by Martha Foote
The New York Performance Standards Consortium includes 28 small high schools from across New York State, most in New York City. It was founded on the principles of school-as-community, professional development, and innovative curricula and teaching strategies. Recognizing that their students learn best when actively engaged, Consortium schools typically emphasize inquiry-based learning, with classrooms steeped in discussion, project-based assignments, and student choice rooted in course work.
In 1995, New York State’s Commissioner of Education, Thomas Sobol, granted the Consortium schools a waiver from the state’s Regents exams, supporting their efforts to develop an assessment system that would exceed state standards and address local needs.Then, Richard Mills replaced Sobol, ushering in an era of intensified high-stakes testing in New York. Mills began a phase-out of the Consortium’s variance in 2001, but the Board of Regents, bowing to political pressure from the state legislature, recently extended the Regents exam waiver terms for several more years (see Examiner, Summer 2005, Fall 2001).
The Consortium does not define assessment as an isolated paper-and-pencil standardized test, divorced from the classroom experience. Instead, it regards assessment as a complex, whole-school based accountability system. This performance-based system consists of six integrated components:
• active learning;
• extensive documentation, including formative and summative assessments;
• multiple ways for students to express and exhibit learning, including essays and creative writing, research papers and projects, oral presentations and debates, and mathematical problems and applications;
• graduation level tasks aligned with the state’s Learning Standards;
• multiple services to help students; and
• a focus on professional development for teachers.
In addition, an independent Performance Assessment Review (PAR) Board monitors system quality through regular reviews of student work and Consortium schools’ use of the performance assessment system.
The graduation level tasks have garnered much attention as they are often erroneously seen as a strict substitute for New York State’s five Regents examinations. Simply put, the Consortium’s graduation level tasks are not three-hour-long, end-of-course assessments, as the Regents tests are. Instead, they are complex, time-intensive performance tasks that each student, when deemed academically ready by her or his teacher, must individually complete, in addition to course work, as a graduation requirement.
Each student must produce an analytic literary essay, a social studies research paper, an original science experiment with an oral defense of research findings, and a real-life application of higher-level mathematics. Students must also engage in formal discussions with external evaluators who, along with teachers, assess the students’ work according to task-specific rubrics established by committees of Consortium teachers. The Consortium provides training in the proper use of the rubrics. Again, these graduation tasks are just one component of the Consortium’s multi-layered assessment system; they do not, and cannot, stand alone. As the Consortium recognizes, learning is complex; assessment must be, too.
Based on shared principles and the assessments, Consortium schools have had significant success. In New York City, Consortium students are similar to the city average in terms of race, language and special needs; more Consortium students qualify for free lunch; and somewhat fewer students enter the Consortium schools with standardized test scores above the 50th percentile. However, the Consortium dropout rate is half that of the city (10.6 vs 20.3 percent), and college acceptance rates for those who do graduate are far higher (88.7 vs 70.1 percent).
• Martha Foote is the Director of Research for the New York Performance Standards Consortium.
• Examples of system components, tasks and rubrics, information on the PAR Board and successes, as well as other information, are available on the web at http://www.performance assessment.org .
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