Performing for a diploma

Rhode Island now requires a “performance-based assessment,” such as a senior project, to qualify for graduation. Bill Tucker visited Portsmouth High:

Beginning this year, to graduate, all 200 seniors at Portsmouth are required to complete a year-long senior project, consisting of the “4Ps” — a research paper, a tangible product, a process portfolio, and today’s oral presentation. Students select their projects, submit a letter of intent, and work closely with a school or community mentor. And, the projects really are diverse. The first student I saw today presented the stage set she’d designed for the school production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Another student’s project consisted of running a marathon and fundraising to support leukemia research.

Education Gadfly warns of subjectivity: Vermont tried portfolios years ago, but gave up the experiment because RAND found the results were unreliable: Different raters would give different grades to the same portfolio. Gadfly asks:

. . . how can assessors be qualified to judge such varied types of presentations, from light saber exhibitions, to egg-poaching demonstrations, to harmonica jamborees? Furthermore, states are famously reticent to bar students from graduating even when objective measures of those pupils’ skills show them unambiguously unprepared for the real world and undeserving of a diploma. Will Rhode Island really hold back a student who flubs a flute recital?

With other “members of the community,” I once served as a judge for students’ demonstrations at a K-8 school. I found it very hard to evaluate the quality of their work. I didn’t know what was reasonable to expect. I discovered belatedly that I was praising younger students for the teacher’s creativity. The older kids were writing sonnets. They weren’t very good. But were they not very good for eighth graders? I couldn’t tell. Fortunately, the stakes were nonexistent.

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  1. There is always going to be a certain amount of subjectivity in such things, but if they are truly performance assessments, and not simply creative projects, then there should be some performance standards being assessed, and those standards should be common, regardless of how the students choose to demonstrate their skill and understanding.

    If there are actual standards being assessed, then it ought to be possible–actually, it ought to be required–to make a grading rubric that specifies exactly what acceptable performance looks like. This should cut down on some of the wild subjectivity. After all, we’re not supposed to be grading the sonnet on it’s creativity or wonderfulness as a sonnet; we’re supposed to be grading it as a demonstration of the student’s abilities and understandings specific to particular learning standards.

  2. These two posts are conflating two different purposes for assessment. Fordham is talking about using this form of performance assessments as a large scale summative assessment for accountability purposes — thus the need to compare across students, classrooms, and districts. A different purpose, which I found very much in evidence when I visited Portsmouth High, is formative in nature — assessment as a process to guide teaching and learning. In this case, I saw that the performance assessment was a vehicle to accomplish a number of important learning and teaching goals. Significantly, I saw evidence that it was helping to drive positive changes in the way that teachers thought about and collaborated around instruction. In other words, it’s not necessarily an either/or situation. Clarity around our purposes and goals for assessment is critical.

    Finally, it would be shortsighted to think that all performance-based assessment looks like Rhode Island’s. The NAEP Science 2009 is an attempt to use technology and other means to make performances more transparent and comparable in terms of standards.

  3. Though I like public demonstrations of learning, I’ve always been distrustful of the word “creative” and of people who use it.

    I prefer projects that are based in the core high school curriculum–English, science, history and math–and that use the normal scholarly tools for publishing work in those fields. A set of a relatively small number of rubrics can be developed to assess projects.

    In essence, besides the actual demonstration or performance, which might be assessed somewhat subjectively, each student would turn in the scholarly writing which would be organized somewhat like a dissertation.

    A student could rebuild a classic car or write a new symphony, but this would not free him or her from the task of presenting a well-written and well-documented paper about that work.

  4. Sigivald says:

    Sounds like a giant boondoggle waste of time.

    Is testing for competence in reading, writing, and maths so hard?

    Why this obsession with “projects” at the high-school level?

    (I’ve long been of the opinion that there shouldn’t be a graduation-dependent project until grad school.

    Maybe that’s the problem, in fact – all these teachers with graduate degrees think that the dissertation model is the right one for everything.)

  5. Once again I’m the grinch, but it all sounds pretty dreadful to me. Students must not only write a research project, but they must trot out a dog and pony show at the end of the year. Thank God I’m not a high schooler in Rhode Island today. There’ll be plenty of enthusiasm, of course, even some by the students. But in my humble opinion most of that enthusiasm is enthusiasm by projection. Those who like this sort of thing project their enthusiasm onto others. The lack of enthusiasm on the part of many students will be a little harder to see, but it will be there. But it will be seen only by the students themselves, and the teachers who slog away with them in the trenches everyday.

    “Jumping through hoops” is a subjective thing. To some people the usual activities of school – learning, doing homework, studying, and doing well on tests – is just jumping through hoops. But I think there will be a rather substantial number of people who, like me, think of making good grades as real worthwhile accomplishment, but projects such as these described as more of a charade, as jumping through hoops. To me, and I don’t think I am alone in this, making good grades by the afore mentioned activities, learning, doing homework, studying, and doing well on tests, not only brings satisfaction of accomplishment on a daily basis, but it also results in acquiring knowledge and skills that have intrinsic value throughout life, even if most of the details are forgotten over time. But projects, of whatever sort, seldom have this intrinsic value, especially if they are group projects (which, thank heaven, apparently does not apply in Rhode Island). So most (not all) students will do what they have always done with projects of various sorts. They’ll procrastinate as long as they can. Then they’ll judge what level of mediocrity is acceptable and set their sights accordingly.

    And certainly subjectivity will be a problem, but only for those who take the whole thing seriously. In the past I have observed that those who favor “assessment by portfolio” show no evidence of realizing that portfolios must be assessed, if indeed it is to be “assessment by portfolio”. What really counts, it appears to me, is that it be called a “portfolio”, not simply a “folder”, which is so fiftyish. Judging by what I have heard and read, for some people simply having a portfolio is enough. We’ll call it assessment, because we’re supposed to be doing assessment. It’s the latest thing. All the educational leaders are talking assessment. We’re doing an assessment project, so obviously we are assessing.

    Yes, a fair number of students will jump on the bandwagon. They’ll spout the rhetoric, be enthusiastic, even do a little work. And if we suspect a lot of the work is mediocre, we’ll applaud at the appropriate times anyway. Most students will simply do what they have to do to graduate. A few students will jump ship. They’ll drop out. Depending on how odious the whole affair is made for the borderline students, the temptation to chuck the whole school thing and go flip burgers may win out. But there is another way to drop out. Get accepted into college without your senior year. When you have a reasonable expectation of a college degree, that high school diploma is not needed. I’ve known a few people who have made this work. My best hope is that this type of dropout will outnumber the traditional dropouts.

    Call me a grinch, but I don’t think I am. My perspective is that good teaching consists of setting up a system in which effort on the part of students results in genuine accomplishment. That accomplishment is the acquiring of knowledge, skills, and perspectives that have intrinsic value over a lifetime. The satisfaction from that accomplishment is highly motivating to some students, and adequately motivating to many. It just doesn’t seem to me that what is described in Rhode Island is an improvement.

  6. Bob Hawkins says:

    Sounds like good preparation for the Miss America talent competition.

  7. This is perfect! The teacher just winds the student up and lets them go. Beats the hell out of having to TEACH them something.

  8. Catch Thirty-Three says:

    Research papers as a graduation requirement is fine – I had to do a critical analysis of a work of English literature for mine – but THIS?

  9. Washington state has been doing this for years. Everett Public Schools, north of Seattle, does a wonderful job with them–and yes, of course their is subjectivity, just like when I grade any piece of writing, or any oral presentation.

  10. How is this different from the oral final exams I read about in 19th century Europe.

  11. Do you think the school has the guts to tell a senior they can’t graduate because their project isn’t good enough?

  12. BadaBing says:

    Our district has instituted almost the exact same wrong-headed senior project. Kids copy and paste from the internet and generate a “research paper.” They put together a PowerPoint presentation (borrrrrrrring). A panel of three teachers judges their oral + PowerPoint presentation. Kids do put a lot of work into it, but most of them still cannot read or write at grade level. That’s the sad part.