Another Take on Assessments as One School Creates a Portfolio-Based System

Summer 2018

By Emily Jones

Many schools, public and private, have come to the conclusion that assigning single letter or number grades to the complex business of learning is absurd—and furthermore is doing damage. They see the problems of the industrial model, in which batches of kids are sent along an academic conveyor belt regardless of their individual interests or abilities. They worry about the character, happiness, and citizenship of students taught to compete along a single axis of outcomes. The wealth of learning available to adolescents outside the classroom cannot be captured in a letter or number, they say, and schools have no way of incorporating it into a portrait of that learner. The choices colleges make, given the limited information they process, often make teachers wonder why admission offices don’t try to see students more clearly.
In 2012, at The Putney School (VT), we embarked on a process of exploration—both theoretical and practical—to see how we could address these topics in the context of our progressive culture. We wanted to be sure that the qualities of humanity that we seek are at the forefront rather than being hoped-for side effects of academic and other requirements. The resulting description of outcomes, called the Putney Core, is now the foundational document for our educational program, and the basis of a portfolio-based assessment system.
Several states have already mandated a change to outcomes-based assessment for public schools. The Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), founded by D. Scott Looney at Hawken School (OH), is designed to create enough momentum in this movement so that the ways American high schools educate and describe students will be forever changed. The question now is how individual schools can best design and carry out this process of change. 

Mapping Our Course

Each school will have its own mission and priorities, and its process will be dictated in part by existing hierarchical structures and pedagogical approaches. Schools whose faculty already have the responsibility to design curriculum will have an easier time; those whose faculty have taught to external examinations will need longer to reframe expectations. At Putney, the faculty has always been responsible for curriculum, but other than in our ninth-grade integrated program, this had mostly been in departmental silos. This reality shaped our process, and in turn, the process has shaped the faculty’s sense of a common purpose.
At the start, we asked ourselves, “What if students were given the topo map and the compass at the start of the four-year hike that is high school, rather than following along the trail set by the school?” Our goal was to put agency into the hands of students, making clear what we want them to know and be able to do, and giving them considerable latitude in how they can reach those goals. We will continue to teach courses, many of them very similar to our current program, but we will also allow students to find their own ways—on and off campus—to learn and demonstrate learning. We predict that in another five years our school will be quite different academically, but we have only guesses as to how. Rather than marking the trails through a preset program, we have set clear and ambitious goals and are waiting to see the paths the students find to reach those goals. It’s very similar in theory to what the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) schools are working toward—designing better ways to define, teach, and measure the outcomes that the school values. 
The most important ingredient for this process is time. We began work on the project four years before we started implementing it with the first ninth-grade class in 2015, and it is still being refined three years later. We did not make a timeline before we began; if we had made one, we would not have come close to meeting it. A faster process would have appeared more efficient, but it would have likely derailed other efforts, left teachers feeling unheard, and caused some significant errors.
Secondly, it was important that this was a genuine exploration, rather than a process with a predefined outcome. We started with what is the best high school program we can imagine? What should students leave Putney knowing and being able to do? And how will we decide that they have accomplished these things? We intentionally left the question of how we’d reconcile our ideal program with the realities of the college process and parental expectations until later. We did not commit to do anything until we were some way through the exploration, and this certainly lowered the anxiety level in the early stages.
In the beginning, we asked faculty to answer some overarching questions about our mission and curriculum. For example, what parts of the school’s mission and fundamental beliefs does our current program best address? What do we do poorly? What is left out? We also asked, what value does our faculty place on different pieces of the mission? We explored the balance between our core curriculum and room for individual passions and exploration. We also asked whether students should be able to graduate in fewer than four years.
Analyzing the possibilities for assessment was much more difficult. What does it really mean to know something? Can they just do math, or can they also explain it? Do they still have to remember it a couple of years later? And there are harder questions when schools begin to look at the aspirational words in their mission statements—integrity, imagination, caring—and assessment of these can become a source of almost endless and fascinating intellectual debate. Facing up to this complexity can be daunting, and each school will have to decide how far down this rabbit hole to venture. If it is avoided entirely, though, a school risks creating a laundry list of academic tasks that will leave some of the fundamental problems unsolved and some of the school’s deeply held values unaddressed.
Next, we asked each department to present its ideal goals and ambitions—what should students know and be able to do in this discipline? Through this exercise, we found enormous overlap among departments about what they thought was important for students to be able to do. But we also found out that not everyone was on board—two departments wrote wording that essentially paralleled their existing course structure, so as to ensure that nothing in their department would need to change. The first outcome led us toward the final structure of our requirements, and the second helped us understand the wide range of buy-in (or lack thereof) for the project.
Then, we asked our trustees to generate and debate their lists of what they thought the important outcomes of a Putney education should be. We used the same five categories of learning, and they loved digging into the real work of the school. Happily, what they wanted from a Putney education was not much different from what the faculty said.

Building Out the Requirements

After discussing many different structures, we landed on a three-part list of requirements for graduation. The first section is the general skills, aptitudes, and habits of mind, which can be demonstrated in a variety of disciplines and most departments agreed upon. We refer to them as “Throughlines,” and they each have a description and detailed rubric.
The second section is for “Subject-centered Objectives,” which are elements of each discipline that faculty members believe to be important for high school students, regardless of whether they plan to continue studying the subject in college. One of the most enlightening pieces of this project was when each department had to explain and defend its choices to the others. For example, the math department included a requirement that students “use technology and coding to facilitate mathematical work and exploration”—this in a school that bakes its own bread and has been historically ambivalent about technology. The art department requires that students be able to “analyze and comprehend art across disciplines using historical and cultural contexts,” thereby bridging disciplinary gaps. 
The third section, “Essential Experiences,” are the things we don’t think we can measure or see the real impact of while students are still in high school. These are reflective of our school’s culture and history, and each has an explanation of the intent and clarification on the specifics of the requirement. There is no rubric, and they are not intended to be measured or evaluated.

For Good Measure

About two years into the project, in 2014, we started to write the rubrics that would describe the different standards to students and help keep track of progress. We settled on a fairly traditional rubric format. We titled the labels Novice, Emerging, Proficient (required for graduation) and Beyond. Given Putney’s progressive bent and insistence on lifelong learning, we avoided any use of the word mastery. We have written a total of 42 rubrics, and as they come into use with students, we make amendments and clarify the confusing pieces.  
One issue for schools that move from credit classes with grades to a clearly defined portfolio system is that they will have to redefine the requirements for students to graduate. A student who earns Cs in all courses will graduate in a traditional system, but it is unlikely that teachers will write rubrics describing the “C” kind of work. We found that in the first draft, the Proficient level of a number of rubrics was describing work that we would see from our top students in their senior year. We had to have some hard conversations about who would—and would not—graduate with that standard in place. We intend that most students will be at the Proficient level in all areas with plenty of high school time left to allow them to go far Beyond in areas of particular interest.
We will continue to refine the language of these rubrics. Our experience at Putney suggests that the ultimate outcome for many schools—including those that join the efforts of the MTC—will be a higher floor for their graduation requirements.

Managing Students’ Portfolios

The last stage of the process is to design and implement the student portfolio system, teaching both students and teachers how this can be a critical piece of the educational process as students learn to accurately self-evaluate and teachers become coaches (and referees) in this endeavor. The teachers of our ninth-grade integrated curriculum have worked on systems and tested them with their students, providing valuable feedback as they went along. Finding a middle ground between academic language meant for external audiences and wording most useful for ninth-graders was a balancing act. The ninth-grade teachers then trained the rest of the faculty on the portfolio system, even making a short video on the logistics. There is dedicated class time for students to consider their work, look at the standards and rubrics, choose work to put in their portfolio, and write reflective notes explaining why they believe that piece of work shows what the standard intends. Each student has an electronic portfolio that will grow with them over four years. For each piece of work they include, the student writes a short explanation of how that work demonstrates a particular learning objective, and there is space for faculty comment. Ultimately they will curate and cull their portfolios to choose the best representations of their learning before gradution. The class of 2020 will be the first class to graduate under this new system.

Keeping Students First

Our students have seen this process unfold—some have been involved—and they have taken it in stride. Before the Putney Core, we didn’t show students their grades until they started the college process in 11th grade, so that was not new. The admission office has worked hard to demystify this process and reassure potential applicants, apparently very successfully. Our parents, having already chosen a school with an odd grading practice, have been supportive and understanding of this new project.
When we began the process, we agreed that we would not make changes that would hurt students’ chances of being admitted to top colleges. The creation of the MTC in 2017, part way through our process, has changed our situation considerably—and likely for the better. Although our goal, like the MTC, is to eliminate sending grades to colleges, we have decided to send a dual transcript for a few more years until we are clear that the colleges will not penalize our students. Since we have always  used grades only for college purposes, this decision should not get in the way of our larger purpose. The work of the MTC will be pivotal in determining the timeline, and we are eager for its success. 
If student agency stays at the center of this work, it will change not only education in the United States and elsewhere, but it will have a lasting impact on creativity, mental health, and our democracy and culture.  Each school’s crafting of their process of evaluation will be as critical as the educational outcomes they define. Campbell’s Law warns, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Clearly, grades have distorted and corrupted education, perhaps the most basic of all social processes, and Campbell’s Law also holds true with nonquantitative measures if the stakes are high. We plan to implement an ongoing review system to monitor our system, looking for unintended drift or warping. We also look forward to getting outside eyes on it from other schools that are doing this work, and we hope that all the schools embarking on this project will find useful ways to collaborate. ▪

Healthy Debate
The process of defining and debating the Putney Core has been a powerful professional development tool, and has already significantly improved both teaching and learning.
The work required teachers to collaborate in ways that stretched everyone. There were some who were very anxious, and those who could live comfortably with several years of ambiguity. But for some, that comfort with ambiguity was challenged when we got to the stage of writing clear rubrics—how exactly will we define good writing? What is social justice, and where is our line between teaching how to think and teaching what to think? Do we want students to learn math because it’s beautiful and intellectually powerful, or because it is useful? Teachers who had taught in parallel in the same department for years, knowing they taught the same course differently, were forced into debate. There are some people who think easily in rubric form, and some who do not—and when we got to the rubric stage, we soon identified four or five drafters who could bring their work back to a larger group for editing. The faculty collaborated well, and learned a great deal from listening to each other. We found the rubric for the collaboration throughline quite easy to write.
Each school will find ways to connect this work with practices its faculty is already using, but there are some common ideas that make things easier.
  • „Get familiar with Grant Wiggins’ teaching on backward curriculum design.
  • „Allow teachers who have ventured together into interdisciplinary curriculum lead because they have a natural tendency toward conceptualization.
  • „Monitor your use of language in the classroom so as to avoid using grades as rewards or goalposts, and to keep students focused on the subject rather than on “what the teacher wants.” It is surprising how hard these habits can be to break. 
Emily Jones

Emily Jones is head of school at The Putney School in Putney, Vermont.