While schools wait for innovation in accountability testing, some are taking matters into their
own hands, creating performance assessments
that guide and strengthen teaching and learning.
Typically, these assessments come in the form
of portfolios and presentations -- tasks that bear
something in common with the kind of work students may ultimately do in college or in a job.
At Anzar High School, in San Juan Bautista,
California, students must complete a series of
exhibitions to graduate, each one including a
research-based written piece and an oral presentation.
The topics are of the students' own
choosing, fashioned (with guidance from a teacher-adviser)
to cover language arts, science, history,
math, and service-learning and postgraduate
plans -- areas typically combined into three cross-disciplinary
exhibitions. Students work for a
semester or more on each project, and a panel of
jurists, including teachers, alumni, and community
members, evaluates their performance.
Marisol Garcia presents her argument about the effects of prisons on Latinos.
Credit: Grace Rubenstein
"If things are going as intended, students are
really passionate about their issue, which means
they're getting to devote a whole class period to
working on something they adore," says Principal
Charlene McKowen, whose school serves
420 students from San Juan Bautista and Aromas,
rural communities south of San Jose. "It's
almost eerie once they get going. You just hear
'Click-click-click,' and it's pretty quiet."
On exhibition day last spring, presentations
covered such diverse topics as "Is Prison an
Effective Rehabilitation for Latino Males?" "How
Do Pets Affect Health and Education?" and
"What Materials Will Be Used in the Future of
Surfboard Manufacture?" Marisol Garcia, a junior
who had researched the merits and failings
of prisons, faced three panelists, a teacher, an
alumnus now working at an international staffing
company, and a San Jose State University professor.
She told them about her interview with
a prison guard, and drew connections between
the data she'd found and a memoir she'd read,
Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.,
by Luis J. Rodriguez.
The verdict: Garcia excelled in analyzing the
book but needed more substance in her factual
presentation, the jurists said. They gave her a 2
("minimal pass") for the history component and
a 3 ("outstanding effort all around") for language
arts. Said Garcia, "You have to actually know
what you're talking about. It takes a lot of time
These assessments don't take away the pain
of state accountability tests, but they do steer
instruction toward critical thinking and endow
students with confidence and useful skills.
In other schools, says McKowen, "I would just
see over and over again that students would go
off to college and be afraid or feel like a fraud, because
they'd learned how to play the game. We
wanted to be sure that any student who graduated
from here would know what they were capable
Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.