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Does skipping high-stakes tests increase grad rates?

Group of New York schools uses experiments, research papers and artwork to assess students
Students attending the 38 schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium complete practical assessments instead of high-stakes tests. (Photo: Roy Reid)
Students attending the 38 schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium complete practical assessments instead of high-stakes tests. (Photo: Roy Reid)

An alliance of New York schools continues to drop high-stakes tests in favor of performance-based assessments as the opt-out movement gathers steam.

The New York Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 38 New York public high schools (all but two of which are in New York City), operates under a waiver program that allows members to administer more practical assessments, such as experiments, research papers and artwork. Students also must defend their work to outside evaluators.

“We’ve had 50 years of testing, most of it high-stakes, and it hasn’t resulted in significant improvement,” says Ann Cook, executive director of the consortium, which was founded in 1998. “We need to be more imaginative. We’re spending a lot of money and causing kids a lot of anxiety, with not a lot of evidence to show that it’s effective.”

The consortium has shown promising results: 77 percent of students who started in participating high schools in fall 2010 graduated in four years, compared to 68 percent for all New York City students. And last year, 71 percent of English language learners graduated on time, versus 37 percent citywide.

Performance-based assessments

All standards used in the schools align with the Common Core, Cook says. In place of PARCC or Smarter Balanced, the consortium’s performance-based assessments require students to demonstrate analytical thinking, reading comprehension and research writing skills.

They also need to show understanding of the scientific method and problem-solving techniques.

Students also have more flexibility to choose their own assessment topics and projects. For example, when learning about the history of the Civil Rights movement, one student wrote a paper titled “Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till: Have Things Changed?” while another wrote an essay called “Does Armed Self-Defense Work? Robert Williams and the 1954 Harlem Riots.”

“I think it’s one of the major reasons why our students are successful—we’re tapping into things they’re interested in, and helping them develop those interests into the papers and projects that they are assessed on,” Cook says.

An external review board of educators and business leaders oversees the schools’ curriculum and assessments.

Board members, experts in various disciplines (such as scientists and historians) and teachers from other schools constitute the outside committee that grades student projects and presentations. All work is scored using the same rubrics for each subject across the consortium.

Many administrators in other districts have expressed interest in the consortium’s approach, but it’s difficult to achieve in schools where testing requirements dictate the instruction teachers provide, Cook says.

“You need to trust teachers to develop interesting courses,” she says, “and provide a lot of time for professional development, creating curriculum and focusing on instruction.”