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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 4

Graduation by Exhibition

A diploma from one Springfield, Missouri, school means the graduate clearly possesses critical thinking and communication skills and a sense of personal responsibility.

The audience grows quiet as Brian, a high school senior, takes his place on the small stage. He presents a synopsis of his chosen research topic, civil disobedience. After this speech, he proceeds with his multimedia presentation: a series of original political cartoons interpreting civil disobedience in different historical time periods. He fields questions from his advisory committee for 20 minutes. How successful has civil disobedience been throughout history? How do Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. compare in their views? What were his best research sources and why were they useful? Brian's answers are clear and thoughtful, drawing on his research and reflecting his own analysis and opinions. The committee thanks Brian and retires to a private room to assess his work. Brian has completed his graduation exhibition.
This scenario is repeated every spring for each high school senior at Greenwood Laboratory School, on the campus of Southwest Missouri State University. In 1994, as a means of ensuring that all Greenwood graduates possessed essential critical thinking and communication skills, the laboratory school added the senior exhibition as a graduation requirement, above and beyond traditional Carnegie units.
Over a two year period, teachers and administrators had met voluntarily in bimonthly, after school discussion groups to consider different assessment methods. They discussed professional articles, viewed films, and shared ideas. Some teachers began using portfolios, some experimented with peer evaluations, and others used performance based assessments.
As the dialogue progressed, the faculty was introduced to the Coalition of Essential Schools, a reform movement based on the research of Theodore Sizer (1992). One of the coalition's "Nine Common Principles" addresses assessment:The diploma should be awarded upon a successful final demonstration of mastery for graduation an "exhibition." This exhibition by the student of his or her grasp of the central skills and knowledge of the school's program should be jointly administered by the faculty and by higher authorities (p. 226).
The idea of such a culminating assessment an exhibition captured the imagination of the Greenwood staff. With continued support from the administration, we scheduled a professional development day for initial planning. All academic areas were represented: English, social studies, math, science, art, music, wellness, business, and foreign language. From this initial meeting and others over a four month period, the Greenwood Graduation Exhibition took shape.

What Should Seniors Exhibit?

Our first task was to determine the skills and knowledge that all Greenwood graduates should possess. In other words, what should students be asked to "exhibit" in order to earn their diplomas?
  • communicate effectively in writing
  • communicate effectively in speaking
  • think critically
  • access information from a variety of sources; and
  • express ideas creatively
  • A written component, a traditional research paper analyzing an authentic, interdisciplinary topic. To avoid making the exhibition an extracurricular activity, we decided to let students complete the research paper in English IV, a required course for all seniors.
  • A public speaking component, including a five to seven minute formal synopsis of the research topic and a 20 minute question and answer period when the student's knowledge of content and analytical skills are explored.
  • A multimedia presentation in which the student has 25 minutes to analyze some aspect of the research topic. We added this component, calling it the gamma (after the third letter in the Greek alphabet), to prepare students to better function in a media oriented culture.
Students are allotted 45 minutes each for their presentations. They are open to the public and to an advisory committee; other students, faculty, parents, and observers from other schools are often present, too.

Advice and Support

To support the students and give them time to prepare a quality exhibition, a three member advisory committee works with each senior. The committee closely monitors student progress, from topic selection through research, writing, and production of the multimedia presentation. The committee also assesses the final exhibition.
The advisory committee consists of one faculty member who is randomly assigned to a student, and two members that the students select themselves. The senior must choose at least one teacher or administrator at Greenwood, but the other person may be a community member. In fact, many Greenwood seniors choose an advisor from outside the school for example, a faculty member from Southwest Missouri State University, a businessperson, a government leader, or a medical professional.
Well in advance of the scheduled exhibition date, students submit their research papers to their advisory committee. This allows the committee to review the paper and discuss any areas needing revision. Depending on the student's abilities, committee members might need to meet several times with the student, reviewing each improved draft until they deem the paper Proficient.
This review period also enables committee members to familiarize themselves with the research topic in order to judge the summary presentation and formulate questions for the question and answer period. Committee members may ask about any portion of the exhibition, including the research process, the paper, the multimedia presentation, or the student's own perspective of the topic.
A time line for the senior year was arranged so students have a schedule to follow as they complete the exhibition. In September, students choose their advisory committee members. In October, they select an exhibition topic and presentation date, then conduct research and write drafts during November and December. By January, seniors must decide on the format of the multimedia presentation. They then present their exhibition in the spring.

A Higher Standard

Teachers agreed that the exhibition should not be graded using traditional letter grades. We preferred a pass/fail evaluation, yet we wanted to hold students to a higher standard than a traditional passing score, which could be as low as 60 percent. We finally agreed on the terms Proficient and Not Proficient.
Greenwood students have to be found Proficient by our criteria in order to graduate. If they are found Not Proficient, they must revise and repeat their exhibition until it is judged Proficient. In The Quality School, William Glasser said that "non success" should be treated as a temporary difficulty, a problem to be solved by the student and the teacher working together (p.107). We view a Not Proficient rating on a preliminary exhibition as such a temporary situation.
Recently we added criteria for Distinguished Performance, above and beyond Proficient. We did this after we found that some students were not motivated to rise to their full potential when they merely had to aim for proficiency.
  1. Personal responsibility (deadlines, interaction with advisory committee, and attitude)
  2. Critical thinking (thinking skills and interdisciplinary nature of topic)
  3. Writing (thesis, development, organization, evidence of research, and mechanics, as shown in Figure 1)
  4. Public speaking (introduction, body, conclusion, language usage, question answering, voice, body movement, and eye contact)
  5. Multimedia presentation (gamma) analyzing some aspect of the research topic (relation to research topic, analysis, creative effort, and technical quality)

Figure 1. Criteria for Writing Component

Graduation by Exhibition - table



Not Proficient

ThesisClearly defined and sustained throughoutStatedUnclear or unidentifiable
Topic effectively limitedAttempt to limit topicNo attempt to limit topic
DevelopmentTopic thoroughly developed throughout with specific examples to support thesis.Topic developedTopic not developed clearly
General supporting evidenceUnnecessary information
OrganizationHighly organized plan with effective transitionsLogical organization, but with inconsistent transitionsNo organizational plan
Superior introduction and conclusion clearly relate to wholeIntroduction and conclusion relate to wholeNo attempt to create unity
No transitions
ResearchFour or more qualified sources cited appropriatelyThree qualified sources citedFewer than three qualified sources cited
Bibliography includes three or more types of sources (books and interviews, for example)Bibliography includes two types of sources (books and interviews, for example)Bibliography includes only one type of source
MechanicsSuperior editing (fewer than four total erors in paper) in the following areas:Careful editing (no more than one error per page) in the following areas:Careless editing (more than one error per page) in the following areas:
punctuationsentence structuresubject/verb agree
capitalizationrun on/fragmentpronoun usage
spellingverb usagepoint of view
manuscript form
If an exhibition is judged Proficient in all areas except Personal Responsibility, it will be designated as Proficient with Reservations. Proficiency in personal responsibility means that the student has met all deadlines, has initiated meetings with advisory committee members in a timely manner and has been accessible to the committee, and has demonstrated a positive attitude toward the exhibition and advisory committee.
As a means of training evaluators to use the rubric, and to validate and calibrate their individual responses (Hart 1994), the faculty first uses the rubric to score videotapes of past exhibitions. In assessing exhibitions, each member of the student's advisory committee scores the work individually. After the formal exhibition, committee members meet to discuss their evaluations and reach a consensus. The committee then meets with the student (ideally the day after the exhibition) to offer feedback. Committee members give the student a copy of the scored rubric and a written narrative addressing the student's work. If any component is judged as Not Proficient, the committee asks the student to revise it and to repeat that component at a later date.

Lessons from the Pilot

Rather than change the graduation requirement midstream, we decided to pilot the new process with the junior class so students would be familiar with it before their senior year. Eleventh grade English and World History classes were teamed, providing a two hour block of time. Over a six week period, students prepared exhibitions using the three components writing, public speaking, and the multimedia presentation.
The students' initial reaction was less than enthusiastic, even resistant. Their attitude was "Why do we have to complete an exhibition in order to graduate when no other Greenwood graduate has had to do it?" They felt they were being used for an experiment. They went so far as to order sweatshirts emblazoned with the words "Class of 1995, Guinea Pigs for the Future"!
We soon realized that we should have included the students and their parents in the planning process so that they would have understood the rationale and offered input. Sullivan High School in Chicago ran into a similar reaction from its students. In that case, the entire senior class attended a special assembly at which the principal, the senior advisor, and the head of the English department presented exhibition requirements (McDonald et al. 1991).
At both Sullivan and our school, however, the students quickly settled into the plan. By the following year, the requirement went unquestioned. In fact, the students were proud of their work.
After the first year of exhibitions, we evaluated the students' ability to display the five graduation proficiencies. We found that, in general, students were stronger in writing and researching, but less confident about public speaking, critical thinking, and creative expression.
To address the weaker areas, we began to plan backwards (McDonald 1991, p. 1). That is, we made sure students were given opportunities to learn and practice the five graduation proficiencies across the curriculum. Teachers in all subjects began to incorporate mini exhibitions into their classes. As McDonald (1993, p. 3) observed,By the light of its students' performances on exhibitions, the school seeks to glimpse the power and the shortcomings of its whole instructional program, and so gain the information it needs to make the right adjustments in that program, or, indeed, to radically revise it. This is the heart of planning backwards.
To further reinforce students who do exceptionally well on all the criteria, we are considering awarding a certificate recognizing Distinguished exhibitions at our annual Honor Day ceremony. We may also note the outstanding performance on students' high school transcripts. As it is now, the advisory committee gives students only verbal and written feedback.

More Pros Than Cons

The exhibition process has been a demanding, time consuming, sometimes frustrating process for students and teachers alike. We agree, however, that the benefits outweigh the frustrations. The process has provided a unique opportunity for faculty members from different disciplines to confer about student progress. Advisory committees commonly consist of, say, an English teacher, a science teacher, and an art teacher people who now work collaboratively in ways they seldom did before. In addition, the long process of planning, writing, and implementing the exhibition has given all of us a chance to discuss assessment, curriculum, student responsibility, and other issues. We've established a new sense of community around academic achievement.
Finally, the exhibitions have established new relationships between our school and our community. The university faculty and local professionals who have served on advisory committees have offered new insights and resources that our students and teachers had not used before. In short, what began as a simple inquiry into assessment has grown into an enriching educational experience for all concerned.

Glasser, W. (1992). The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

Hart, D. (1994). Authentic Assessment: A Handbook for Educators. Menlo Park, California: Addison Wesley Publishing Company.

McDonald, J.P. (1993). Dilemmas of Planning Backwards: Rescuing a Good Idea. Providence, Rhode Island: Coalition of Essential Schools.

McDonald, J.P., S. Smith, D. Turner, M. Finney, and E. Barton. (1991). Graduation by Exhibition: Assessing Genuine Achievement. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Sizer, T. (1992). Horace's Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Toni Sills-Briegel has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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