Learning on Display

On a cloudy afternoon in January, I am sitting in a coffee shop near Hunter College waiting for a 17-year-old girl named Micaela Beigel, a student at a New York City public school called Urban Academy Laboratory High School. We have never met before, but I am here to pass judgment on one of her most important qualifications for high school graduation.

Beigel is tall and round-faced with a tiny, glittering nose stud. She introduces herself forthrightly with none of the diffidence of your stereotypical teen. She is toting a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, heavily marked up and leafed with Post-It notes. I’ve been asked to reread the book too.

For the next 45 minutes, we discuss the novel—as a character study of Lizzy Bennet, as a portrait of female friendship, as a model of marriage, as a reflection on women’s changing roles, as the basis for centuries of adaptations and related works. Beigel’s ideas are more sophisticated than those of many college graduates I’ve met. She challenges a simplistic feminist critique that I put forward, referring to another class she’s taken on images of women in Disney: “Just saying that Pride and Prejudice correlates with the marriage structure doesn’t mean that’s the only thing it’s about. It’s like the Little Mermaid: yes, she trades her voice to get a man, but she’s also struggling with identity, growing up, self-confidence, determination. You need to look at all the things that come out of the story.”

Urban Academy is a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 38 public high schools across New York state that have been thriving for more than two decades with performance assessments. The Consortium’s model is now spreading across the country, in part because of the standardized testing backlash.

Instead of cramming for tests, students like Beigel learn in order to do things. They complete tasks designed to correspond as closely as possible to the work that artists, scientists, researchers, and other professionals do in the real world. To graduate, Urban Academy students must present a literary essay, a social studies research paper, a science experiment, and an application of higher-level mathematics.

Within reason, students can choose topics that interest them. Besides discussing Pride and Prejudice with me, Beigel did her “criticism proficiency” on a Roman Vishniac retrospective at the International Center of Photography, for which she interviewed attendees and led a discussion and Q&A with her classmates on the power of media. She wrote an argumentative paper on culpability in the My Lai massacre and a critique comparing the book and film versions of A Clockwork Orange, and she is putting together a book of photographs she took at her upstate summer camp. For her science requirement, she took a class at Hunter College and conducted a psychological study of people’s attitudes toward book and movie genres, applying basic statistical concepts such as correlation.

Beigel struggled in her previous, high-pressure school. After transferring, she flourished at Urban Academy, which allowed her to lean into her passions. “This is an alternative system where I get to explore new things and create,” Beigel told me. “I rediscovered why I like learning—I used to feel bad about reading for fun.” And, not for nothing, “I got into a good college.” She’ll start in the fall at Goucher.

Performance schools are wide open to the world. Students get feedback from all directions. They present their work to fellow students, teachers from other schools who haven’t taught the students, academic experts, and other professionals. That’s how I got here. After interviewing Ann Cook, the executive director of the Consortium, I asked whether there was any way to observe the performance assessment process up close, and she said I was perfectly qualified to be an English evaluator.

Since 1865, the New York State Board of Regents has offered a set of subject-area examinations. In 2000, the state rewrote the exams and standards and required all students to pass at least five Regents exams, making the Regents diploma, once a kind of honors diploma, mandatory for all students. “Once Regents exams became high stakes, test prep became the curriculum,” said Cook. She saw public schools that catered to diverse needs and interests, like vocational and technical education or the arts, disappearing, victims of the single standard of success. She was part of a group of high school leaders across the state interested in other ways of assessing student work. “When the Regents started on the standards kick, we got really serious and organized the Consortium formally,” receiving waivers from the state to use performance-based assessments in lieu of exams. The Consortium’s website is emblazoned with the tag line, “The alternative to high-stakes testing.”

“I’m a terrible test taker,” said Beigel of the Regents. “A week of three-hour exams? It’s the worst situation ever.”

Performance learning allows students an unusual level of personalization and autonomy. This model at first seems shockingly subjective, especially if you’ve been spending your days looking at percentiles and proficiency scores. I know that leading up to our chat, Beigel read the novel several times over three semesters, watched many adaptations, and worked intensively with an academic mentor trained and experienced in giving her feedback. But as an outside evaluator, I sign off on a rubric and dash off my impressions of Beigel’s performance to her teacher, Sheila Kosoff, more or less as set forth here, and that’s that.

On reflection, I realize, as Walter Lippmann reminded his readers in 1926, that multiple-choice tests offer no more than the illusion of precision. By contrast, performance tasks put human judgment back into the equation. The process reflects the real world, where rubrics don’t hold much sway either. At crucial points in life—job interviews, work presentations, cocktail parties—everyone is going to have to convince a stranger that they know their stuff. And Beigel clearly did.

Anya Kamenetz is the lead education blogger at National Public Radio. This article is excerpted from her book The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be, available from PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014. The paperback edition of The Test has recently been released (January 2016).

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American Educator, Spring 2016