High schools should dare to measure success differently

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, March 18, 2010

On my blog, washingtonpost.com/class-struggle, I gush over my many genius ideas, worthy of the Nobel Prize for education writing if there was one. Here is a sample from last month:

"Why not take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a new essay exam that measures analysis and critical thinking, and apply it to high schools? Some colleges give it to all of their freshmen, and then again to that class when they are seniors, and see how much value their professors at that college have added. We could do the same for high schools, with maybe a somewhat less strenuous version."

Readers usually ignore these eruptions of ego. But after I posted that idea, a young man named Chris Jackson e-mailed me that his organization had thought of it four years ago and had it up and running. Very cheeky, I thought, but also intriguing. I never thought anyone would try such a daring concept. If your high school's seniors didn't score much better than your freshmen, what would you do? What schools would have the courage to put themselves to that test or, even worse, quantify the level of their failure, as the program does?

It turns out, not many. Jackson, project manager for the Collegiate Learning Assessment and its high school version, the College and Work Readiness Assessment, said only about 50 high schools have signed up. In the Washington area, there is just one: the Severn School, a private, sixth-through-12th-grade school with about 600 students on a 19-acre campus in Anne Arundel County's Severna Park.

John Turner, an English teacher and Severn's academic dean, said he first heard of the program from John Austin, academic dean of St. Andrew's School, a private school in Middletown, Del., even smaller than Severn. St. Andrew's hosted a conference on how to teach and assess critical thinking in 2008. Several of the private high schools there signed up for what is called the CWRA, along with about a dozen public schools in Virginia Beach, several schools in the New Tech public high school network that began in California and an assortment of other private and public schools in 18 states.

The 100-minute exam is done online. There are no multiple choice questions. The student is given a task, such as a memo to a company president on whether to buy a certain small private plane shortly after an accident involving that model. The student reviews news articles, a federal accident report, performance charts and other data, then writes a memo justifying a recommendation. Scorers grade for clarity, persuasiveness, balance and other factors. The program charges $40 per student, or for Severn, about $8,000 a year.

When Turner explained to his seniors what they were going to be asked to do, "there was not a whole lot of applause in the room," he said. The April weather last year was lovely. The senior class president warned Turner that several people planned to stay home on testing day. What could he do? The exam didn't count.

To his surprise, everyone showed up. Many told him afterward that they had enjoyed an exam that made them think. The results were encouraging. The school scored in the 92nd percentile, compared with other high school seniors or college freshmen who had taken the test. Last fall, the incoming ninth-graders took it. Next month will be this year's seniors' turn. By 2013, the school will know how much value Severn has added to the analytical and critical thinking skills of one class after four years.

Few colleges using the test have released their results. High schools such as Severn have also been careful to keep the numbers to themselves. But Turner said his colleagues are working on teaching these skills. As schools get used to it, who knows what might happen? Someday, we might measure academic worth not with SAT averages but by how well each school's students thought through a complicated problem. That might force a major change in the way we teach high school, not a minute too soon.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company