In chapter 5 of Equity through Excellence by Alan Blankstein and Pedro Noguera, contributors Avram Barlow and Ann Cook describe a nationally-recognized consortium of New York State public secondary schools that shifted our current, test-centered assessment paradigm by introducing an innovative, more equitable, student-focused, performance-based assessment system.
Isn’t it time to consider an alternative approach to assessing what students know and can do—a new paradigm in which all students can contribute, learning from and with each other in a process where a variety of academic, intellectual, and social skills can develop—an approach which results in greater equity?
This chapter describes an alternative: a different and more equitable way to build students’ skills and assess progress in achieving them. While it certainly does not claim to solve all of the social issues connected to equity, the system of student-focused performance-based assessment developed and implemented by the New York Performance Standards Consortium presents compelling data in support of more equal educational opportunities. It captures and uses students’ strengths, interests, and ideas in ways that create a different paradigm.
The Consortium, a coalition of public schools, has developed and implemented a system of performance-based assessment that is practitioner-developed, student focused, and externally assessed. The schools that have embraced this approach are committed to four central ideas:
- A pedagogy based on inquiry teaching and learning
- A respect for the diversity of ideas and experiences
- High expectations for all students
- The value of community and collaboration
Together these principles have resulted in schools that promote equity.
The Consortium’s system of assessment includes these components:
- Practitioner-designed and student-focused assessment tasks in the major disciplines with additional school-designed tasks
- Educator-designed rubrics used in the assessment of student work
- Moderation studies in which student work is reassessed annually by practitioners and critical friends in order to maintain task and rubric validity
- Extensive professional development designed to support and develop teachers’ ability to use inquiry, pedagogy, and performance assessment tasks
- Predictive validity studies based on graduates’ college performance
A recent consortium school graduate explained the system’s assessment components this way:
All consortium school students are expected to complete four Performance Based Assessment Tasks (PBATs): English, social studies, math, and science. Individual schools require additional PBATs. In my school, Urban Academy, I also did a creative arts PBAT, a PBAT in art criticism, a library PBAT, and an internship. With the exception of the library PBAT, students choose to pursue their own PBAT topics, which grow out of classroom work. Consortium students are required to make an oral presentation for each PBAT, and there are rubrics, which a committee uses to assess their work.
The social studies PBAT requires us to do text-based research using primary source materials and then to write an analytical
research paper. My paper grew out of a philosophy class I took. I wrote a paper on Hobbes’s and Kropotkin’s views on what is the right form of government. Although I started off convinced by Hobbes, I reread Kropotkin’s writing a few times, read background material, and found that I actually agreed with many of his opinions. I revised, and in my paper I argued that neither of them was completely correct.
For the English PBAT, you have to write a well-developed literary analysis. I did an analysis of the religious views of the main character in The Life of Pi. Pi claims he’s a part of three different religions, but I felt there were many contradictions to that claim and examined how successful the author was in conveying that idea.
For the science PBAT, students must develop an original science experiment about a question that requires developing a hypothesis, doing the experiment, writing a lab report on it, and then defending the project in a discussion with a team including a real scientist. My science PBAT grew out of work in a course on anatomy and physiology. I designed and carried out an experiment on the effect of stress on memory.
The math PBAT requires us to use what we have learned to solve problems in the real world. For example, I used what I had learned in trigonometry to calculate how far away the Empire State Building is from my school and then explained how you could solve this and other problems using trig.
The Consortium’s system has demonstrated impressive results:
- The Consortium has a documented record of improving skills in ways that standardized testing does not. In addition to maintaining a graduation rate that exceeds that of overall New York City public schools, a study conducted by Dr. Martha Foote shows that the Consortium has a proven record of producing graduates who go on to successful undergraduate careers. Results from the study have been impressive.
In the sample, 77% of consortium school graduates attended four-year colleges, 19% attended two-year colleges, and 4% attended vocational or technical programs. In the sample of students attending four-year colleges, 7% enrolled in the most competitive colleges, 14% enrolled in highly competitive colleges, 30% enrolled in very competitive colleges, 32% enrolled in competitive colleges, 14% enrolled in less competitive colleges, 2% enrolled in noncompetitive colleges, and 1% enrolled in specialized colleges. These results, combined with the consortium’s high school statistics, indicate that consortium schools are highly effective. They hold onto their students, teach them well, graduate them, and send them on to higher education prepared to accomplish college-level work and persist in their studies. (Foote, 2007, pp.359–363)
- Using National Student Clearinghouse data, the study further revealed that Consortium school graduates have a 93.3% 4-year and an 83.9% community college 2-year persistence rate compared to the 74.7% and 53.5% national rate. The Consortium’s impact on minority males is equally telling: 86% and 90% of African American and Latino male Consortium graduates respectively, were accepted to college in 2011. In contrast, the national acceptance rate for African American and Latino male high-school graduates was 37% and 42% nationally.
- Consortium schools also have significantly lower student suspension and teacher turnover rates than both charter high schools nationally and New York City high schools as a whole.
All this was accomplished despite the fact that the Consortium’s pool of students include more students living at the poverty level, a higher percentage of Latinos and English Language Learners, and a higher percentage of students with lower English and math skills than the overall NYC public high school population (Performance Standards Consortium, 2012).
These outcomes were achieved by holding students to high standards through a performance-based system that emphasizes curriculum and instruction that challenges students to build on the skills they have to improve and by encouraging them to grapple with difficult questions. Performance-based assessment gives students ownership of the learning process—something standardized testing and conventional test prep cannot do. It says to the student: “We are asking you to develop and demonstrate skills by reading, writing, investigating, and problem solving topics and questions that you participate in choosing. The topics you choose should be something that interests you and about which you may have a strong opinion. You must support your viewpoint with evidence, do research, ask questions, and learn how to express your views while still respecting others.” Through this process, the assessment itself becomes a vehicle of equity because it tells students that their ideas matter, and that the development of their ideas is a crucial component of the hard work they must do.
Alan Blankstein served for 25 years as President of the HOPE Foundation, which he founded and whose honorary chair is Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He worked for Phi Delta Kappa, March of Dimes, and Solution Tree, which he founded in 1987 and directed for 12 years while launching Professional Learning Communities beginning in the late 1980s. He is the author of the best-selling book Failure Is Not an Option®: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools, which received the Book of the Year award from Learning Forward. Alan is Senior Editor, lead contributor, and/or author of 18 books, including Excellence Through Equity with Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He holds tenured faculty appointments in the departments of Teaching and Learning and Humanities and Social Sciences at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development and in the Department of Sociology at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and the co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings (IGEMS).