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Using End-of-Year Assessments for Learning, Reflection, and Celebration


This post is part of LPI's Learning in the Time of COVID-19 blog series, which explores evidence-based and equity-focused strategies and investments to address the current crisis and build long-term systems capacity.

Across the country, 43 states, four U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia have ordered or recommended school building closures for the rest of the academic year, affecting approximately 45.1 million public school students. The resulting shift to distance learning has been fraught with questions and decisions on what requirements to waive or maintain when determining whether to advance or graduate students, particularly high school seniors.

State assessments have been canceled across the country, with approval from the U.S. Department of Education. Many districts, such as Seattle Public Schools and San Francisco Unified, have decided to forgo traditional grades for spring classes. Most states and districts have chosen to award diplomas to seniors who were on track for graduation before school buildings closed, given the end-of-year disruptions. More perplexing, however, has been assessing what students have learned—essential information in order to determine their advancement and identify any needed support. And, with graduation ceremonies and other year-end rituals canceled, schools are also struggling to bring meaning and closure to the 2019–20 school year for students, families, and educators.

An effective way to achieve both these goals is to enact a series of opportunities for reflection and recognition.

Opportunities for reflection help students understand what they know and how they learn, as they develop strategies for metacognition—among the most important abilities students can possess. For students to develop this capacity, educators must provide them with multiple opportunities to reflect on their work, the choices they make, and the strategies they have chosen in the learning process. In the distance learning setting, teachers can use personal essays or journal entries to prompt reflection. The reflective process can focus on a single project or unit or cover an entire course or set of courses. The key is for the student and teacher to review the student’s work and discuss which of the papers, assignments, or tests best reflect their strengths and challenges. The teacher can also use this time to check on the student’s social and emotional development. (See “Sample Reflective Strategies” box.)

Sample Reflective Strategies

For academic work:

  • Students respond to a series of questions to support reflection on their success, such as “What have I done well? How will I build on what I have learned?”
  • Students reflect on their challenges, such as “Where have I struggled? How can I improve?”
  • With support from their teacher, students set academic goals for the next year based on their reflections.

For students’ social and emotional development:

  • Students reflect on how they are doing in light of COVID-19 and its impact on their lives—their well-being as well as their friendships, interests, and plans.
  • Students then reflect on their plans going forward to address the challenges COVID-19 has presented to their personal development.
  •  Students can also be invited to reflect on their favorite memory from the past school year.
  • As with their academic work, students then set goals for their personal development, with support from their teacher.
Opportunities for reflection help students understand what they know and how they learn, as they develop strategies for metacognition—among the most important abilities students can possess.

Integrating Reflective Practices in End-of-Year Rituals

Some schools integrate metacognitive strategies into end-of-year rituals or celebrations as a way for students to reflect on the entire year and prepare for the year ahead. For instance, at High Tech High students complete a “Presentation of Student Learning” at the end of a semester or the school year. Although these assignments vary by teacher, all provide an opportunity for students to showcase their work—whether it is a portfolio of work for the year or a single project. The key is for students to reflect on their academic and social-emotional development. Based on a sample protocol from High Tech High, students can be asked guiding prompts such as “How have you grown over the year?” and “Describe something that you still struggle with and create a goal for yourself next year.” Prompts or sentence starters support and encourage reflection. Teachers and peers can brainstorm and discuss these ideas in class to help students learn how to think about where they have been and where they are going. With these goals in mind, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) recently launched Culminating Capstone Projects. The initiative is designed to provide k–12 students the opportunity to “demonstrate what they have learned in innovative, meaningful ways, and to have an unofficial wrap-up of their school year.”

Schools implementing the Expeditionary Learning model, such as Casco Bay High School in Portland, ME, often use their advisories to develop annual culminating events or rituals in which students reflect on their growth over the year. For 9th-graders, the end-of-year practice is called Freshman Finales; 10th-graders participate in the Sophomore Passage. Students at Envision Schools defend their schoolwork at end of their 10th-grade year to show their readiness to enter the upper grades. For these schools, metacognitive strategies become part of the fabric of teaching and learning, as well as part of the school culture. Students have multiple and consistent opportunities to reflect on their work and the choices they make during the learning process. For students, such rituals can provide a sense of connection and meaning, as well as renewal. Teachers, for their part, gain a deeper understanding of their students’ academic and social-emotional development.

Perhaps nothing is more meaningful than the culminating academic and intellectual experience some schools and districts have implemented for their seniors. Often these rituals come in the form of what has been called a “senior defense” or a capstone project. A senior defense provides an opportunity for the student to demonstrate to teachers, staff, and a panel of outside participants that they are ready to graduate. For example, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, high school seniors in Linked Learning pathways are expected to present a curated portfolio of their work in a public defense of learning. As part of this process, they engage in a written reflection on each portfolio artifact using the following prompts:

  • Introduce and contextualize the artifact. Where does it come from? How did you create it? Why did you choose it?
  • Analyze the artifact. Explain in detail how it represents a competency (e.g., analysis, problem-solving, community engagement, etc.) and a pathway learning outcome.
  • Reflect on your understanding of that competency. How have you grown in your ability to demonstrate this competency? What progress do you still need to make? How does this artifact connect with life outside of school and your future?

For a capstone project, students may be asked to select a topic, profession, or social problem that interests them. They are then required to conduct research on the subject, maintain a portfolio of findings or results, create a final product demonstrating their learning acquisition or conclusions (a paper, short film, or multimedia presentation, for example), and give an oral presentation on the project to a panel of teachers, experts, and community members who collectively evaluate its quality.

Creating Opportunities for Students to “Show What They Know”

All of these metacognitive strategies are a form of performance assessment, designed to engage students in self-assessment. Performance assessments allow students to internalize standards, become self-aware of their learning strengths and needs, and take control of their own learning. Often the performance tasks are designed to illustrate core modes of inquiry in the disciplines, such as scientific investigation, mathematical modeling, literary analysis, social scientific inquiry, or artistic performance.

Given the ambiguity and uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought to our lives, there is no better time to enact metacognitive strategies. These practices offer many important benefits. They can provide closure to the 2019–20 school year, help to identify students who will need additional assistance or who have made gains, and support their development of an academic mindset for the 2020–21 school year. For high school seniors, these strategies can also help them mark a milestone in place of a traditional graduation ceremony, while preparing them for their next academic and life challenges.