Oct 26 2017

Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project: It’s About Equity

Guest Author Young Whan Choi

What should a high school student be able to do upon graduation?

While students ultimately choose many different roads after high school, the Oakland Unified School District has made a commitment that we will prepare all students for college, career, and community. To this end, we expect all seniors to complete a Graduate Capstone Project in which students choose a topic, conduct original field research, write a research paper, and present orally to an audience that includes school staff and often community members.

Research shows that, when designed and implemented well, performance assessments like OUSD’s Capstone Project are essential for measuring and improving student performance with higher-order thinking skills like inquiry, research, analysis, problem solving, and communication. They are also essential for developing other important skills, like planning, organizing, reflecting, and self-assessing, as well as teaching students to be resourceful and resilient. 

Oakland’s decision to institute a senior project in 2005 was rooted in advancing these goals. However, for many years, the district had not made any concerted effort to support the equitable implementation of the requirement. Five years ago, it was common for seniors at some schools to complete a rigorous research project and defend it publicly in front of strangers, while their peers at other schools were not expected to complete any kind of project in order to graduate.

In the Oakland Unified School District, a yearlong Graduate Capstone Project provides an opportunity for students to research, analyze, and become experts in a topic of their own choosing. A video, produced by the Learning Policy Institute and the Oakland Unified School District, shows how this complex project, which is used as a districtwide performance assessment, is building students’ ownership of their own learning and helping them develop and use critical thinking and communication skills.

The Power of Performance Assessments: Oakland Unified’s Graduate Capstone Project

Our teachers surfaced these equity issues, and together we began an effort to promote consistent expectations of high-level work through what we now call the Graduate Capstone Project. The work began in earnest in 2014, when teachers from a handful of schools convened first to identify a set of key graduation competencies, then to incorporate those competencies into evaluation rubrics, and finally to pilot them in their schools.

One high school’s experience with the rubrics illustrates their importance. At this school, students in all career academies had to write a paper as part of the senior project, but the academies had never used the same rubric for scoring until the 2014–15 school year. During that academic year, they also required every paper in the school to be scored without the students’ names and by two adults.

When the first drafts of the papers were scored in May, every single student from the academy with the highest number of Black students failed. This was not a failing of those students. Rather, the results revealed that the students in this academy had been allowed for years to think that their work was meeting a standard for college. When the school adapted a common rubric for all seniors and created a transparent scoring process, it exposed a history of low expectations.

Those students with unsatisfactory first drafts rallied with the help of teachers to improve the quality of their work in the final days before graduation. More importantly, the teachers and staff organized to figure out how to ensure students in all academies would not only be held to the same rigorous expectations the following year, but would also receive the same high-quality instructional supports to be successful. Their key steps included having regular meetings of the Graduate Capstone Project teachers to share instructional practices, identifying an adult mentor in the school for every senior, and moving up deadlines to ensure that students receive early feedback on the progress of their projects. The following year, students from all academies had comparable pass rates on the Capstone research paper.

By looking at student work and discussing how we would score it using the rubric, teachers calibrate their expectations of what high-quality work looks and sounds like.

This story speaks to the value of clear expectations for quality and to the even more critical question of how we ensure that all students learn what they need to be successful. In Oakland, we have found that the real opportunity of having common rubrics has been the resulting conversations that teachers have been able to have across our district. These conversations have led teachers to change their practices to reflect the level and types of instructional supports students need to be successful. Four times a year and for a week every summer, Graduate Capstone Project teachers from across our high schools learn together. We start with the rubrics because they give us a common language, but we don’t stop there.

By looking at student work and discussing how we would score it using the rubric, teachers calibrate their expectations of what high-quality work looks and sounds like. From there, they learn about different instructional practices from their peers and from instructional experts. They investigate these practices by trying them in their own classrooms to see whether they support all students to achieve the level of quality that we expect

With the district having adopted the common rubric, our next step is to begin central collection of data relating to student performance on the Graduate Capstone Project. With these data, we will be able to conduct a detailed analysis across school sites and student groups to understand how well we are meeting our equity goals by preparing all students with the knowledge and skills they need after graduation.

In 2017, we surveyed graduating seniors for the first time to better understand how they felt the Graduate Capstone Project was supporting their development of key college-ready skills. The results were promising: 83% of the 1,290 students who took the survey said the assessment was valuable for improving their skills as researchers; 81% said it was valuable for improving their skills as writers; and 84% said it was valuable for improving their skills as presenters. Further, 81% of the student respondents said the Graduate Capstone Project was valuable in helping them become more proactive learners. We’ll continue to administer this survey annually.

As we move forward, we hope to work with an external evaluator on a rigorous evaluation of the impact of the Graduate Capstone Project on student skills, engagement, and graduation rates. In the meantime, feedback from students and staff tells us we are on the right track. Our alumni come back and say their Capstone helped them get ready for college. Educators, for their part, remark on the sense of accomplishment students feel on completion of a Capstone and their excitement and engagement as they explore issues they care about.

We have included teachers as true partners at all stages of the work, from identifying key competencies for our graduates to revising the rubrics and developing the instructional improvement goals.

There are several practices that have contributed to our progress from a district that lacked a clear way to assess graduate outcomes to a district that has articulated competencies that are measured using common rubrics at most of our high schools. As central office leaders, we have listened to our teachers, whose perspectives are too rarely taken into consideration when making decisions. We have included teachers as true partners at all stages of the work, from identifying key competencies for our graduates to revising the rubrics and developing the instructional improvement goals. We have modeled the process of calibration on scoring student work, so that principals and teachers can lead this process with their staffs. We have also provided guidance to leaders to ensure that there are financial resources for teachers to participate in professional learning both during the school year and over the summer.

In our schools that have embraced this work most fully, we hear the staff having conversations about the quality of student Graduate Capstone Project work at various levels of the school—from grade level to department to career pathway to instructional leadership. If you walk through these schools during Graduate Capstone Project presentations, the audience won’t just be teachers who work with seniors. Instead, you will see members of the entire high school staff, because they understand that their efforts throughout a student’s high school career are a critical part of a senior’s success.

By starting with the end in mind, the school faculty can see where their instructional strengths and gaps are and set clear improvement goals. These concerted and unified efforts by a school to improve instruction lead to better student outcomes. There’s no quick fix for improving a school. Instead, it takes deliberate and persistent work for a school to transform student learning so that schools fulfill our promise to educate all students.

Young Whan Choi is the Manager of Performance Assessments for the Oakland Unified School District.