughts
Among the early skeptics was senior Abby Jones.
“At first, I was like, ‘Why are they adding another project? Why are they adding so many graduation requirements? This sounds, like, weird,” she said. “Then I learned the reasoning behind it, that the state had made a new requirement that we had to have something that showed growth over the four years, and it actually made a lot of sense.
“You always see how you grow from the start of the year to the end of the year in bio, or English,” she added. “But you never get to watch your progress from the time you step into high school to the time you leave, and I think it’s pretty special to be able to see that in a project.”
Others had a different initial take.
“When I first heard about the project, I was pretty excited,” said Jack Ferguson,
“We may be the first group doing this in our school, but that means we could kind of set the tone of how this project’s going to be and pave the way for how it’s going to go in the future.”
Senior Callen Powers recalled being uneasy about the project at first. “There were some nerves that set in early on,” he said. “Those were eased pretty quickly by the staff and administration because of how much time and effort they put into it. They organized it to the point where we just had to follow their lead and trust them. It was a pretty cool experience.”
Reflecting on growth
The seniors gave the project high marks, particularly as it allowed them the unique opportunity to reflect on their growth as high school students.
Senior Anadalay Garcia, who goes by Ana, explained that the project pushed her to recognize how school experiences outside of the classroom, including her participation in multiple team sports, helped shape her into a leader in the classroom. She realized this when, as part of the new graduation requirement, she reviewed a project from a health class that required students to complete a group project on Blue Zones, regions on Earth where some of the world’s oldest people live. Her group consisted of classmates with whom she’d never collaborated.
“I really took the lead on assigning different roles for classmates,” Ana recalled. That’s an ability she attributes to learning about group dynamics as an athlete. “I had a lot of people to look up to [as a multi-sport athlete], and a lot of people who showed me how to have the skills to lead.”
The project also helped Ana recognize how she learns best. Looking through past assignments, she said she felt that those completed during COVID weren’t as strong as she would have liked them to be, which she attributed to decreased access to one-on-one teacher support during that time.
“During COVID, I felt stagnant [as a student]. I felt I wasn’t growing,” said Ana. who acknowledged that she learns better when accessing individualized support from teachers.
Callen chose for his project an essay from his freshman year to compare with one from his junior year.
“I love to write, I like to read. I wanted to see how that progressed,” he said.
“My first essay was about the book Ethan Frome. I did really poorly, and I was pretty upset then. This year I got to go back and look at it, and compare it to an essay I did junior year, and see the growth firsthand. My [initial] feelings of ‘I could have done better’ turned to, ‘OK, I could have done better, but I eventually did do better,’ ” he said. “It’s kind of a nice feeling that I got to see progression.”
Although the project was largely an experience in reflection, it indirectly prepared the students for the future.
“The whole point is to get them [seniors] to see: ‘Look where I was as a freshman, and look where I am now…. I know I can make my way in the world,’ ” said Hayward.
She also acknowledged that students aren’t the only ones who learned something about themselves during the process.
“We have 160 seniors, and I think I know them pretty well,” Hayward said. “Then I sat with them [during the portfolio presentations], and I learned something new about them.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2023 edition of Education Week as Fighting Senioritis? This New Requirement Kept a Graduating Class Engaged