Looking smart in a blue button-down shirt, Jorge Magana, 18, zipped through a PowerPoint presentation with the confidence of a Fortune 500 CEO.
Seated in front Magana in a classroom at Los Angeles High School of the Arts was a panel of three judges: the school’s assistant principal, a school coordinator and a former student. It was time for his senior defense. Magana had to convince the panel that he was ready to graduate.
If you thought high school graduation remains solely dependent on report cards and standardized tests, a quick, less costly measure of student performance, welcome to high school graduation 2.0. It could be coming to a school near you.
Magana had 45 minutes to present a portfolio emblematic of his high school work. His also included a personal expression: a piece he wrote for AP English about his father’s alcoholism and its effect on his family.
Then came the grilling by the panel: What was your research process? What obstacles did you face? How did you overcome them? How will the skills you learned help with your future plans?
Portfolio assessments like this one, which look a lot like doctoral dissertation defenses, are on the rise in California and across the nation.
“When you see your students reflect on what they’ve learned, and see how that learning has affected them, it’s hard to say this isn’t a good idea,” says Isabel Morales, a 12th grade social studies teacher at Magana’s school, where many faculty members initially viewed the portfolio defense as unnecessary torture. “Watching the defenses taught me how much my lessons count, how crucial it is for me to provide a transformative learning experience for my students.”
The portfolio defenses shed a light for teachers on what they should be doing in professional development. They allow teachers to think about how they might tighten up their practices and get the results they want from students.
Tom Skjervheim, associate director at ConnectEd, which promotes a mix of academic and career-centered programs
Since 1999, California has primarily tied school rankings to test scores, using the Academic Performance Index. Under a new index set to debut in the fall, test scores will account for only 60 percent of a school’s ranking. The balance will factor in graduation data and “proof of readiness for college and career.”
Portfolio assessments can supply this data. The tricky part is convincing skeptics that they’re reliable. Harvard education professor Daniel Koretz said the criteria for what makes a good portfolio can vary widely from school to school, making comparisons difficult.
“The standardized assessment is standardized precisely so that there is nothing extraneous that differs between kids or between schools,” he said.
The question is how can portfolios meet that same test of objectivity.
In a recent report, Stanford University professors Soung Bae and Linda Darling-Hammond recommend that the state allow schools to use “well-designed” portfolios, comprised of work from each of five different subject areas. It would include research essays, art work and other sophisticated projects that can’t be captured on a test in place of traditional exit exams.
“Some say U.S. kids are the most tested and the least examined in the world,” Darling-Hammond said. “We have a lot of tests, but we don’t have high-quality examinations of thinking and performance.”
Stanford’s Center for Assessment, Learning, and Equity has teamed up with ConnectEd, a Berkeley-based organization that promotes a mix of academic and career-centered school programs called “linked learning” to develop reliable data.
The result: an online tool, ConnectEd Studios, that tries to take the subjectivity out of evaluating portfolios. A student writing an argumentative essay, for example, can upload the essay to the site where his teacher can evaluate the work according to a scoring rubric with criteria for grading
Dave Yanofsky, director of strategic communications for ConnectEd, estimates that 20 school districts, including Houston and Philadelphia, have expressed interest in working with the group to build portfolio programs.
The expectation is that an online platform like ConnectEd Studios would create a secure place for students to share videos, audio files, photos, writing samples, resumes and letters of recommendation, showcasing their qualifications for universities and potential employers.
“Students can sell themselves short,” says Nadia Schafer, a digital specialist with Philadelphia Academies, a nonprofit that works with area high schools to provide students with career training and college preparation. “But the portfolio shows them all that they’ve accomplished. A portfolio tells their stories so much better than just a resume ever could.”
For now, the goal at the Los Angeles Unified school district is to make the portfolio defense a graduation requirement. Ten high schools are piloting the initiative and there are plans to get more schools on board next school year.
“Students have improved immensely since we first started,” said Cathy Kwan, portfolio coordinator at Los Angeles High School of the Arts, who schedules the defenses, recruits panel members and trains teachers. “But it still wouldn’t be fair to hold them back based on the defense. We haven’t yet learned how to prepare kids adequately to do this.”
It’s not good enough that students face a difficult task. They have to go up there and have substance. Just because you show up to an interview doesn’t mean you get the job.
Cathy Kwan, high school portfolio coordinator, who worries that student defenses could begin to sound robotic
Half of the district’s schools testing portfolio defenses have partnered with Envision Schools, a network of three small charter high schools in the San Francisco area that has systematized the portfolio model over the past 13 years. It provides step-by-step instructions on how to build a portfolio program.
Morales says students can simply “go through the motions” in class, taking in information without really retaining it. But portfolio defenses force them to explain what they’ve learned, and to apply it in different ways.
Magana failed his portfolio defense because he was unable to demonstrate content knowledge and sound research skills. Since the program started, Morales has discovered that the best preparation for a defense is for students to share their work and what they learned in the process, something she didn’t always make time to do.
According to a survey of students at Los Angeles High School of the Arts, 90 percent of students who passed and 68 percent of students who failed said the portfolio defense was a “worthwhile experience.” Magana, who passed his second defense a week later, said he’s learned from his mistakes and won’t repeat them at the University of California Riverside, where he’ll major in computer science this fall.
“I’m worried that in college I won’t have anyone there to push me,” Magana said. “But I have this experience to refer back to. I will remember this. I won’t allow myself to fail again.”
Of the 92 seniors who defended their portfolios this year, 33 failed. Like Magana, they were scheduled to redo their presentations.
In the end, everyone passed and received diplomas.
“They worked their tushes off,” says Kwan. “Not one of them gave up.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.