Big Picture Learning schools have as part of their design “Authentic Assessment.” It means that “[s]tudents are assessed not by tests, but by public displays of learning that track growth and progress in the student’s area of interest. Assessment criteria are individualized to the student and the real world standards of a project. Students present multiple exhibitions each year and discuss their learning growth with staff, parents, peers, and mentors.”
At MetWest, “authentic assessment” is the Senior Thesis Project and the end-of-the-year Exhibition. I sat in one student-driven Senior Thesis Project Defense. Here I what I observed in March 2019.
As in other Big Picture schools, all MetWest 12th graders must do a Senior Thesis Project (STP). [i]
Seniors present their projects to a group of teacher/advisors, administrators, and staff who judge the worth of the presentation and determine whether student has passed or not. Each Defense has to include an action project linked to their research and anchored in social justice. Each student gets three chances to pass. Most often the STP is anchored in the student’s Learning Through Internship (LTI). Passing the STP prepares seniors for their final Exhibition, usually on the same subject, before an audience of students, teachers, family, and invited guests.
Each STP has a format in which the student prepares his or her slides to the jury of teachers. Each project has to have a question, a way of answering the question, the theory behind an answer, gathering evidence, analysis of data presented, and a conclusion. It is a format familiar in college and graduate work. MetWest teachers have created and revised the criteria laced with specific examples to judge each student’s presentation. A panel of MetWest teachers and administrators judge presentation whether it is “emerging,” “developing,” “proficient,” or “advanced” on its “relevance,” feasibility,” and “rigor.”
On March 11, 2019, I observed Brenda and Hugo make their first presentation to a panel of three teachers and the principal. Two ninth graders were there also to become familiar with the process.
Brenda was first. Interning at Oakland’s Heritage Psychiatric Clinic, the question she asked was: “Mass Shootings: Why White Males?” In a series of slides she describes the history and context of various shootings by white males such as Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower shooter (1966), Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer (2012), and Dylan Roof who murdered nine people in a Charleston, S.C. church ( 2015).
In a quiet voice, Brenda links the question to the psychiatric clinic in which she was interning. She reads through a series of slides about the question such as the “Big Idea, ” her “Theory of Change” driving her action project (that professional development of certain staff would reduce patients’ emotional volatility and improve their behavior) and her proposal. She elaborates her action project including the impact of the ideas she has on her design of the professional development workshop. She goes over rubric categories such as relevance, feasibility, and rigor of her proposal. She swiftly goes through the slides. They were in small font and hard for observers to read. Brenda ends up with a timeline of activities to execute the project. Group applauds at the end of her presentation. Staff exits to discuss her presentation.
After staff returned, Hugo presents his slides. Hugo interns at a nearby elementary school’s 4th grade class. His action project drew from the work of the Robert Moses Young People’s Project and sought to improve these children’s math skills and their mindset. His research question is: Why are low-income students of color not succeeding at math?[ii]
In a series of slides, the senior lays out his theory of change:
If I target elementary students at La Escuelita in East Oakland with educational workshops and inspirational quotes, then I can help them improve their math skills and help them increase their confidence.
His tactics were to use workshops on math skills that included a multiplication game and 4th graders parsing inspirational quotes. He wants to change the “mindset” of these 10 year-olds about math. He then describes No Child Left Behind and the Young People’s Project to get at the history and context of low performance of minority and poor children in math.
To illustrate relevance of the action project, Hugo shows a photo of himself at age 10 and tells of his own struggle with math in elementary school. Other slides get at rigor through a pre- and post-survey of these 4th graders’ responses to workshops. He ends with interview of mentor teacher with whom he worked.
Group applauds. Teachers and principal leave the room. I stay and listen to Brenda and Hugo express their nervousness over whether they passed or will have to present again later in the term. And they are anxious. The two other students there cheer them up and compliment their presentations. Staff returns.
One Advisor/Teacher gives the group’s evaluation of Brenda. He says that the staff judged her project presentation to be below expectations and she will have to do better next time in order to pass. He lists some strong points in Brenda’s presentation but overall there were a number of specifics such as little evidence that was collected and linking her question to the professional development workshop she designed. These need attention, he says, including the timeline. Brenda responds to the points and clarifies others. She is obviously disappointed. Another teacher says that what the judges reported on her presentation would be included in an email to Brenda.
For Hugo, another teacher presents the group’s conclusion. Hugo approached expectations and had much that the staff felt was worthwhile but improvements had to be made in providing evidence that 4th graders’ did improve in math skills and showing how exactly inspirational quotes would alter the mindset of these 10 year-olds. He would have to return with an improved presentation. Again, the teacher says that all of what the judges reported would be emailed. Hugo asks a few questions and staff members respond.
Group applauds Brenda and Hugo just as chimes sound ending the period.
[i] In 2005, Oakland Unified School District required a capstone project for all seniors. Some schools implemented it; others did not. Not until 2014, according to Young Whan Choi, did a teacher-designed rubric to assess quality of senior projects become generally used across the district. See Young Whan Choi, “Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project: It’s about Equity,” Learning Policy Institute Blog, October 26, 2017 at: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/blog/oaklands-graduate-capstone-project-its-about-equity
[ii] Former Civil Rights worker Robert Moses who was also a math teacher founded The Young People’s Project initially in Mississippi. The project aims at increasing math literacy for educationally disadvantaged children and youth. See: http://nsfstemforum.edc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Milner.pdf