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High School Tests A Non-Test Idea

In making the case for charter schools, Malachi Bridges challenged the views of his teachers, as well as the rationale for standardized tests.

Bridges doesn’t attend a charter school. He used to. Now he’s a senior at a traditional magnet public school, Metropolitan Business Academy Interdistrict Magnet High School on Water Street.

Metro has engaged Bridges and his schoolmates this fall in an experiment measuring what they’ve learned. Building on similar experiments in New York City, proponents hope this idea can replace high-stakes standardized tests like SATs and Common Core.

Metro’s social studies teachers got together to draw up a common five-day lesson plan for all their students in grades 9-12: Writing a research-based essay making an argument for or against charter schools.

Malachi’s teachers are skeptical about charters. They worked hard, though, at showing their students both sides of the debate, in depth. Malachi came down in favor of charters as positive alternatives to traditional schools. And he obtained a high score on his project, performing better than he did on the SATs.

The point of the exercise wasn’t to convince students about the merits or drawbacks of charters. It was to teach the students a useful, lasting skill, apply that skill to a subject relevant to their lives, tell them the expectations in advance, and then evaluate their work in a common, rigorous way. Unlike high-pressure standardized tests, these projects — designed by teachers rather than faceless outsiders — aim to overcome racial and income biases to provide more meaningful measurements of learning.

Tasks that measure what they’ve learned, versus tests that measure how much they’ve studied for a test. Engaging students in “lifelong learning,” as one teacher put it, versus “gaming a system.”

Principal Judith Puglisi (pictured) said she plans to continue this “moderation study” experiment in coming years as teachers refine it and track students’ progress.

She noted that, unlike standardized tests with outside contractors, this experiment “costs nothing.” It’s part of the regular work of the school.

“The teachers love it. Children are responding,” she said. “We want to be able to prove the validity of it this year. I believe there will not be an achievement gap when we look at the data.” The experiment includes math, science and English department projects as well as social studies.

Using a common set of guidelines based on standards in the Common Core standardized tests, the social studies teachers spent four class days instructing the students in how to find different sources of information, evaluate them to extract key points, develop an argument and refine it in guided group discussions, and then outline and write up that argument. The fifth day was the “test,” when the students wrote the mini-argumentative essay.

The teachers scored the students on their success in forming arguable claims, evaluating information and refuting counterclaims. They ranked the work as “exemplary,” “competent-exemplary,” “competent,” “emerging,” “novice,” and “no evidence.” (Here’s what those terms mean.) Then the teachers met and re-scored each others’ students’ papers (with the names blocked.) They looked for inconsistencies in their scoring. They looked for ways to improve the assignment — for instance, detecting where both sides might not have been presented fairly.

Last week Malachi and some fellow students, some of his teachers and administrators, parents, and Puglisi met in Metro’s third-floor library for a panel discussion on the experiment with a group of academics called the Connecticut Coalition for Real Learning. That group is looking to reform or replace standardized testing.

Jacob Werblow, an education professor at Central Connecticut State University(pictured) and a coalition member, noted after the 90-minute discussion at Metro that the students offered no positive remarks about taking the SATs, but they brimmed with enthusiasm about working on their charter-school essays.

“It was really powerful to hear that. The state of Connecticut is spending tens of millions of dollars on the SATs for young people. It’s not a predictor of college success. Why are we doing it?” Werblow remarked.

New Haven has found that some students who score poorly on SATs — many of them black or Latino or from modest economic circumstances — but who have high grade-point averages end up succeeding in college. (Click here for a WNHH radio interview with one successful New Haven grad, Fontaine Chambers, who typified the trend.)

Malachi would seem to reflect that trend. He took the SATs three times and was able to nudge his composite score up from 950 to only 1020. But he has amassed a 4.5 grade point average; he’s aiming high for college, including applying to Yale. HIs writing has been assessed at the sophomore college level. He brims with ambition and quiet confidence when he speaks. “I am smart,” he concluded, despite what the SATs indicated. “I can go to college.”

“This [Metro experiment] is ahead of the curve, how a school can build an innovative new model.”

The experiment builds on the larger trend in public schools to develop “portfolios” of student work as an alternative to test scores, an endeavor in which Metro has been engaged for years. The challenge has always been the “science”: how to devise measurements that can apply meaningfully to large groups of people and correspond to their achievements.

In tackling that challenge, Malachi’s teachers had to check their own biases at the door when it came to charter schools.

Puglisi has attracted a core of young, idealistic teachers to Metro. Some of them, like social studies teacher Leslie Blatteau, have been outspoken against the modern emphasis on standardized tests and against charter schools.

She and fellow social studies teacher Julia Miller said they worked hard to check their feelings about charters at the door.

“I have plenty of political opinions. It’s not my place to steer a kid in one direction or another,” Blatteau said. “In the front of the room, it’s my job to test their argument and make sure it’s sound enough. I know the arguments for charters. And I know the arguments against. That’s fun” to share.

“We wanted to teach them how to make an argument and defend it with evidence. We didn’t care” what conclusions they drew, Miller said. “We wanted to find a controversial issue that would feel relevant to the kids.”

Miller took the lead in preparing the materials that all the teachers would use. The teachers showed the kids the trailer to the pro-charter Waiting for Superman movie. They also showed the trailer to the anti-charter response movie, The Inconvenient Truth about Waiting for Superman. “It did come up” in class, Blatteau acknowledged, “that Waiting for Superman was higher-budget. The kids picked up on this.”

Miller also culled a Wall Street Journal op-ed on the “charter school advantage” along with a Mother Jones magazine article about the NAACP’s recent call for a national moratorium on new charters. She found two opposing infographics. They discovered that the kids were using the pro-charter infographic more, because the anti-charter graphic, from YES! magazine, was “pretty hard for the kids to access,” Blatteau said. So they found a different graphic called “CharterLand,” based on the Candy Land game.

In class, students began by putting Post-It notes about their position on the subject along a spectrum of pro- and anti-sentiment. Over time they moved those notes as discussions influenced their positions. The Post-Its ended up moving in both directions.

The kids loved debating the subject not just in class, but in the cafeteria with students from other classes and grades, the teachers reported. Blatteau spoke of one student whose brother attends a charter. He knows he would get kicked out of a charter for misbehavior, he said. But in the end he “worte a pretty good essay” about why charters are “better” than traditional public schools.

Another student had attended Amistad’s charter middle school. He “swayed some kids” about the merits, Blatteau said. He sparked conversations in class that ricocheted from one argument to another: “[Charters have the] ability to have kids successfully graduate and go on to four-year schools. Their ability to end up with higher test scores. Are test scores what we want to [emphasize]? It’s a continuous loop of ‘yes, but ...’” arguments, Blatteau said.

Next Steps

In the end, 40 percent of the students came down on the pro-charter side, 60 percent against, Blatteau estimated.

As one of the 40 percent, Malachi said he concluded that charters “enabled an environment ... comparable with those on suburban neighborhoods. They have some problems. We all do in life. But I love the idea of charters” because of the opportunities they offer students to succeed.

“It was way better than the SAT,” Malachi said of the project. “You were told what was expected of you…. You could see what parts you could improve on ...

“With the SAT you walk in blind” about the material being covered, after buying a “$50 book” to cram in.

The next step: The teachers are working with the students on research projects about a different subject, that culminate in a year-end research paper. The expectation is that the 11th- and 12th-graders will produce “college-level” papers. Meanwhile, they’ll refine the fall five-lesson assessment project for next year.

Malachi has plans too. After college, he said he plans to return to high school to teach while obtaining his master’s or a law degree. The ultimate goal is to work as a public defender or legal-aid lawyer and have his high-school students “help me with the classes.”

What kind of high school does he plan to teach in?

The one, he said, where he’s currently spending his senior year. Metro.

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