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April 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 7

Assessing Applied Skills

The Carnegie unit, awarding course credit for seat time, is working against efforts to teach and test 21st century workforce skills.

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Credit: ©2015 Susie Fitzhugh
“The future workforce is here—and it is woefully ill-prepared for the demands of today's (and tomorrow's) workplace” (Casner-Lotto & Barrington, 2006, p. 9).
This was the stark conclusion of a study conducted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and three other organizations that surveyed 400 employers across the United States about the workforce readiness of recent high school and college graduates. The respondents indicated that the skills new job entrants most need for success in the workplace—oral and written communication, time management, critical thinking, problem solving, personal accountability, and the ability to work effectively with others—are the areas in which graduates are least prepared.
In other words, the United States' national obsession with core content proficiency is distracting us from teaching the skills that all graduates need for success. From Massachusetts to Texas to California, we are not testing, and therefore not teaching, the applied skills that employers most need and want. These applied skills often drop below the radar of standardized assessment. They can be observed and assessed, however, through another model: authentic assessment. This model, advocated by a committed core of education heavy hitters (Darling-Hammond, Rustique-Forrester, & Pecheone, 2005; Herman, 1997; Wiggins, 1990), could redirect high school instruction toward a more balanced approach—one that recognizes the need to address both core content knowledge and applied skills.
Authentic assessments require students to use prior knowledge, recent learning, and relevant skills to solve realistic, complex problems. For example, students may conduct senior projects in which they choose a topic, work with a community mentor, prepare a research paper, and exhibit their final product to a panel of evaluators. Another type of authentic assessment is a portfolio that represents a student's best work during the four years of high school, demonstrating that the student has met rigorous applied learning standards.
Although not without its critics, authentic assessment has been shown to have a measurable positive effect on instruction (Berryman & Russel, 2001; Herman, 1997). During the last decade, research projects in Kentucky, Vermont, California, and Maryland have described how performance assessments at the secondary level have provided an effective lever for changing teacher instructional practices to include a greater emphasis on analysis, communication, meaningful problem solving, and writing for a variety of purposes. As one teacher commented,[Portfolio] exercises push me to question instructional choices, to look back critically at what's worked and what hasn't and to try to figure out why. The students' portfolios give me their most significant moments as learners. Inevitably, they become a site of inquiry, reflection, and change. (Tierney, Fenner, Herter, Simpson, & Wiser, 1998)
Authentic assessments provide a vehicle for teaching and testing student skills that we know employers value, such as effective self-management, communication, and problem solving. But although authentic assessments offer a bevy of instructional benefits, their widespread implementation has been stifled by one of the most insidious and powerful forces in U.S. high schools: the Carnegie unit.

Unhappy Bedfellows

More than a century ago, during the first U.S. wave of standardization, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching proposed a system to standardize high school credits by assigning one unit of value to a subject taught one hour a day, five days a week, for one school year. Since then, the Carnegie unit has admirably performed its singular purpose: transforming the ambiguities of education into a clear set of inputs, outputs, and calculations. Seat time yields credits; credits yield a diploma.
During the last 20 years, the Carnegie unit has come under widespread criticism. In fact, it was disowned by its family when the Carnegie Foundation's then-president, Ernest Boyer, “officially declare[d] the Carnegie unit obsolete” (Boyer, 1993). But despite its increasingly unwelcome and counterproductive place in U.S. high schools, the Carnegie unit persists because it has successfully taken control of the most intransigent elements of these schools: scheduling, grading, staffing, higher education admissions, and the four-year sequenced curriculum.
The Carnegie unit and authentic assessment are unhappy bedfellows. A seven-period school day can be neatly divided into disciplines and tidily equated with Carnegie units, but it cripples the most prevalent forms of authentic assessment. Teaching and assessing through senior projects, exhibitions, portfolios, and capstone projects require multidisciplinary, extended learning time that collides with a seven-period day or even a 4×4 block schedule. To integrate authentic assessment and the prevailing Carnegie unit system, administrators and teachers must perform instructional and logistical gymnastics to address difficult questions: Is a student project worth “credits”? If so, how many? What core content areas should long-term student projects count toward? How does student performance on authentic assessments fit into classroom grades—or do such assessments render letter grades obsolete? How do we create transcripts that reflect student proficiency on authentic assessments, and will colleges and universities accept them? These questions, and the time and effort required to answer them, aren't about pedagogy or even about education. They are about compliance with an anachronistic system that schools seem reluctant to retire.
Unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, the Carnegie unit is likely to persist as the structuring principle of U.S. high schools. Within these staid parameters, however, educators have found ways to use authentic instruction and assessment to create well-rounded students. These innovators use, adapt, and in some cases subvert the Carnegie unit system in an effort to transform their students into prepared graduates.

Organizing Curriculum Around Applied Skills

The MET School in Providence, Rhode Island, has been the subject of enormous interest and debate. The MET is a career and technical school with a reputation for serving students who haven't succeeded in traditional high schools. The MET fosters critical and creative thinking through internships and other independent projects and organizes its entire curriculum into applied skill sets: empirical reasoning, quantitative reasoning, communication, social reasoning, and personal qualities. These areas neatly overlap with the most-needed skills identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills study.
The MET's approach to instruction reverses the typical paradigm. Instead of attempting to embed applied learning opportunities within core content instruction, the MET embeds core content instruction into project-based learning. Student projects, one a semester for each student, dominate teaching and learning. In one such project, a group of six students and their community mentor examined the role of education in producing citizens and democracies. As part of the project, the group took an 18-day trip to Nicaragua, where students explored the history of Nicaragua, attended lectures at the country's national university, visited local schools, and met with teachers.
At the end of each semester, students present their project to a panel of peers, teachers, and community members. The panel's evaluation is combined with classroom assessments to yield a snapshot of student proficiency and growth.
The MET school doesn't award grades. Rather, it measures student growth through a dialogic process. First, students, teachers, and family members meet to establish individual learning goals. These goals form the basis for all the formal and informal assessments during the semester. The culminating authentic, project-based assessment demonstrates how the student has met—or exceeded—his or her personal goals. To meet the requirements of postsecondary admissions departments, the MET translates student projects into “credits” to create a standard high school transcript.
Although this approach to assessment is unconventional and, for many, uncomfortable, the proof is in the pudding. The MET posts some of the highest student-achievement and college-acceptance scores in Rhode Island, while educating “hard-to-reach” students.

Ensuring Rigorous Assessment

Some educators have expressed concern that authentic pedagogy is too subjective and may result in student work that is not rigorous. At Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, teachers have developed rigorous authentic assessments. Federal Hocking, a small rural school serving approximately 400 students, began working to implement more authentic pedagogy in 1992. Since then, the school has reduced the number of required course credits to 14 to make room in the schedule for required senior projects and portfolio assessments.
  • The career readiness folio includes an up-to-date résumé, a college or job application, two recent reference letters, and a personal reflection on the student's readiness to take on the world after high school.
  • The democratic citizenship folio includes evidence of active citizenship in the school or the greater community (including taking a stand on an issue in public that is based on evidence), as well as a reflection on the student's readiness to take on the role of citizen.
  • The skills for lifelong learning folio includes artifacts of the student's best work in writing, math, and science; an artifact of best work in another discipline or area of interest; a bibliography of books read over the student's four years of high school; and a reflection on who the student is as a learner.
Another example of a rigorous, authentic assignment at Federal Hocking is the senior project that all students must complete for graduation. Students choose a topic that interests them, conduct research, create a product (not just a research paper), and exhibit their work to an audience that goes beyond the teacher. In preparation for their project exhibition, students are responsible for setting up the room, arranging for the attendance of an approved community member to provide feedback, sending reminders to committee members, providing visual aids, preparing presentation tools, and wearing appropriate dress.
Senior projects give students the opportunity to produce rigorous work in an area of individual interest. For example, one student researched the Underground Railroad and produced a set of maps showing how escaped slaves moved through the local area; the student presented these maps to teachers as an instructional resource. One student who was interested in sports built a ropes course that gym classes at the school regularly use. Another student explored the use of dragons in fantasy and myth, comparing Eastern and Western depictions. The student's final paper and presentation included slides and photos of dragons through the eyes of writers and illustrators.
The staff has created rubrics for both formative and summative assessment of all aspects of both the senior project and the graduation portfolio. The criteria incorporated into the rubrics emphasize skills that the school has identified as important for success after graduation. For example, students are evaluated on how well their presentation shows they have developed career flexibility, the awareness and participation required of a democratic citizen, and the qualities of a lifelong learner. They must use their portfolio and written reflections to illustrate their presentation. They are also evaluated on their presentation skills, organization, and preparation (Wood, 2005).
To ensure that these authentic assessments are used appropriately and result in rigorous student achievement, Federal Hocking High School provides intensive staff development in assessment. For example, the school has sent teams of teachers to visit other schools using authentic assessment and then used discussion protocols to look at student work and discuss appropriate assessment (Wood, 2005).
Federal Hocking High School's emphasis on authentic assessment has produced improvements in attendance, graduation rates, and state assessment scores. The school earned the Ohio Department of Education's recognition as an effective high school on the basis of its standardized test scores. But even more impressive, in the decade since the school moved from conventional assessment to authentic assessment, the college-going rate for its graduates has risen from 20 percent to over 70 percent.

Eliminating the Carnegie Unit

In 2005, New Hampshire became the first state to formally eliminate the Carnegie unit. The New Hampshire Board of Education has directed every school district in the state to design and implement a competency-based system that will allow students to earn credits—and diplomas—through a process ungoverned by the 120-hour Carnegie unit requirement. This new system moves authentic assessment from the trunk of the car to the driver's seat, where it will now serve as the predominant mechanism for awarding student credit both in and out of the classroom.
Within the broad scope of local control, New Hampshire's new education regulations contain a small but crucial set of established parameters. First, districts must identify core competencies and establish authentic assessments to evaluate student mastery of those competencies for every high school course. Second, districts must provide the state department of education with evidence that they've established and implemented a competency assessment system that is grounded in appropriate local and national standards. If they address these two requirements, districts will be largely free to change or retain virtually any of the structuring and scheduling elements typical of secondary education.
Few school districts in New Hampshire are ready to tackle these daunting challenges immediately; many are moving forward cautiously, creating limited and carefully defined approaches to authentic teaching and assessment. A significant number of administrators, however, have welcomed the new policy as the long-absent lever that will force real, lasting, schoolwide improvement. These leaders, most of whom have been working to develop authentic assessments for years, are beginning to implement new and varied methods for awarding students academic credit.

A Small but Significant Change

Moving toward more authentic assessment doesn't require a large-scale curricular overhaul. Like all change, it can begin with incremental steps—student-led conferences and periodic oral presentations, for example. Even schools or districts that lack the time, resources, or political will to undertake bold reforms can implement one small but important strategy: Reduce the number of Carnegie units required for graduation, and redirect that instructional time toward more authentic instruction and assessment.
This strategy runs in direct opposition to the widespread assumption that requiring more Carnegie units will yield a more rigorous high school experience. But the Partnership for 21st Century Skills study and the innovations visible in schools and districts across the United States challenge this assumption.
If we want our high schools to prepare students with the applied skills that they need for success in any postsecondary venture, we need a system for measuring and recording student learning that values, rather than ignores, these skills. It isn't surprising that employers are disappointed when recent graduates arrive to work late and sit, unengaged, waiting patiently for the workday to end. It isn't surprising that many young workers believe their only job is to be physically present while remaining intellectually absent. It isn't surprising that so many recent high school graduates lack the ability and will to tackle unexpected problems. We maintain a secondary school system whose design systematically encourages precisely these behaviors. Until we can find ways, both large and small, to buck the Carnegie unit and the assessments that serve it, we will continue producing unprepared graduates.

Berryman, L., & Russel, D. R. (2001). Portfolios across the curriculum: Whole school assessment in Kentucky. The English Journal, 90(6), 76–83.

Boyer, E. (1993, March). In search of community. Presentation at the ASCD Annual Conference, Washington, DC.

Casner-Lotto, J., & Barrington, L. (2006).Are they really ready to work? Employers' perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. p.9: Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and Society for Human Resource Management.

Darling-Hammond, L., Rustique-Forrester, E., & Pecheone, R. (2005). Multiple measures approaches to high school graduation. Stanford, CA: School Redesign Network at Stanford University.

Herman, J. (1997). Assessing new assessments: Do they measure up? Theory into Practice, 36(4), 196–204.

Tierney, R., Fenner, L., Herter, R., Simpson, C. S., & Wiser, B. (1998). Portfolios: Assumptions, tensions, and possibilities. Theory and Research into Practice, 33(4), 474–486.

Wiggins, G. (1990). The case for authentic assessment. Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation, 2(2). Available:http://pareonline.net.

Wood, G. (2005). Time to learn: How to create high schools that serve all students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Joe DiMartino has contributed to EL Magazine.

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