Littleton High School gained national attention three years ago when it set out to base its diploma on formal demonstrations of learning rather than course credits. Students in the class of 1995, now juniors, have spent two-and-one-half years assembling the portfolios that were to have been the basis for their graduation. On February 1, 1994, a newly elected majority on the Littleton School Board eliminated the performance-based requirements, apparently ending a comprehensive local reform and sending shock waves far beyond this middle-class community on the outskirts of Denver.
The graduation requirements at the heart of Littleton's reform consisted of 36 demonstrations in 19 areas. Four of these areas involved social and ethical domains that critics of outcome-based education have charged should not be assessed in schools: community involvement, ethics, human relations, and personal growth. The rest involved broad skills (for example, writing and use of technology) and applications within specific disciplines. The graduation requirements did not reflect any particular theory of curriculum but, rather, the views of the teachers and parents who came forward to serve on committees.
Some graduation demonstrations were tests, but most had little in common with the minimum competency tests that several states require for high school graduation. For example, one of the science demonstrations required students to design and conduct an experiment to test a hypothesis. Several demonstrations involved a series of assignments completed over time, as in the demonstration for written communication in which students developed a portfolio of 11 pieces of writing representing 4 genres. From the beginning of their freshman year, students accumulated their scored demonstrations in a formal portfolio and met weekly with an adviser to monitor their progress. To be included in the portfolio, demonstrations had to be scored as Proficient or Excellent, roughly the equivalent of a B or an A.
Evaluating the Program
As informed outsiders with expertise in evaluation, we were invited to conduct an independent, long-term evaluation of Littleton's restructuring efforts. We began our evaluation in the fall of 1990, a year before the first class was admitted under the new requirements. At that time, there was no organized opposition to the reform. The superintendent and board encouraged school-based restructuring and performance-based education, and the school sought the support and participation of parents through neighborhood meetings and frequent newsletters. Excitement was growing among the faculty.
The questions that the evaluation committee and the steering committee chose to examine seemed outside the political spotlight. First, we wanted to learn how the change to graduation demonstrations would affect curriculum and classroom instruction. Second, we wanted to evaluate the impact of the new system on students.
We followed two classes of students—the graduating class of 1994, now seniors, who started as 9th graders in 1990 before major changes were implemented; and the class of 1995, who were told as they entered school in 1991 that their graduation would be based on the required demonstrations. Each year we observed a representative sample of classes in mathematics, science, social studies, and English for these two groups. We conducted interviews with their teachers, collected representative tests and assignments, and each spring gathered student and faculty perceptions through questionnaires. In the second year of the study, we began to develop case studies of a small number of students, observing them in their classes and interviewing them. In the third year, we interviewed a larger random sample of juniors about their progress and perceptions.
What We Found
By the end of the second year, we found significant changes in instruction. Teachers were integrating portfolio demonstrations into courses as major tasks and structuring classroom activities around them. Before the implementation of performance-based graduation, instructional units in many courses had consisted of a patchwork of activities that were typically short in duration, involved little student choice, and seldom required students to apply their knowledge. After two years, we found students working on more complex tasks requiring more time to complete. The amount of substantive writing increased markedly, extending across subject areas. The use of technology, including that of computer databases in the library, also increased.
In light of these changes, we found it ironic that critics of the demonstrations implied that the reform was a move away from rigorous education. In time, the reform may have worked against advanced courses not linked to specific demonstrations, but during our evaluation, honors and Advanced Placement classes for 11th and 12th graders remained strong. Perhaps less class time may eventually have been devoted to activities drawing on a common cultural knowledge base not reflected in particular demonstrations (for example, causes of the Civil War), but we found no evidence of this, either. And the school would have relinquished without hesitation the demonstrations of community service and ethics in order to save the academic requirements.
While instruction improved, the impact on students was mixed. Students engaged more actively in learning, and we found little evidence of boredom and few problems with discipline. Most students told us they were getting a good education. On the other hand, too many students were struggling with the demonstrations. Many portfolios contained almost no Proficient work. When we interviewed juniors, more than half of them believed they would not be able to graduate under the new system. Confused about the requirements, they were unsure about what they had already completed. To those students who had not been earning grades of A and B, the tasks seemed overwhelming, and they talked about transferring to other schools. None of the Chicano students we interviewed believed they could satisfy the graduation requirements. Only 36 percent of the junior class agreed that graduation should be based on demonstrations, and even fewer students agreed that the requirements motivated them to put forth greater effort.
Teachers perceived the impact on students much more positively. Teachers told us that some students who had been “getting by” had “turned around.” “I'm impressed that there are a number of kids really taking this seriously,” one said. Most teachers whom we interviewed believed that a large number of students had previously not worked up to their potential because they were lazy. In their opinion, the demonstrations spurred students to greater effort because more was at stake.
Too Much at Stake?
At public meetings held by the new board to discuss the graduation requirements, the issue of high stakes emerged as the focus of debate. The specter of lawsuits from students denied diplomas on the basis of unvalidated assessments hung over the proceedings. That the assessment tasks and scoring rubrics had been developed locally without the blessing of a psychometrician concerned some board members. Had this concern been assuaged, the problem of setting standards surely would have been the next hurdle. Teachers had written criteria for demonstrations without empirical evidence of how students would perform. When the math skills demonstration was administered for the first time, fewer than 20 percent of the students passed. Based on results like this, we predicted a lowering of standards or a dramatic rise in the dropout rate.
Our evaluation supports the use of demonstrations of learning around important tasks as a way to structure instruction and improve learning. But should those demonstrations become the basis for graduation? The principal and staff of Littleton High School, with a few exceptions, insist that they should. They believe that without high stakes the demonstrations will fail to generate the effort that results in greater learning. But with high stakes, technical issues arise that doom all but the most sophisticated of local efforts.
The problem of standard-setting also poses a paradox: if the standards are high, those already disadvantaged by the inequities of our society are punished further; if the standards are low, the intellectual currency is devalued. Our traditional graduation system tempers this by allowing teachers to consider effort and improvement when making pass/fail decisions. Our experience raises the question: Can we have performance-based instruction without performance-based graduation? Still, only the promise of performance-based graduation motivated the teachers of Littleton High School to devote hundreds of hours to restructuring their school.
Alan Davis is an Assistant Professor of Research and Evaluation Methodology at the University of Colorado at Denver. Catherine Felknor is an independent consultant with expertise in program evaluation. They can be reached at UCD, Box 106, P.O. Box 173364, Denver, CO 80217.