Instead of late-night cramming and tutorials on how to ace multiple-choice tests, Joshua Koenig prepared for finals by rehearsing a PowerPoint presentation on the challenges of trading stock options and what he learned while attempting to climb Mt. Rainier with his father.
When the day came, the 18-year-old's audience at Wildwood School in West Los Angeles included parents, grandparents and friends, as well as teachers and advisors who judged whether his performance demonstrated his growth as a learner.
As thousands of public school students sat for standardized tests last week and others prepare for upcoming final exams, Wildwood is one of a number of schools across the country using oral presentations -- or exhibitions -- to determine students' readiness to move on to the next grade, or in Koenig's case, to graduate.
In an era when the federal No Child Left Behind Act and California's state high school exit exam exert pressure on students to master standardized fill-in-the-bubble tests, a growing number of educators argue that exhibitions offer a better way to assess students' academic achievements.
Testimony last week during congressional hearings on the reauthorization of President Bush's education reform law focused on the need for the federal government to support states that use performance-based assessments and on the increasing frustration that parents and teachers have with high stakes testing.
"I think what politicians are hearing right now is that tests are driving the curriculum and narrowing the way kids learn, so there is a lot of pushback from parents and teachers," said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University who has studied assessment systems in dozens of states. "There's more receptivity to the possibility of a different approach to assessment than there might have been five years ago."
The Los Angeles Unified School District recently approved a plan to establish 10 small schools -- the Belmont Pilot Schools -- in the Pico-Union district that would have autonomy over staffing, budget, curriculum and assessment. The idea is modeled after a successful Boston program. The first of the 10 scheduled to open in September -- Civitas SOL, or School of Leadership -- will employ performance-based assessment. But its students will still have to take state standards-based tests.
"Standardized tests are just snapshots that measure mostly the ability to recall facts, whereas performance-based assessments measure the ability to synthesize information, compare and contrast, look for different points of view and think critically," said Brett Bradshaw, director of strategic communications for the Coalition of Essential Schools, a nonprofit organization with about 250 member campuses that promotes exhibitions as a preferred form of student assessment. The Oakland-based group also offers technical assistance to schools in design, community connections, leadership and classroom practice.
"The student assessments look more like a PhD defense or an oral presentation where a student has to get in front of a committee of academics," Bradshaw said. "They help to develop a poise and a literacy of how to interact with adults that serve these students well in higher education and the workplace."
To support its philosophy, the coalition designated May as National Exhibition Month, with more than 100 affiliated schools in 25 states -- including Wildwood -- opening their doors to parents and community members to form a sort of mini-town hall in which students demonstrate their skills.
At Wildwood, a K-12 independent campus that charges as much as $24,425 for tuition, learning at all grade levels is project-based and includes community service and internships.
Students are given narrative assessments rather than grades to chart progress, and the program is built around developing seven habits of "heart and mind," including collaboration, ethical behavior, perspective and service to the common good.
All courses, including math, sciences, literature and the arts, meet University of California admissions criteria. For institutions that require them, Wildwood will convert narrative assessments into grades, said Jeanne Fauci, communications and outreach director.
The school has timed writing assignments and quizzes and also offers after-school test prep courses for the SATs and other tests required for college entrance. It offers honors classes but no Advanced Placement courses because they clash with the school's philosophy.
Seniors must put together a portfolio incorporating essays, research papers, reading logs, graph and statistical analyses and multimedia projects reflecting two years of academic work. The portfolio is included in their oral presentations.