Assessment Alternatives in the High Schools

By David Levine

From a thousand conversations in school board meetings, faculty lunch­ rooms, and commissions on education, we can distill this archetypal exchange on secondary testing:

The Restless Critic: We’ve got to do something! The explosion of standardized testing is distorting our curriculum while providing us with highly limited and often misleading measures of achievement.

The Responsible Official: Yes, yes, I grant your criticism. But the public demands accountability and testing answers that demand. Offer us an alternative, or you remain only a disgruntled complainer we have no choice but to ignore.

Fortunately, such alternatives are flourishing at a small but growing number of schools around the country. These schools are pioneering methods of assessment which challenge traditional notions of testing, curriculum and the school experience. While these methods demand creativity and hard work, they offer highly promising ways to reform schools.

Several of these reforms are explained in a recently published pamphlet entitled Beyond Standardized Testing: Assessing Authentic Academic Achievement in the Secondary School (published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals). The pamphlet’s authors, Doug Archbald and Fred Newmann, cite schools which encourage and assess “authentic academic achievement,” and offer compelling theoretical arguments in favor of the innovative methods of instruction and assessment used in these schools.

While authentic academic achievement can take many forms, these researchers ar­gue that it should contain three crucial elements: disciplined inquiry, integration of knowledge, and value beyond evaluation.

Disciplined Inquiry

Archbald and Newmann note the value of having high school students conduct sustained and serious projects which “facilitate complex understanding of relatively limited, special problems.” These kinds of projects are markedly different from the shallow survey and test style of instruction typical of many classrooms. “Achievement in science, for example, could place more emphasis on the development, execution, and reporting of a single experiment In history and social studies, intensive research using primary source material could help students evaluate generalizations stated in their textbooks. In studying literary work, one might aim toward students’ clarifying and defending their own views of alternative interpretations.”

Integration or Knowledge

Archbald and Newmann argue that “too often tests of achievement ask the student only to show comprehension of unrelated knowledge fragments: definitions of terms, short descriptive identifications of people, things, events or numerical solutions to problems.” They prefer tasks which demand that students show understanding of different relationships and the complex totality of a topic. For example, “an authentic understanding of a molecule or atom should integrate the ‘parts’ into broader conceptions of matter or energy.”

Value Beyond Evaluation

Archbald and Newmann favor education which involves “the production of discourse, things, performances.” “When people write letters, news articles, insurance claims, poems; when they speak a foreign language, when they develop blueprints, when they create a painting, a piece of music, or build a stereo cabinet, they demonstrate achievements that have a special value missing in tasks contrived only for the purpose of assessing knowledge (such as spelling quizzes, laboratory exercises, or typical final exams).”

Archbald and Newmann found vibrant examples of schools where “authentic knowledge” is being produced and evaluated. The common thread connecting these schools is the “realness” of the education they offer their students. Through effective simulations or experiences beyond the school walls, these schools have found ways to transcend some of the artificiality of school, to narrow the gap between the school experience and the challenges of life.

For example, every student at Jefferson County Open High School (JCOHS) in Evergreen, Colorado must complete six “passages” to graduate, in addition to other requirements. The “passages” are designed to demonstrate competence in six broad areas: practical skills, creativity, ad­ venture, career exploration, logical inquiry, and global awareness/volunteer service. Working with a faculty advisor, stu­ dents carefully prepare and implement a “passages” proposal; and at the end of the experience write an evaluation and present the experience to a committee which includes “the advisor, parent(s), principal, a student experienced with passages, another student, and the passage consultant.”

Passages have included:

  • Helping an elementary school physical education teacher supervise the playground and take care of younger children
  • Doing library research on AIDS and working on the Denver AIDS hotline
  • Working with a Denver energy co­ operative to weatherize homes and assist the poor to surmount home energy problems
  • Teaching a class at JCOHS
  • Working as an apprentice to a chemist involved in research on the effects of carbon  dioxide on the atmospheric ozone layer
  • Volunteering at the local chapter of the Audubon Society and participating in research on wetlands ecology.

The ROPE Program

Another program cited by Archbald and Newmann is the Rites of Passage Experience (ROPE) at Walden III, a 350 student alternative high school in Racine, Wisconsin…During a recent visit to Walden I was able to·take a close look at the ROPE program and thus gain an appreciation of the careful work necessary to develop alternative modes of assessment and of the rewards of going beyond the typical high school routine of amassing credits and passing standardized tests.

Walden students enter ROPE at the start of twelfth grade. In addition to their regular courses, Walden seniors, through a combination of essays, reports, oral presenta­tions, demonstrations and discussions, must prove their knowledge and competence in sixteen areas: English, Reading, Mathematics, Government, Self-expression, Personal Growth, Ethics, Fine Arts, Mass Media, Human Relations, U.S. History, Science, Multicultural Awareness, World Geography, a proficiency of choice, and physical fitness.

Students must demonstrate their mastery of these areas to a committee which consists of the student’s “home group” teacher, another teacher, a student, and an “outside adult.” The student and outside adult are both chosen by the prospective graduate.

ROPE presentations include three major elements:

  • A portfolio which includes an autobiography, two book reports, a bibliography of books the student has read, several essays, and two letters of recommendation
  • A research paper on some aspect of U.S. history of interest to the student
  • Demonstrations and oral presentations in the areas of math, government, geography, English, and a skill or talent of the student’s choice.

At the start of their senior year, armed with a ROPE handbook, all Walden students enroll  in a semester-long ROPE class designed to guide them through the preparation of the materials and demonstrations they will present to their committee. Thomas Feeney, the ROPE class instructor, provides students with explanations and examples of how the requirements can be fulfilled. He brings into the ROPE class other teachers to review in detail how the requirements in their subjects can be met, and he holds individual conferences to monitor the progress of each student As Feeney prods students on toward meeting their deadlines, he also acts as a coach who is privy to “insider information.” “In ROPE class I act as the students’ ally. I verse them in ‘teacher psychology’ and tell them what sort of presentations will go over well and what sort of presentations make teachers see red. I point out that the staff doesn’t like to see a portfolio with gravy stains on it.”

By Memorial Day each student must have completed his/her ROPE committee presentations. These presentations usually take four or five sessions to complete. They focus not only on demonstrations, but also involve discussions of the stu­dent’s research paper and portfolio. For example, to meet the Multicultural Awareness requirement, students must include in their portfolio an essay which discusses the role of culture in society, their own cultural heritage, the contrast between multicultural and homogenous societies, and their own views on living in a multicultural society. In addition, they must be prepared to defend their views in an oral presentation and show “reasonable familiarity” with such concepts as the melting pot, prejudice, ethnicity, assimilation and discrimination.

While ultimate responsibility for meeting the ROPE requirements lies with each student, Walden teachers use the program as a constructive way to help students remedy weaknesses. A student who fails his/her geography presentation is directed back to the geography teacher for more preparation. A student caught in the jaws of procrastination is urged onward by Feeney and his/her home group teacher. Undoubtedly much of the success of ROPE is due to the humane, student-centered ethos which characterizes Walden. Brian Van Ommeren says, “The classes at Walden might be more challenging (than at other schools) but the teachers are more willing to help you. It’s like being taught by a dozen moms and dads.”

Why ROPE Works

According to Walden seniors and graduates, the ROPE experience demands hard work, serious thinking, creativity, and the capacity to complete projects  which require sustained effort. ROPE’s strong emphasis on writing requires students to sift back through what they’ve learned and formula ‘their own options. mtne’ words of senior Bob Cook, “ROPE makes you sit down and think about a topic. When you have to write a report on the mass media, for example, it really makes you find out about its role in history.”

ROPE also encourages self-discipline. Another senior, Todd Seeley, points out, “It teaches you to manage your time. ROPE and Walden give you a lot of freedom, but with that freedom they also teach you that you’re responsible for yourself and you’re going to have to sink or swim.”

Walden graduate Judy Kinch echoes this sentiment. For her senior project she wrote and made an oral defense of a critical history of U.S. intervention in Nicaragua.

She appreciated “having the chance, and finding out I had the ability to complete a project which was not shoved down my throat. I experienced the excitement that comes from taking the initiative and doing well.”

While ROPE is a year-long process, it becomes most intense as students begin their committee presentations. It is here that the value of all their preparation is tested, and here that they have the most chance to put their personal stamp on their ROPE experience. Through the personal proficiency requirement students supplement their more academic presentations with a demonstration of a creative skill which is important to them. Such presentations have included musical performances, explanations of how a student produced a work of art, even a lecture on the art of flower arrangement, accompanied by a demonstration.

According to Kinch, “Presenting in front of your committee is very exciting. You’re nervous because of the fear you could really screw up, but you’re excited because you could really do well. One element of the excitement comes because you are on your own. Yon can present your material any way you want to. You can be creative and try new things. 

Reform at Central Park East

The kinds of assessment reviewed by Baldwon and Newmann are exciting because they move curriculum, instruction, and the whole fabric of school life toward greater liveliness, rigor, and depth. It was this transformative potential that attracted staff members at New York City’s innovative Central Park East Secondary School (CPE) to the idea of using alternative methods of assessment as an integral part of the new “Senior Institute” which they are now in the process of planning. The design of this new program and the goals it espouses offer some thought provoking ideas on how we can shake some of the cobwebs out of secondary education.

These seminars will examine classics of African, Eastern and Western thought. They will be taught at four cooperating colleges in New York and will meet three times a week for a total of six hours. All students will be required to participate in these seminars for at least two semesters.

When the Senior Institute begins in July of 1989, it will combine the essential features of the ROPE approach with other unusual innovations. The institute will be the total program for all CPE students during their final two years in high school. In order to graduate, these students will need to complete:

  • Great Books/Ideas Seminars
  • Other course work

These courses, taught at CPE, local colleges, and other institutions, will include math, science, composition, literature, history and economics and other subjects.

  • Internships, Mentorships, and/or Apprenticeship Programs

As explained in the draft Senior Institute handbook, this requirement can be met through a combination of seminars, job placements, and/or an apprenticeship.

  • The completion of a portfolio

This portfolio will be an extended, integrated reflection on all of the experiences described above.

Advising Students

One significant difference between Walden’s ROPE and the proposed Senior Institute will be the role of the graduation committee. At CPE each student’s graduation committee will have a composition similar to the ROPE committees, but will be formed when the student enters the institute. Each student, with the help of his/her advisor, will begin to write a plan of study at the end of their sophomore year to be submitted to their committee when they enter the Senior Institute. The committee is to act as a major reference point for the student during the entire two years of his/her institute experience. The committee not only judges the portfolio at the end of two years, but also helps the student design, modify and evaluate their course of study as it unfolds. The student’s committee and advisor will help the student prudently exercise the considerable freedom he/she is given to design his/her own program. Haven Henderson, the Senior Institute Coordinator, explains, “as professionals, we will say to the student ‘Here is an approach we think you should take,’ but wide latitude will still be allowed. While not giving students carte blanche control, we will respect their right to make choices. As they design their program we will ask them, ‘What drives you? What kinds of learning and experiences would you love to be involved with?”

Central Park East will expect its students to make good use of the structured freedom it will grant them during the Senior Institute. They must integrate the wide variety of experiences offered them into coherent and meaningful essays, reports, and other kinds of demonstrations of knowledge. Henderson notes, “Our requirements for the portfolio are intentionally general. There are no limits to the way kids can approach the portfolio. For example, they could meet several of the portfolio requirements by writing a play or short story, or producing a film. How many of us got to do this kind of writing at an early age? Our students will get a chance to pick up on and amplify a lot of their strengths.”

The Practicality Issue

The alternative forms of assessment re­ viewed in this article have most often been implemented in relatively small alternative schools. Are such approaches practical at large, traditionally organized high schools? To a limited extent, they are. Within the confines of traditional classroom schedules, class sizes and teaching loads, many resourceful teachers base their instructional approach on activities which promote depth, integration of knowledge, and the “production of discourse, things, perfor­mances.”

But it is also true that the pursuit of “authentic knowledge” as defined by Arch­bald and Newmann calls into question the present structure of most high schools and should lead us to consider some serious reforms. The approaches they advocate are most effectively carried out when class size and total student load per teacher are relatively low and teachers are allowed to devote considerable time and energy to individual counseling, extensive preparation, and helping students prepare presentations to evaluative committees. The Coalition of Essential Schools, whose member schools have implemented many alternative forms of instruction and assessment, argues that effective instruction at the secondary level becomes practical when each teacher has no more than eighty students.

This may seem like an utopian goal, but in fact it is reachable if schools are willing to reassess how they are organized and the array of courses and services they offer. By regrouping into smaller units – “academic families” or “schools within a school,” and dropping less essential courses, schools can realize substantial reductions in class size and student load per teacher. The Coalition believes such reforms can be accomplished without raising per pupil cost more than ten percent.

Most adolescents bring to school energy, curiosity, and the capacity to become passionately involved in issues and projects they consider important But too often they experience many of their classes as sleepy enclaves of routinized activities which have little intrinsic value or relevance to the world at large. As researcher John Goodlad remarked in many schools “Boredom is a disease of epidemic propor­tions.”

Teaching and assessing “authentic knowledge” is one way we can combat this epidemic of boredom. School becomes interesting when it engages adolescents in activities which are meaningful reflections of creative work in the adult world. They are thus impelled to consider how they can begin to use their own interests, passions, and aptitudes to create a place for themselves in the world beyond high school. This leads them to think about who they are, where they want to go, and what they want to build their lives around. Such reflection, as it dissipates boredom, also helps build a secure sense of personal identity. When Walden teachers and students were asked to sum up what ROPE offered, they replied with such words as “self-possession,” “self-confidence,” and “self-knowledge.” Perhaps this is why graduating Walden senior Darrell Kohlman states, “I’ll feel prepared to go out into the world. I’ll feel like I really have something in my hand.

David Levine teaches English at Shalom High School in Milwaukee.