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Amy Biehl charter says grade makes no sense

As the school leader of Amy Biehl High School, a public charter school in Downtown Albuquerque, I recently found myself confronted by two conflicting data sets. One set was my school’s recently released school grade, which is a B. On the grade report my school exceeded the state benchmark on five of the seven sub categories; however one category we scored lower than the state average was the PARCC performance of our lowest-performing students. In this subcategory we received a grade of D.

But when I look at a second data set, my school’s overall college acceptance and attendance rates, I began to see a completely different picture. Amy Biehl High school’s student demographics are over 50 percent economically disadvantaged, 67 percent minority, 25 percent special education and anywhere between 30 percent and 70 percent – depending on the class – first-generation college students. Due to these demographics, my school is classified as an urban, high poverty, high minority school. Yet 96 percent of Amy Biehl High School graduates apply to and attend college, and based on National Clearinghouse data, 86 percent of our students are still enrolled in college after two years. In fact, Amy Biehl High School participated in a Facing History national study of four million high school graduates. The study concluded that Amy Biehl High School students were outperforming students from suburban, low poverty, low minority schools nationwide and our school – based on this data – was “closing the achievement gap.”

So, how could our school with a diverse population that reflects New Mexico, that sends the vast majority of its students to college, and these students stay enrolled in college, receive a D grade for the performance of our lowest students?

Recently I was talking with a group of juniors from my school. And the students, unprompted by me, began to compare standardized assessments like the PARCC with Public Exhibitions of Learning.

Exhibitions of Learning are just as the name implies; students are expected to publicly display their learning in front of their peers and community experts – think science fairs, plays and performances, debates, art critiques, portfolio exhibitions, etc. Part of the value in public exhibitions is they mimic what adults and professionals do in aesthetic, utilitarian and personal aspects of their lives, thus exhibitions are authentic assessments because of their real-world applications. And Amy Biehl High School fully embraces Public Exhibitions as an assessment strategy.

The students also shared how standardized assessments including the PARCC are not authentic and had little value or connection to the real world; these tests are taken in complete isolation, it’s forbidden to discuss any of the content and performance feedback is delayed for months and when it does finally come, it is often nothing more than a numerical score.

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Public exhibitions of learning, however, are of high value to the students. The students shared how they spent countless hours preparing for exhibitions because they wanted to perform well, they wanted to know the content well, and they received immediate, valuable feedback from community experts. In short, public exhibitions motivate and inspire students to do their very best work and maximize student learning.

These conflicting data sets got me wondering; multiple studies and data confirm that Amy Biehl High School students are being accepted in to, attending and sticking with college – and many of these students are the first in their families to attend college. Yet these very same students are classified as “underperforming,” as measured by the PARCC, on our school grade report. There seems to be a profound disconnect here.

I would encourage us all to reassess our emphasis on school grades and investment in the PARCC assessment when clearly, there are far better measures – including college acceptance and persistence and public exhibitions of learning – of what our students truly know and can do.

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