More schools are ditching final exams

Times Staff Writer

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.

At her exhibition, Mallory Fuhrman, 18, spoke about how she planned to expand the sense of independence she gained at Wildwood. She talked about how a project involving a glass of tea and the diffusion of light patterns from a beam of sunlight strengthened her appreciation of physics.

She also mentioned her internship on the staff of Tiger Beat and BOP magazines, among other projects. Fuhrman spoke candidly about her rejection by USC and about deciding to attend the University of Oregon: “Close to home and still far enough away.”

“I felt comfortable and confident,” Fuhrman said afterward of her presentation as her parents, Joe and Adrienne Fuhrman, stood by.

“I’m very proud of you,” Adrienne Fuhrman told her daughter. “I learned some things I didn’t know about you.”

Koenig, a lanky youth with tousled hair, stood at a lectern beside a multimedia display and spoke about several projects, including the challenges of using a virtual trade tool to set up a stock portfolio and an unsuccessful attempt to reach the top of Mt. Rainier, in which he realized that he failed because he didn’t believe enough in his abilities.

Koenig also recited a funny story of a mishap-prone student retreat he helped coordinate that was supposed to consider the question of what it means to be a man but mainly focused on what it means to be an adolescent boy.

After a question-and-answer period, Koenig, who will enter the University of Michigan in the fall, said the exhibition experience had improved his speaking and debate skills. He doesn’t know how to study for a more traditional final and might have to get help with that next year, he acknowledged, but “it’s been a real good experience for me.”

His father agreed. “His comfort in being able to speak openly and honestly in front of a group of people, some of whom he doesn’t know, and be painfully honest about his shortcoming, that’s a real strength,” said Skip Koenig, whose 16-year-old daughter, Lindsay, also attends Wildwood.

Of the 50 graduating Wildwood seniors, all will be attending college this fall. The school hasn’t done a formal survey of how their students fare in college, but studies by Darling-Hammond and others indicate that students from schools with nontraditional, performance-based assessments stay in college at higher rates and do better on standardized tests.

“We have students that say that first midterm was hard, but by the time they get to finals, they’ve got it,” said Melinda Tsapatsaris, director of Wildwood’s secondary school. “They’ve been given the problem-solving tools to figure it out on their own.”

Indeed, such students may have an advantage, at least in the college admissions process, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Assn. of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

“Nontraditional applicants are more time- and resource-intensive in terms of how much work there is involved in better understanding where they come from,” Nassirian said. “But there’s huge movement in admissions to shift in the direction of a more holistic approach that’s much more comprehensive instead of looking at mechanical parameters such as GPA, class rank and test scores.

“If there’s real evidence of creative learning, civic engagement, leadership and the kind of student who’s going to make a significant contribution to his or her classmates, they will stand out,” he said.