Taking the road less traveled: Authentic assessment in other locales

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Authentic assessment, in other words direct assessment and performance assessment, has been a fixture in private schools for decades. Lately, it’s seeped into the public arena.

Standardized and authentic assessment are now forging ahead on parallel fronts. Sam Meisels, a University of Michigan education professor with a concentration in assessment, observes that even as many states and districts have adopted standardized tests for accountability programs, others have expanded the use of authentic methods for their instructional worth. “We’re moving in both directions now,” he says.

Authentic-assessment advocates are passionate in their cause. “We are judged in the real world by how we present ourselves, and so it should be in school,” asserts Massachusetts educator Deborah Meier, a longtime proponent of authentic assessment. Here are six examples of states, school districts and schools across the country that use authentic assessment to some degree.

All preschool and primary teachers in the St. Paul Public Schools gauge their pupils’ progress via “work sampling,” an assessment method for younger students developed by University of Michigan Prof. Sam Meisels and some colleagues.

First, a teacher charts each student’s progress by observing his or her actions in several (but not all) of seven “domains,” which are broad categories that embrace types of learning, from personal and social to scientific thinking.” You try to notice what the children are doing, looking for continuity over weeks and months,” says Melissa Shamblott, work sampling coordinator for the St. Paul Public Schools. The observations, recorded on Post-it® notes or journals, ultimately find their way onto a checklist that the teacher keeps.

Meanwhile, one or two samples of student work from the domains are put into a portfolio. Also collected: pieces of work unique to a child, like a first drawing or a name being printed for the first time. From the checklist and the portfolio, the teacher prepares a summary report, which contains a narrative section and “progress ratings.” The summary report has replaced the report card for children up through 1st grade. (In 2nd through 6th grade, Shamblott says, work sampling fades as an assessment tool.)

To Shamblott’s mind, work sampling functions especially well in a diverse St. Paul: “We’ve got a lot of divisions here—70 language groups in our schools—and so we need a way to document academic success beyond standardized tests.” Teachers find the method time-consuming but see it as helpful, especially to parents, says kindergarten teacher Sue Gagliardi. “Parents walk away with much more information about their kids,” says Gagliardi, who assesses in all seven domains.

Work sampling is used elsewhere in Minnesota and in South Carolina, Maryland, Delaware and Pittsburgh, Pa. A Meisels-led study of 3rd- and 4th-graders in Pittsburgh shows mean scores on the district’s standardized test in reading rising dramatically after exposure to work sampling. The increase was less pronounced in math.

NEW YORK

Urban Academy Laboratory High School, located on Manhattan’s East Side, was established 15 years ago by teachers Ann Cook and Herb Mack. The public facility draws 115, largely poor students from all five boroughs of the city. Instruction is delivered in varying blocks of time and is based on primary-source material and real-life examples. “The trigonometry class might spend an afternoon on the Staten Island ferry to figure out the distance between Manhattan and Staten Island using the height of the Statue of Liberty,” remarks Cook, the school’s co-director.

Seniors can graduate only if they show mastery in science, writing, critical analysis, math, research, the creative arts and more through performance assessments, projects and oral defenses before one or more judges. The students are rated on a rubric scale of 1 to 4.

Already Phoebus Widjaja, an incoming senior from Queens, has executed an original science experiment, testing at what soil depths basil plants grow best, and he’s done problems in trigonometry. He will write a literary analysis of the book Native Speaker. Phoebus must also earn passing grades in his course work and participate in community service, which for him has meant being a teacher’s aide in an elementary school in the same building.

“At my old school [Hunter College High School] you had to memorize for tests,” says Widjaja. “Here, they teach you to analyze and draw your own conclusions.”

This year, the New York Performance Standards Consortium, 40 schools across New York state, won the right to exempt their seniors from having to pass the state Regents Examination in language arts, which is a new state-mandated graduation requirement. (By 2003, New York seniors will have to pass state Regents Exams in five subject areas.)

Cook is quite pleased: “High-stakes tests don’t tell you much. As it is, we meet and exceed state standards, and our kids prove it.” All Urban Academy graduates are accepted at colleges and universities, among them Swarthmore, Brown and Macalester.

CONNECTICUT

“We’ve been working to balance the idea of ‘Do you know it?’ with ‘Can you use it?,'” says K. Michael Hibbard, Interim Schools Supt. of Connecticut Region 15, which educates 5,000 students in Middlebury and Southbury, which are middle-income suburbs of Waterbury. “We want to know if our kids can apply what they are doing.”

Beginning eight years ago, the district infused performance tasks into units of language arts, science, math, art, music and physical education. Every few weeks, says Hibbard, a student will encounter such a task. “In 5th grade, for instance, the students read the novel Hatchet,” he says. “They have to answer a question in writing about whether Brian, the main character, should be considered as having an outstanding trait. The teacher will be looking at the student’s content, the evidence he marshals, his transitions and his vocabulary.”

The tasks, which Hibbard describes as “valid, user-friendly and equitable,” lead all the way from kindergarten through high school. The performance tasks and writing samples end up in portfolios, which are shared with parents at some grade levels at spring conferences.

The performance tasks help determine grades, says Hibbard, but are not used as an independent assessment tool by the district. “To do that would require a lot of energy,” he says.

The district dropped the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills several years ago. “They weren’t integrated in our studies and took up too much time,” Hibbard explains. The district now relies on two Connecticut state tests at 4th, 6th, 8th and 10th grades to chart its students’ progress.

“They are useful—we do need some standardized measure of assessment,” remarks Hibbard. “The state tests are telling us that our kids are doing damn good. As it is, 30 per cent of high school junior and seniors are taking AP classes—that’s three times the level of districts in similar circumstances. That’s enough for many parents to know.”

MASSACHUSETTS

To many minds, Central Park East School in East Harlem in New York City set the current standard in progressive public education starting in 1974. Now Deborah Meier, the school’s founding matriarch, has taken what she learned and applied it at Mission Hill School, a “pilot,” or public alternative school, in Boston.

“This is an enormous challenge, but I have enormous freedom,” the 69-year-old Meier says of Mission Hill, an elementary school that opened in 1997. The facility occupies part of a former Catholic high school in the low-income Roxbury neighborhood and draws its racially diverse student body—to top out at 180—from across the city.

Before students become proficient in reading, they exhibit their skills in language arts by reciting a memorized selection into a tape recorder; the tape goes into their portfolios. Then they submit to interviews on content and are judged on a seven-point scale. They also submit writing samples and are assessed both on mechanics and on what Meier terms “authorship. In other words, does what they’re saying make sense? Is it lively?”

Ability in four areas of math—number sense, space, computation and applications—gets determined through a portfolio of material. “We say whether the work is very strong, adequate or indicates a cause for concern,” relates Meier.

In the course of a year, Mission Hill gives four forms of feedback to parents—two rubric-scaled report cards, a checklist and a long narrative. There are no grades. Lengthy conferences among a teacher, parents and the child occur twice a year.

To graduate from Mission Hill, 7th- and 8th-graders present and defend work in seven areas before a panel of four judges, at least two of them teachers. Plus, prospective graduates complete a short-term assignment; for instance, they are given a topic and then spend a morning researching it in the school library.

Mission Hill and other pilot schools are exempted from city standardized tests until 4th grade. However, they must take State of Massachusetts subject-area exams beginning in 3rd grade, which Meier terms “fruitless, and so I’m part of the opposition to such things.”

VERMONT

Dating back to colonial times, Vermont has often gone its own way. In 1989, when it came time for the small, rural state to put in some form of uniform assessment, teachers and administrators took an independent stance for their 319 schools.

“We wanted kids to do interesting and engaging work that would be reflected in how we assessed them,” says Ross Brewer, then director of planning and policy development for Education Commissioner Richard Mills, who led three months of brainstorming among teachers, parents, school board members and legislators. The result, beginning in 1991: student portfolios and rubrics in math at 4th, 8th and 10th grades, and in writing at 5th and 8th.

Vermont students fill their math portfolios with their seven best samples from four concept areas: probability and statistics; patterns, functions and algebra; geometry and measurement; and numbers sense and operations. In writing, students include six pieces: a response to literature, a report of information, a narrative, a procedure, a persuasive essay and a personal essay.

Teachers attach rubric ratings to the portfolios at each school; then in summer, a sampling of 1,600 are sent to “camp portfolio,” where scorers convene at a resort to come up with state averages.

Vermont students also take the New Standards Reference Examination, which is two-thirds performance-based. Results from both the New Standards exam and the portfolio rankings are shared with the public, yet bear no consequences for schools.

Scores on the rubrics have been going up “year by year,” reports Deborah Armitage, state math assessment consultant.

Nicki Houston, a teacher in northern Vermont, says portfolios have transformed education for her students, “who now function with reflection, revision and revamping. There’s lots of conversation. They behave much like literate adults do.”

The view of state writing and English consultant Geof Hewitt is more qualified; he sees the results as “good but not great, because the portfolios often become a contest, not a tool for assessment. Yet writing in the state has improved. It’s a deal with the devil.” It’s also a deal that Kentucky followed, in 1992, by requiring writing portfolios.

Bureau of Indian Affairs

In 1987, a state-funded project at the University of California at San Diego, under educator Mary Barr, experimented in several elementary schools with “the learning record,” a form of portfolio assessment pioneered in London in the early 1980s. After Republican Pete Wilson became governor in 1991, the record initiative was quickly abandoned.

Barr resurrected the learning record, and it survives for writing and reading in about 40 of 185 schools operated by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs; they are located principally in isolated parts of Arizona and New Mexico.

Before beginning instruction, teachers interview students and their parents to get a sense of past experience and to set goals. Periodically, the teacher will write a reflection on where a student stands academically, using a rubric scale of one to five. The teacher writes a final assessment at year’s end. Attached to the learning record are samples of works—essays, drawings, reports or lists of books the child has read—that confirm the scale rating.

Then, other teachers at the school and off-site teachers review the record and samples to confirm the scores.

The record is especially valuable for the bureau’s schools, administrators say. “Our kids have low vocabulary and don’t do well on standardized tests,” explains Gaye Leia King, a bureau education specialist based in Albuquerque. “The learning record enables us to see where they are.”

It also provides one of the multiple assessments the federal government requires of schools receiving federal Title I education funds.

However, it’s been hard to bring teachers on board. Bureau schools can—and do—give standardized tests, and teachers resist doing the record, says King. “This is something I wish could permeate our system, but it’s labor intensive,” she says. “You have to restructure your classroom to make it work, with small groups where children can read to you. If the students are all aligned in rows, this is difficult to achieve.”