This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When I was in 7th grade – about the same age that my own students are now – we moved to a new school district. My new junior high, while perfectly serviceable, was not as elite as my previous middle school, and my mother was already nervous for my sister and me. She asked me after the first week how things were going.
"It’s okay," I said tentatively. "But I think I’m in the wrong class."
"What do you mean?" answered my mom, whirling around in the driver’s seat.
And so I told her about my classmates’ conversations about an accelerated section of students at one end of the hall and about the fact that my hand was always the lone hand raised during every lesson in a class at the other end of the hall. In response, my mother furiously stomped into the main office the next morning, armed with standardized test scores from the states we’d lived in, old report cards, old class projects, and essays.
Within a week, I was transferred to the accelerated section, a class where I would read Hemingway and Orwell, play the stock market, dissect fetal pigs, study communism, and learn algebra. It meant that once I entered high school, I was automatically rostered into the honors track. And even though there were those from non-accelerated tracks who joined our ranks freshman year, the top 10 percent of graduates senior year were made up mostly of my middle school classmates.
Certainly many factors are present in my success story: a committed parent who knew how to navigate "the system;" a flexible school administration willing to make swift roster changes; and excellent teachers who could effortlessly accommodate a new student two weeks into the school year. But I think the most explosive catalyst in this equation was the evidence that my mother had accumulated of my achievements over the years.
I’m not sure how she knew to do that. While many parents hang on to student work for sentimental reasons, how many know how to use it to intervene on behalf of their child? This is where schools need to step in. When I worked in the school district, very little comprehensive evidence was available on a student from year to year, besides the data you gathered yourself. Their "pockets" (student files) held old report cards health information, attendance rates, sometimes old suspension pink slips and elementary school pictures, and then there were always the yearly PSSA and TerraNova scores. My friends at non-EMO buildings also had benchmark data three times a year.
But numbers only say so much, and rarely reveal much information about the students’ deeper understanding of various concepts. Furthermore, most teachers aren’t trained to analyze data. We’re trained to assess the actual student product. Just look at any education section at a big-box bookstore, and you’ll see many crash-course volumes on the very topic. So demystifying a child’s critical thinking skills is often the most frustrating roadblock for many teachers. And what kind of message does it send students that the only piece of paper that follows them from year to year is the result of one test taken once a year in March?
Now, I understand that numerical data is easiest and most efficient to manage and analyze for a very large institution like the School District of Philadelphia, with its sprawling and relatively transient population (and I mean in students and staff). But imagine a district where a student’s select body of work travels with him/her through the grades. As an English teacher, I personally find the most valuable part of my school’s annual intake test to be the lone open-ended answer that comes at the end, not the multiple-choice questions broken down by standard. Fortuitous guessing can’t tamper with written work, after all I’ve encountered plenty of middle school students, supposedly on a college reading level, who initially could not compose an analytical response to save their lives. And even if a student is really good at taking tests, what good does that do them in college and the career world, where most of their worth as a student and employee is based on their ability to communicate on paper?
I’m sure this sounds like the opposite of what one might expect from a teacher that works at Mastery Charter School, with its heavy focus on PSSA and SAT achievement, and its six benchmark tests a year. But we’re trying something new at Mastery this year: student portfolios, not dissimilar from the packet my mother assembled 14 years ago to advocate for twelve-year-old me.
Every six weeks, a few specified formative assessments from every student in each core subject will be blindly evaluated on rubrics and placed into a permanent file to travel with them from year to year. Right now my middle-schoolers are working on character analyses and text summaries. I will admit that it has been extremely challenging to teach. I personally feel that teachers are limited in the attention they are able to put toward building writing skills in Philadelphia schools, where hitting targeted reading growth goals and compartmentalized reading skills seem to be the main route of action in many schools’ quests for AYP. I see it in many of my students: plenty balk at the idea of writing more than a paragraph on a test, yet multiple-choice questions are greeted with the eye roll of nonchalance.
But I’ve found that it can be an incredible motivating tool as well. Earlier this year, a less-invested student admitted to me that he felt he wasn’t being challenged in my class. "That’s fair," I responded. I then reminded him that as he was completing very few class work and homework assignments, so I had very little evidence of his scholarly potential. I let him know that the portfolio – 10 percent of his grade – would be a perfect opportunity for him to show off those skills he was positive he had. Two weeks later, he has become a completely different child. Now, on days when we work on our portfolio assignments, his entries are often among the longest, most detailed, and most thorough of his classmates. In fact, as we work on our portfolio assignments, nearly every day, his concentrated effort has become a consistent and observable habit.
The other day I asked him how he thought class was going. "Do you still feel as though you need more of a challenge?" It was an honest question, and not smug in the least. I genuinely wanted to know if I had to ramp up the rigor for him. This had been a child whose diagnostic scores had been in a somewhat higher tier, after all.
He shook his head and smiled. "Naw, it’s pretty hard now."