Janet R. Price
International High School's assessment system requiring every senior to complete and present a portfolio of specified projects.
Has the student work included in these portfolios improved since this system has been in effect? Specifically, has setting standards for portfolio projects at the school level resulted in changes in classroom practice, including more rigorous assignments and more targeted help for students that, in turn, have lead to improved student work.
International is a small public high School for recent immigrants from non-English speaking countries. For the past four years, International has been piloting a system for graduating students by portfolio under a special variance from the state testing program. However, the state is phasing out that program and phasing in more difficult Regents exams. International has joined a consortium of 30 schools seeking endorsement by the State Education Department of a common performance-based assessment system as an alternative to the new Regents exams. In addition to ensuring the validity and reliability of any alternative, the state must determine that the alternative promotes the same high standards as the Regents exams now being developed.
I reviewed the social studies and science projects of three years of seniors (Classes of '97, '98, and '99) selected at random from the middle of their respective class rankings. The class of '97 provided baseline data, since for that graduating class there was schoolwide agreement on what projects should be in the portfolio but there were not yet rubrics in place to assess the portfolio projects. (A rubric is a set of criteria to guide the scoring of a test or performance assessment. Rubrics include descriptions of varying levels of performance for each criterion.) Schoolwide rubrics were developed during the 1997-98 school year and continued to be in use in 1998-99.
Each of approximately 60 papers was analyzed by applying the student assessment rubrics recently developed by the New York Performance Assessment Consortium, to which IHS belongs. The rubrics developed by the 30-school consortium in the spring of 1999 are similar, but somewhat more detailed and rigorous than the school's criteria for judging the same
I also interviewed social studies and science teachers to determine what, in fact, they had changed in response to the introduction of rubrics and quizzed my own students to determine whether they had internalized the standards for the research paper. Finally, I reviewed school meeting agendas and my own teaching journal to document what the faculty as a whole has done over the past four years to align both curriculum and assessment to state standards and to clarify the criteria for judging student portfolios.
In two important respects, most of the later papers performed better on the Consortium's rubrics than the papers of the class of '97, written before explicit schoolwide standards had been promulgated. First, I found that the later papers in both social studies and science tended to have more explicit theses, hypotheses or questions. Second, more of the later students demonstrated competence in collecting and organizing information to answer their question, test their hypothesis or support their thesis.
A '97 research paper was headed "Why Do All Americans Revere Thomas Jefferson" and was a laundry list of his accomplishments. In contrast, a '99 paper asked the question "Is the increased temperature of the earth something we need to worry about?" and analyzed both "believers who think the global warming is a huge environmental threat and skeptics who say that global warming doesn't even exist."
Science teachers report that they spend more class time on familiarizing students with the scientific method and on helping students formulate their own questions, hypotheses and experimental design. Similarly, social studies teachers are devoting more class time to research papers and are encouraging students to first explore a topic and then come up with a specific thesis or question. They are trying to help students understand the difference between a "report" and a "thesis paper" and to discard information not relevant to their thesis.
These efforts seem to be paying off in terms of increased student awareness. Before introducing a research paper project in my ungraded, multi-age class, I asked students to list the five most important things that made a research paper good. Juniors and seniors all listed "thesis" while few sophomores and no freshmen did.
In addition to individual teachers' efforts, over the past four years the school has provided substantial time during the school day, on citywide professional development days and through summer or weekend institutes to compare specific activities and projects to state standards, develop, test and revise rubrics, review student work to see if faculty could agree on what constituted passing work, review teacher assignments to suggest ways of strengthening them to better assist students in meeting the rubric criteria, writing handbooks and giving workshops for parents and students, determining how portfolio panels should be conducted and establishing the role of the faculty mentor in assisting students prepare for their portfolio panels.
Requiring students to create "Performance Based Assessment Tasks" and enunciating clear standards for assessing them leads to direct and measurable gains in student achievement. This is consistent with the literature on performance assessment which suggests that students do better if they know what standards they will be held to and are given assignments that allow them to develop mastery. The improved performance of International students judged by rubrics based on the state standards demonstrates that this is a system that not only imposes rigorous standards but also helps students to meet them. However, this is also a system that requires schoolwide support and individual faculty commitment. A painstaking, time-consuming process is required to align both curriculum and assessment to state standards, to clarify the criteria for judging student portfolios and to help teachers help students meet these criteria. Since this process strengthens instruction and assessment simultaneously, it is the best possible use of the precious resource of time.