National Exhibition Month: A Better Way to Assess

K-12 Testing


FairTest Examiner - July 2007

How's this for a challenge? For her senior project at the School Without Walls High School in Rochester, NY, 19-year-old Roya Sakhizada explained how CAT scans work, something she became familiar with working at a Rochester hospital. After her six-month community service stint, the hospital hired her. She plans to continue her education through to medical school, an impressive feat for a student who emigrated from Afghanistan with her family in 2003.

While millions of schoolchildren across the U.S. filled in bubbles on standardized answer sheets, students like Roya who participated in National Exhibition Month this May faced very different kinds of challenges and came away with far more than mere test scores. An initiative of the Oakland, CA-based Coalition of Essential Schools (CES), Exhibition Month was conceived to demonstrate what CES sees as a viable alternative to paper-and-pencil tests and a vastly superior way for students to demonstrate their achievement and growth. It drew participation from more than 100 schools in 25 states.

Rather than sit for final exams or state tests, students at CES schools produce portfolios including essays, research papers, reading logs, graphs, statistical analyses, and multimedia projects. They present their portfolios at oral presentations or exhibitions to panels including advisors, teachers, students, parents, grandparents, friends, even experts from outside the school community who serve as mentors and evaluators. Projects are as varied as the students themselves, with topics including the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly, the potential hazards of hair dye, the challenges of trading stock options, journalism, calculus, boxing, robot design, crime scene processing and photography.

Proponents call exhibitions "360-degree exams," to emphasize their encompassing, multidimensional character, compared with the lack of complexity of the standardized tests. Exhibitions are designed to be "high-stakes" demonstrations of a student's competence according to state and local standards, but they are the polar opposite to one-size-fits-all standardized exams.

Instead, they are a "unique, personalized work product, representing each individual's growth, interest, capacities, response to challenge and effort," wrote Jill Davidson in "Exhibitions: Demonstrations of Mastery in Essential Schools" (Horace, 2007). Equally important, they demonstrate to the community the achievement and quality of a school and its students in ways that test scores simply cannot.

These assessments are anything but an easy route to a diploma. It would be difficult to exaggerate the challenging nature of exhibitions, which represent a culmination of a student's school career as well as many hours of preparation. For one senior project, a student and her advisor took her final paper through 24 revisions before it was considered complete. The exhibitions themselves are akin to a doctoral candidate's oral defense, with students answering questions from a panel of questioners. Oral presentations also more closely mirror the kind of public speaking most successful adults must do in their careers, versus paper exams, which are not a part of a working adult's daily life. As Anzar High School Principal Charlene McKowen put it, ""There's nowhere in real life where we do bubbles."

Studies by Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond and others have found students from schools that use performance-based assessments have higher college completion rates and, ironically, higher achievement on standardized tests.

While exit exam states like Texas and New York cope with the corrupting influence of high-stakes tests, manifested by cheating and other forms of unethical behavior (see article, this issue), exhibition schools enable their students to see the connections between what they are learning and their future callings. "When students are given the chance to do difficult work, students are surprised at the pleasure that comes from real intellectual achievement," said former CES researcher Jodi Brown Podl ("Anatomy of an Exhibition," Horace, 2007).

Rhode Island and Wyoming are two states that have begun to use locally-controlled projects and exhibitions as part of their graduation requirements.

· For more on exhibitions and the Coalition for Essential Schools, see Click on "Resources" and go to "Changelab," which contains information on assessment, or the journal Horace, or "classroom practice-assessment" in the column on the right.
· For more on outcomes for graduates of schools that use exhibitions, see
· For information on Wyoming, see Examiner, January 2007.

See also: Locally-based Performance Assessment this issue.