Student-Centered Learning in the AP Physics Classroom

A great example of student-centered and project-based learning.

 

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Stoneman Douglas Students Were Trained For This Moment

Slate

How the student activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High demonstrate the power of a comprehensive education.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma González gives a speech at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb. 17.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma González gives a speech at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Feb. 17.
Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School returned to class Wednesday morning two weeks and moral centuries after a tragic mass shooting ended the lives of 17 classmates and teachers. Sen. Marco Rubio marked their return by scolding them for being “infected” with “arrogance” and “boasting.” The Florida legislature marked their return by enacting a $67 million program to arm school staff, including teachers, over the objections of students and parents. Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill opted to welcome them back by ignoring their wishes on gun control, which might lead a cynic to believe that nothing has changed in America after yet another horrifying cycle of child murder and legislative apathy.

But that is incorrect. Consumers and businesses are stepping in where the government has cowered. Boycotts may not influence lawmakers, but they certainly seem to be changing the game in the business world. And the students of Parkland, Florida, unbothered by the games played by legislators and lobbyists, are still planning a massive march on Washington. These teens have—by most objective measures—used social media to change the conversation around guns and gun control in America.

Now it’s time for them to change the conversation around education in America, and not just as it relates to guns in the classroom. The effectiveness of these poised, articulate, well-informed, and seemingly preternaturally mature student leaders of Stoneman Douglas has been vaguely attributed to very specific personalities and talents. Indeed, their words and actions have been so staggeringly powerful, they ended up fueling laughable claims about crisis actors, coaching, and fat checks from George Soros. But there is a more fundamental lesson to be learned in the events of this tragedy: These kids aren’t freaks of nature. Their eloquence and poise also represent the absolute vindication of the extracurricular education they receive at Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

The students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America.

Despite the gradual erosion of the arts and physical education in America’s public schools, the students of Stoneman Douglas have been the beneficiaries of the kind of 1950s-style public education that has all but vanished in America and that is being dismantled with great deliberation as funding for things like the arts, civics, and enrichment are zeroed out. In no small part because the school is more affluent than its counterparts across the country (fewer than 23 percent of its students received free or reduced-price lunches in 2015–16, compared to about 64 percent across Broward County Public Schools) these kids have managed to score the kind of extracurricular education we’ve been eviscerating for decades in the United States. These kids aren’t prodigiously gifted. They’ve just had the gift of the kind of education we no longer value.

Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.” Every middle and high school in the district has a forensics and public-speaking program. Coincidentally, some of the students at Stoneman Douglas had been preparing for debates on the issue of gun control this year, which explains in part why they could speak to the issues from day one.

The student leaders of the #NeverAgain revolt were also, in large part, theater kids who had benefited from the school’s exceptional drama program. Coincidentally, some of these students had been preparing to perform Spring Awakening, a rock musical from 2006. As the New Yorker describes it in an essay about the rise of the drama kids, that musical tackles the question of “what happens when neglectful adults fail to make the world safe or comprehensible for teen-agers, and the onus that neglect puts on kids to beat their own path forward.” Weird.

The student leaders at Stoneman Douglas High School have also included, again, not by happenstance, young journalists, who’d worked at the school paper, the Eagle Eye, with the supervision of talented staff. One of the extraordinary components of the story was the revelation that David Hogg, student news director for the school’s broadcast journalism program, WMSD-TV, was interviewing his own classmates as they hid in a closet during the shooting, and that these young people had the wherewithal to record and write about the events as they unfolded. As Christy Ma, the paper’s staff editor, later explained, “We tried to have as many pictures as possible to display the raw emotion that was in the classroom. We were working really hard so that we could show the world what was going on and why we need change.”

Mary Beth Tinker actually visited the school in 2013 to talk to the students about her role in Tinker v. Des Moines, the seminal Supreme Court case around student speech and protest. As she described it to me, the school’s commitment to student speech and journalism had been long in evidence, even before these particular students were activated by this month’s horrific events. Any school committed to bringing in a student activist from the Vietnam era to talk about protest and freedom is a school more likely than not to be educating activists and passionate students.

To be sure, the story of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students is a story about the benefits of being a relatively wealthy school district at a moment in which public education is being vivisected without remorse or mercy. But unless you’re drinking the strongest form of Kool-Aid, there is simply no way to construct a conspiracy theory around the fact that students who were being painstakingly taught about drama, media, free speech, political activism, and forensics became the epicenter of the school-violence crisis and handled it creditably. The more likely explanation is that extracurricular education—one that focuses on skills beyond standardized testing and rankings—creates passionate citizens who are spring-loaded for citizenship.

Perhaps instead of putting more money into putting more guns into our classrooms, we should think about putting more money into the programs that foster political engagement and skills. In Sen. Rubio’s parlance, Marjory Stoneman Douglas was fostering arrogance. To the rest of the world, it was building adults.

Student-Centered Learning in Spotlight at World’s Largest Ed-Tech Show

Associate Editor

 

What will today’s kindergartners need in order to succeed in the world as the Class of 2030?

“Student-centricity,” according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company on behalf of Microsoft Education, and showcased on the opening day at Bett, the world’s largest educational technology show here.

“That’s a theme we heard loud and clear: focusing on the learner,” said Barbara Holzapfel, the general manager of education marketing for Microsoft, during a presentation about the findings that attracted hundreds of people at a “standing room only” session of the conference.

They want to be supported by teachers who understand their needs, and want to be able to explore for themselves what interests them, she said.

Exhibiting that very trait were three 10-year-olds from Hong Kong, who came to the massive ed-tech show with their teacher Ms. Wong, to show off some of the inventions they built and programmed, including a paper airplane launcher and a tea-making machine that allows their teacher to choose how strong she wants her tea.

Here, the 5th-grade students from a government school explain what their invention does:

The automatic tea maker was a gift for their teacher, who explains their invention:

And the girls explain their favorite part about collaborating on the month-long project to create an automatic tea maker:

But what will all this student-centricity mean for teachers? “Teaching is one of the professions at the least risk of being automated,” said Holzapfel, who said the field is expected to grow exponentially.

The teacher “will morph into a guide and coach for students,” she said. “This is a generation that expects to have voice/choice in their own learning journey…and how they navigate it.”

Jobs of the Future

Lower-skill jobs are likely to continue to be replaced by automation. By 2030, “the fastest-growing occupations will require higher-level cognitive skills in areas such as collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity,” the researchers found, according to an announcement about the study. “To help all students build these crucial cognitive and social and emotional skills, educators will need training, technologies, and time.” (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Schools and the Future of Work.)

McKinsey’s research was based on input from 70 “thought leaders,” an analysis of 150 pieces of relevant research, and surveys of 2,000 teachers and 2,000 students across the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Singapore.

The future of learning, work and life “is going to be profoundly social,” said Holzapfel, so students will need to develop and apply social and emotional skills. In fact, researchers found these “soft skills” to be twice as predictive of academic achievement as home environment and demographics.

Among the students surveyed, 50 percent indicated social-emotional skills were among their top priorities, compared with 30 percent of teachers. But perceptions differ. While only 30 to 40 percent of students feel they are receiving feedback on these skills, between 50 and 60 percent of teachers feel they are providing it.

Personalized Learning: Part of the Solution

Personalized learning is one of the most promising ways to develop social-emotional skills, according to the study. (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality.)

“Research in the past has shown that personalized learning improves cognition and skill development,” said Holzapfel.

“Seventy percent of students believe they can achieve higher growth and more content mastery when they are supported by teachers who really understand them as individuals,” and their individual learning needs, she said.

But personalized learning “is in very high demand, but very short supply,” she explained, noting that 70 percent of teachers say time is a barrier to the approach. Teachers and students in the study disagreed on the pace of learning, with educators identifying time constraints and the ability to individualize to so many students as central to the problem.

Microsoft sees technology as key to the solution. “Artificial intelligence, mixed reality, collaborative platforms, and technologies that go way beyond that—all of these technologies can be really powerful tools” to help teachers save time and gain insights into the learning and progress of each individual student, Holzapfel said.

Will Letter Grades Survive?

Edutopia

A century-old pillar of the school system is under fire as schools look to modernize student assessment.

Under pressure from an unprecedented constellation of forces—from state lawmakers to prestigious private schools and college admissions offices—the ubiquitous one-page high school transcript lined with A–F letter grades may soon be a relic of the past.

In the last decade, at least 15 state legislatures and boards of education have adopted policies incentivizing their public schools to prioritize measures other than grades when assessing students’ skills and competencies. And more recently, over 150 of the top private high schools in the U.S., including Phillips Exeter and Dalton—storied institutions which have long relied on the status conveyed by student ranking—have pledged to shift to new transcripts that provide more comprehensive, qualitative feedback on students while ruling out any mention of credit hours, GPAs, or A–F grades.

Public Domain

Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut is one of 157 private schools that are part of MTC.

Somewhat independently, schools and lawmakers have come to the same conclusion: The old models of student assessment are out of step with the needs of the 21st-century workplace and society, with their emphasis on hard-to-measure skills such as creativity, problem solving, persistence, and collaboration.

“Competency-based education is a growing movement driven by educators and communities focused on ensuring that students have the knowledge they need to flourish in a global economy,” said Susan Patrick, chief executive officer of iNACOL, a nonprofit that runs the website CompetencyWorks. “The future of jobs and the workforce will demand a new set of skills, and students’ capacity to solve complex problems for an unknown future will be essential.”

For their part, colleges—the final arbiters of high school performance—are signaling a surprising willingness to depart from traditional assessments that have been in place since the early 19th century. From Harvard and Dartmouth to small community colleges, more than 70 U.S. institutions of higher learning have weighed in, signing formal statements asserting that competency-based transcripts will not hurt students in the admissions process.

The emerging alignment of K–12 schools with colleges and legislators builds on a growing consensus among educators who believe that longstanding benchmarks like grades, SATs, AP test scores, and even homework are poor measures of students’ skills and can deepen inequities between them. If the momentum holds, a century-old pillar of the school system could crumble entirely, leading to dramatic transitions and potential pitfalls for students and schools alike.

PICKING UP STEAM

Scott Looney, head of the Hawken School in Cleveland, was frustrated. His school had recently begun offering real-world, full-day courses in subjects like engineering and entrepreneurship, but he was finding it difficult to measure and credit the new types of skills students were learning using A–F grades. Looney started reaching out to private high schools and colleges looking for alternatives.

Courtesy of Scott Looney

Scott Looney, head of school at the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio.

Though he found that many educators shared his desires for a new assessment system, he came up empty-handed.

“The grading system right now is demoralizing and is designed to produce winners and losers,” said Looney. “The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids. Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges. I think we can show the unique abilities of kids without stratifying them.”

Looney began brainstorming a new type of transcript for the Hawken School, but quickly realized he would need a critical mass of schools to influence college admissions offices to accept it. With the initial support of 28 other independent schools, Looney formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) in April 2017. The group has since expanded to 157 schools, including both historic institutions like Phillips Exeter and newer alternative schools like the Khan Lab School.

In joining the MTC, each school commits to phase out its existing GPA- and grade-based transcripts for a digital, interactive format that showcases students’ academic and enrichment skills, areas for growth, and samples of work or talents, such as a video of a public speaking competition or a portfolio of artwork.

The purpose of education is not to sort kids—it’s to grow kids. Teachers need to coach and mentor, but with grades, teachers turn into judges.

While the transcript is still in its infancy, organizers say it will resemble a websitethat each school will be able customize by choosing from a menu of skills like critical thinking, creativity, and self-directed learning, along with core content areas such as algebraic reasoning. Instead of earning credit hours and receiving grades, students will take courses to prove they’ve developed key skills and competencies. Looney insists that the transcripts will be readable by admissions officers in two minutes or less.

The MTC’s work is not entirely original, though, and takes its lead from a number of public schools—most notably in New England—that have been rethinking traditional methods of assessing students for more than a decade.

Some are supported by the nonprofit group Great Schools Partnership, which helped influence Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire to adopt state board of education policies or legislation in the last decade on proficiency-based assessment systems. Other districts, in Florida, California, and Georgia, have made similar changes more recently, and pilot programs have emerged in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Illinois, Ohio, and Oregon.

©iNACOL

A map from iNACOL estimates that 48 states have at least some policy supporting competency-based education.

There’s also backing from colleges. The Great Schools Partnership was able to garner the support of more than 70 colleges and universities, suggesting that higher ed admissions offices are ready for the change.

“We are accustomed to academic reports from around the world, including those from students who have been privately instructed and even self-taught,” said Marlyn McGrath, Harvard University’s director of admissions, replying via email about the transcripts. “In cases where we need additional information, we typically ask for it. So we are not concerned that students presenting alternative transcripts will be disadvantaged because of format.”

MASTERY VERSUS SEAT TIME

But the new transcripts are just the tip of the iceberg, according to supporters, part of a larger movement to do away with a system where kids can progress through grades or courses without really understanding material and be promoted for seat time and good behavior. When students move on to harder topics, they continue to accumulate gaps in their knowledge—a setup for failure in the later grades or collegiate years.

Under a competency model, kids can no longer just “get by,” said Derek Pierce, principal of Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, which has used a proficiency-based transcript since 2005.

The new transcripts “get kids focused on doing their personal best on meeting or exceeding standards rather than getting a better grade than the kid next to them,” said Pierce. “There is no longer a ‘gentleman’s C’.”

However, without widespread agreement on the necessary skills and knowledge required for core classes, proving mastery may be just as elusive and arbitrary as the current system. Even MTC member schools won’t rely on a shared understanding of what mastery means. Instead, each school will be able to quantify it independently, leaving college admissions officers—according to critics—without a clear basis of comparison.

Our learning structures have to be much more nimble to allow today’s learners to navigate through opportunities where they can see themselves as the authors of their own education.

While competency-based education proponents argue that the new transcripts will identify students with skills that academia has traditionally overlooked, others worry about equity for marginalized students, who already struggle in the current system. Some critics have suggested that the new transcripts may be a way for wealthier schools, especially private schools like those in the MTC, to give their students an even greater advantage when competing for limited positions at the best universities.

©Khan Lab School

Competency-based transcript proponents like the Khan Lab School, pictured here, believe the new assessments are necessary to foster 21st-century skills.

There are other unanswered questions and challenges to be worked out, too. Will college admissions counselors have enough time, especially at large public colleges, to look meaningfully at dense digital portfolios of student work? Will the new transcripts create too much work and new training for K-12 teachers, as they struggle to measure hard-to-define categories of learning? Perhaps most importantly, will parents buy in?

“There’s still plenty of work ahead and some pretty radical changes taking place,” explained Mike Martin, director of curriculum and technology at Montpelier Public Schools in Vermont, whose district starting transitioning to a competency-based model in 2013.

Many public and private schools, like Martin’s, are still years away from full implementation, and others are grappling with the nuts and bolts of how to implement dramatically new systems for student learning and assessment. Those on the forefront of these changes, though, remain hopeful that the new system will push all students to develop the skills they need to succeed in college and careers.

“Our learning structures have to be much more nimble to allow today’s learners to navigate through opportunities where they can see themselves as the authors of their education,” said Martin. “Proficiency-based education is about getting every single student up to a certain skill level and ensuring every student can succeed.”

Teenage Inventor Alexis Lewis Thinks That Kids Have the Solutions to the World’s Problems

Watch This Great Video on Alexis

With a patent to her name and more likely on the way, the 15-year-old has made it her mission to inspire young innovators

SMITHSONIAN.COM

 

Benjamin Franklin invented swim flippers when he was 12 years old. Frank Epperson, age 11, conceived of the popsicle, and 16-year-old George Nissen thought up a trampoline.

Just last year, Kiowa Kavovit, then 6, became the youngest to pitch her invention—a liquid bandage called Boo Boo Goo—on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

In the United States, there is no age requirement for filing a patent.

Alexis Lewis, a 15-year-old inventor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wants children across the country to know that an inventor isn’t something you have to be when you grow up; they can be one now. Lewis holds a patent for a wheeled travois—a triangular load-carrying device with a bamboo frame and a bed of netting that she designed to serve Somali refugees, who need to transport their children many miles to camps and hospitals. Her patent-pending emergency mask pod is a football-shaped canister with protective gear that firefighters and first responders can throw through a window of a smoke-filled building to those trapped inside.

The two-time winner of the ePals-Smithsonian Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, a competition for young inventors age 5 to 18, is a vocal advocate for “Inventing 101” courses to be a part of middle school curriculums.

Why should more people invent?

I think not only is it important to tell people that they can invent but it’s important also to tell them that they should be [inventing] because they have their own unique perspective on the world. Everybody has lived a different life, everybody has seen it [the world] slightly differently and I think everybody has a slightly different take on each problem. And I think if we all work together we can solve a tremendous number of problems.

What motivates you to invent?

My inventions are motivated by one of two things usually. One, it’s a humanitarian issue, basically people who aren’t getting the help they need, people who are dying unnecessarily when they could be saved. Another reason that I often invent is that I’ll get myself absolutely buried in a piece of physics, just learning about it obsessively. Then, I start to realize that there are little things that can be done to make technologies revolving around it a little bit more efficient here, a little bit more effective there.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about the environment you grew up in and how that’s impacted you as an inventor?

My mom would always read to the family about various world issues. When Hurricane Katrina hit [Alexis was 5 years old], we learned all about that—what a hurricane was, how it worked, the effects of Hurricane Katrina itself, what they were doing to help clear out floodwaters, all sorts of fascinating stuff. Being homeschooled, I had a lot of free time in which I was encouraged to basically go and do and build almost anything I wanted. I had access to videos on any subject, so I got to learn about the science of everything, and I read voraciously. I think having those channels of knowledge open to me was completely invaluable.

Do you think you have some advantages as an inventor given the fact that you’ve started young?

I don’t mean to put adults down, but when you’ve grown up and you’ve seen the world for a long time, you think its one way. I’d say that starting young has had an advantage in that I have the ability to look at something and not think, “oh this is a problem that can’t be solved,” but instead think maybe we’ve been looking at it just a little bit wrong. Kids, since they haven’t been told this is something that would never work over and over, have the have the ability to do that.

What is Inventing 101? Where did the idea come from, and why is it important to you?

It’s a class I hope to have administered to middle school students across the country that would basically tell them that they are capable of inventing. It would show them kids who have already invented. If people aren’t told when they’re young that they can invent, it’s going to be much harder to convince them that they can.

I had this idea when I was looking back at the stuff I had done, at my inventions and realizing that these are some simple [designs.] It’s not going to necessarily be the collapsible travois with custom made specially fabricated joints, it’s going to be the simple bamboo one that anybody can make. It’s not necessarily going to be the $700 grenade launcher, it’s going to be a little football-shaped pod that costs all of $4. People are stunned when they hear what I’ve done. But these are things that I know for a fact a lot of people can do. So I thought there’s got to be some way to awaken that self-confidence in people to enable them to do that.

How does your Emergency Mask Pod (EMP) work?

The emergency mask pod is basically a two-part football canister that holds a smoke mask made by Xcaper Industries, a pair of goggles and a little light-emitting device, most likely a LED light strip in the final version. The goggles allow people to concentrate more fully on getting out without having to worry about their eyes burning. The mask gives people the ability to breathe without dealing with the toxic effects of the smoke, and the light strip allows people to more easily locate the pod when it flies into a dark smoky room.

Designing the EMP pod was a process of trial and error. I’m a kid. I like things that go boom and shoot, and so my first thought was let’s just launch it up there. I did a whole bunch of research, and I was looking at a couple of different launcher mechanisms. I had the mascot of a local sports team fire a pneumatic cannon, basically a t-shirt cannon, into an open window from a very close distance, and accuracy was pretty abysmal. I went from a pneumatic cannon, which didn’t work at all, to a couple of so-so throwable devices, and ended up finally with a throwable canister with an accuracy of over 75 percent.

People think that the inventors of the world are the crazy mad scientists and white lab coats working long hours developing crazy new technologies. But that’s not the case. It’s not something reserved for Edison, Graham Bell, all the greats. Inventors are basically anybody and everybody who’s ever tried to solve a problem.

Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project: It’s About Equity

Learning Policy Institute

Guest Author Young Whan Choi

What should a high school student be able to do upon graduation?

While students ultimately choose many different roads after high school, the Oakland Unified School District has made a commitment that we will prepare all students for college, career, and community. To this end, we expect all seniors to complete a Graduate Capstone Project in which students choose a topic, conduct original field research, write a research paper, and present orally to an audience that includes school staff and often community members.

Research shows that, when designed and implemented well, performance assessments like OUSD’s Capstone Project are essential for measuring and improving student performance with higher-order thinking skills like inquiry, research, analysis, problem solving, and communication. They are also essential for developing other important skills, like planning, organizing, reflecting, and self-assessing, as well as teaching students to be resourceful and resilient.

Oakland’s decision to institute a senior project in 2005 was rooted in advancing these goals. However, for many years, the district had not made any concerted effort to support the equitable implementation of the requirement. Five years ago, it was common for seniors at some schools to complete a rigorous research project and defend it publicly in front of strangers, while their peers at other schools were not expected to complete any kind of project in order to graduate.

In the Oakland Unified School District, a yearlong Graduate Capstone Project provides an opportunity for students to research, analyze, and become experts in a topic of their own choosing. A video, produced by the Learning Policy Institute and the Oakland Unified School District, shows how this complex project, which is used as a districtwide performance assessment, is building students’ ownership of their own learning and helping them develop and use critical thinking and communication skills.

The Power of Performance Assessments: Oakland Unified’s Graduate Capstone Project

Our teachers surfaced these equity issues, and together we began an effort to promote consistent expectations of high-level work through what we now call the Graduate Capstone Project. The work began in earnest in 2014, when teachers from a handful of schools convened first to identify a set of key graduation competencies, then to incorporate those competencies into evaluation rubrics, and finally to pilot them in their schools.

One high school’s experience with the rubrics illustrates their importance. At this school, students in all career academies had to write a paper as part of the senior project, but the academies had never used the same rubric for scoring until the 2014–15 school year. During that academic year, they also required every paper in the school to be scored without the students’ names and by two adults.

When the first drafts of the papers were scored in May, every single student from the academy with the highest number of Black students failed. This was not a failing of those students. Rather, the results revealed that the students in this academy had been allowed for years to think that their work was meeting a standard for college. When the school adapted a common rubric for all seniors and created a transparent scoring process, it exposed a history of low expectations.

Those students with unsatisfactory first drafts rallied with the help of teachers to improve the quality of their work in the final days before graduation. More importantly, the teachers and staff organized to figure out how to ensure students in all academies would not only be held to the same rigorous expectations the following year, but would also receive the same high-quality instructional supports to be successful. Their key steps included having regular meetings of the Graduate Capstone Project teachers to share instructional practices, identifying an adult mentor in the school for every senior, and moving up deadlines to ensure that students receive early feedback on the progress of their projects. The following year, students from all academies had comparable pass rates on the Capstone research paper.

By looking at student work and discussing how we would score it using the rubric, teachers calibrate their expectations of what high-quality work looks and sounds like.

This story speaks to the value of clear expectations for quality and to the even more critical question of how we ensure that all students learn what they need to be successful. In Oakland, we have found that the real opportunity of having common rubrics has been the resulting conversations that teachers have been able to have across our district. These conversations have led teachers to change their practices to reflect the level and types of instructional supports students need to be successful. Four times a year and for a week every summer, Graduate Capstone Project teachers from across our high schools learn together. We start with the rubrics because they give us a common language, but we don’t stop there.

By looking at student work and discussing how we would score it using the rubric, teachers calibrate their expectations of what high-quality work looks and sounds like. From there, they learn about different instructional practices from their peers and from instructional experts. They investigate these practices by trying them in their own classrooms to see whether they support all students to achieve the level of quality that we expect

With the district having adopted the common rubric, our next step is to begin central collection of data relating to student performance on the Graduate Capstone Project. With these data, we will be able to conduct a detailed analysis across school sites and student groups to understand how well we are meeting our equity goals by preparing all students with the knowledge and skills they need after graduation.

In 2017, we surveyed graduating seniors for the first time to better understand how they felt the Graduate Capstone Project was supporting their development of key college-ready skills. The results were promising: 83% of the 1,290 students who took the survey said the assessment was valuable for improving their skills as researchers; 81% said it was valuable for improving their skills as writers; and 84% said it was valuable for improving their skills as presenters. Further, 81% of the student respondents said the Graduate Capstone Project was valuable in helping them become more proactive learners. We’ll continue to administer this survey annually.

As we move forward, we hope to work with an external evaluator on a rigorous evaluation of the impact of the Graduate Capstone Project on student skills, engagement, and graduation rates. In the meantime, feedback from students and staff tells us we are on the right track. Our alumni come back and say their Capstone helped them get ready for college. Educators, for their part, remark on the sense of accomplishment students feel on completion of a Capstone and their excitement and engagement as they explore issues they care about.

We have included teachers as true partners at all stages of the work, from identifying key competencies for our graduates to revising the rubrics and developing the instructional improvement goals.

There are several practices that have contributed to our progress from a district that lacked a clear way to assess graduate outcomes to a district that has articulated competencies that are measured using common rubrics at most of our high schools. As central office leaders, we have listened to our teachers, whose perspectives are too rarely taken into consideration when making decisions. We have included teachers as true partners at all stages of the work, from identifying key competencies for our graduates to revising the rubrics and developing the instructional improvement goals. We have modeled the process of calibration on scoring student work, so that principals and teachers can lead this process with their staffs. We have also provided guidance to leaders to ensure that there are financial resources for teachers to participate in professional learning both during the school year and over the summer.

In our schools that have embraced this work most fully, we hear the staff having conversations about the quality of student Graduate Capstone Project work at various levels of the school—from grade level to department to career pathway to instructional leadership. If you walk through these schools during Graduate Capstone Project presentations, the audience won’t just be teachers who work with seniors. Instead, you will see members of the entire high school staff, because they understand that their efforts throughout a student’s high school career are a critical part of a senior’s success.

By starting with the end in mind, the school faculty can see where their instructional strengths and gaps are and set clear improvement goals. These concerted and unified efforts by a school to improve instruction lead to better student outcomes. There’s no quick fix for improving a school. Instead, it takes deliberate and persistent work for a school to transform student learning so that schools fulfill our promise to educate all students.

Young Whan Choi is the Manager of Performance Assessments for the Oakland Unified School District.

The Power of Performance Assessments: Oakland Unified’s Graduate Capstone Project

Learning Policy Institute

Their Graduate Capstone Projects may be done and graded, but seniors from the Oakland Unified School District say they’ll be reaping the benefits and keeping alive the passions that came with their yearlong graduation requirement as they move on to college and work.

Oakland High School’s Kennedy Russ plans to work for improved reproductive health care for underserved women. Valeria Fernandez, from Fremont High School, has her sights set on a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field and plans to be a role model to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. Marwat Al-Olefi, from Life Academy, wants to combat racial bias in health care. All of these aspirations were honed and deepened as these students worked on the research for their Capstone Projects.

Passion, relevance, in-depth research, control over their own learning, and a desire to create change in their own community are a few of the ways Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project differs from other assignments and assessments that are often completed and then forgotten.

During the yearlong project, students delve deeply into issues that interest them, designing their own research projects that include analyzing online and print sources and conducting field work. In addition to completing a significant research paper, students share their findings and analysis with peers, teachers, and the broader community in a formal presentation. Throughout the process, they’re honing an array of critical thinking and communications skills that they will need to meet the future challenges of college, work, and civic life.

Video Series: Reflections on Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project
OUSD students, teachers, and administrators reflect on performance assessments and their impact in these video clips.

OUSD Video Gallery

Teachers, for their part, are learning to shift their practices to function more as coaches, providing support and guidance to students throughout the project. They’re also working with peers in their school and district to create and refine the structure, process, and evaluation of the Graduate Capstone Project.

Preston Thomas, high school network superintendent for Oakland Unified, said the goal of the Capstone Project is to provide students with the challenge and opportunity to solve authentic problems and engage in deep learning that has an impact in the real world. Throughout the process, they have “an opportunity to integrate college- and career-readiness skills.”

As part of the district’s Linked Learning initiative, students explore career pathways through coursework and related internships. For some seniors, Capstone Projects are born out of these work experiences. Others choose to explore a topic that’s relevant to their neighborhood or community or that they’re curious or passionate about. Capstone Projects for the Class of ’17 focused on such diverse topics as the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, sexism in video games, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women, alternative medicine, beekeeping, refusing medical treatment, sex trafficking, lack of access to reproductive health care, and life expectancy differences between minority and white populations.

A Path Toward Equity

Oakland schools have long required senior projects for graduation. In the past, however, instruction, project requirements, and results varied from school to school and from teacher to teacher. “You had some (projects) that were portfolios, some that … almost looked like middle school reports, you had some that were in-depth research papers, you had some that were action projects,” said Young Whan Choi, district manager of performance assessments. “From that incredible diversity of senior projects emerged the sense that there was a lot of inequity, and students and teachers were clamoring for more support and direction,” he added.

In 2014, district administrators began partnering with teachers to fashion a more consistent and equitable system of assessment. Through that process, they created a districtwide rubric that effectively defines skills to be evaluated and creates a more structured and collaborative process so that requirements and assessments are comparable across schools.

It was important, said Choi, that the teachers created a shared vision of what high-quality research, writing, and oral presentations looked like. “What the performance assessment system requires is a high degree of collaboration and everybody being aligned to a common mission and purpose as a school community.”

A Focus on Revision and Growth

Throughout the process, students have opportunities to get feedback and revise their work. Students and educators alike see the emphasis on growth and improvement as integral to the yearlong performance assessment. A low or even failing grade on a paper or presentation is not considered the end of the road, and many students appreciate that the assessment allows for a second or third opportunity for them to incorporate feedback, revise their work, and further hone their knowledge and skills.

 One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence.
—Matin Abdel-Qawi, Principal, Oakland High School

“One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence,” said Matin Abdel-Qawi, principal of Oakland High School. “They don’t believe they can write a paper of that length. They don’t believe they can do that amount of research. They don’t believe they can stand up in front of a group of adults and present their findings and their research. … The beauty is we have such amazing teachers here who continue to remind them and encourage them and watch them go through that productive struggle from ‘I can’ to ‘I did.’”

Teachers find that in teaching the skills that are essential to successful completion of the Capstone Project, they grow, too—both in their ability to support independent student learning and their ability to step back and let the students put their developing skills to work.

“Incorporating performance assessments in my classroom has changed the way I teach,” said Fremont High School English teacher Johanna Paraiso. “I’m a much more courageous teacher, not only in keeping up with new technology, finding ways to incorporate rubric skills throughout the year, and being responsive to students’ questions and dilemmas, but in being part of a teacher team willing to openly assess whether their teaching methods are working and to change direction if they’re not.”

That willingness to continually reassess happens at the administrative level, too. Abdel-Qawi said he and the teachers continue to find ways to make the projects more rigorous, more relevant, and more related to the goals of the Linked Learning Pathways and the school.

The district, for its part, supports teachers and school sites through regular professional development, assistance with changes in the master schedule to allow for more collaboration time, and convening teachers so they can make ongoing revisions to the rubric. Just as students are encouraged to do, Choi says the district is “constantly trying to assess, ‘What can we learn? How can we get better?’”