Oct 26 2017

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

Their Graduate Capstone Projects may be done and graded, but seniors from the Oakland Unified School District say they’ll be reaping the benefits and keeping alive the passions that came with their yearlong graduation requirement as they move on to college and work.

Oakland High School’s Kennedy Russ plans to work for improved reproductive health care for underserved women. Valeria Fernandez, from Fremont High School, has her sights set on a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field and plans to be a role model to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. Marwat Al-Olefi, from Life Academy, wants to combat racial bias in health care. All of these aspirations were honed and deepened as these students worked on the research for their Capstone Projects.

Passion, relevance, in-depth research, control over their own learning, and a desire to create change in their own community are a few of the ways Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project differs from other assignments and assessments that are often completed and then forgotten. 

During the yearlong project, students delve deeply into issues that interest them, designing their own research projects that include analyzing online and print sources and conducting field work. In addition to completing a significant research paper, students share their findings and analysis with peers, teachers, and the broader community in a formal presentation. Throughout the process, they’re honing an array of critical thinking and communications skills that they will need to meet the future challenges of college, work, and civic life.

Video Series: Reflections on Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project
OUSD students, teachers, and administrators reflect on performance assessments and their impact in these video clips.

OUSD Video Gallery

Teachers, for their part, are learning to shift their practices to function more as coaches, providing support and guidance to students throughout the project. They’re also working with peers in their school and district to create and refine the structure, process, and evaluation of the Graduate Capstone Project.

Preston Thomas, high school network superintendent for Oakland Unified, said the goal of the Capstone Project is to provide students with the challenge and opportunity to solve authentic problems and engage in deep learning that has an impact in the real world. Throughout the process, they have “an opportunity to integrate college- and career-readiness skills.”

As part of the district’s Linked Learning initiative, students explore career pathways through coursework and related internships. For some seniors, Capstone Projects are born out of these work experiences. Others choose to explore a topic that’s relevant to their neighborhood or community or that they’re curious or passionate about. Capstone Projects for the Class of ’17 focused on such diverse topics as the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, sexism in video games, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women, alternative medicine, beekeeping, refusing medical treatment, sex trafficking, lack of access to reproductive health care, and life expectancy differences between minority and white populations.

A Path Toward Equity

Oakland schools have long required senior projects for graduation. In the past, however, instruction, project requirements, and results varied from school to school and from teacher to teacher. “You had some (projects) that were portfolios, some that … almost looked like middle school reports, you had some that were in-depth research papers, you had some that were action projects,” said Young Whan Choi, district manager of performance assessments. “From that incredible diversity of senior projects emerged the sense that there was a lot of inequity, and students and teachers were clamoring for more support and direction,” he added.

In 2014, district administrators began partnering with teachers to fashion a more consistent and equitable system of assessment. Through that process, they created a districtwide rubric that effectively defines skills to be evaluated and creates a more structured and collaborative process so that requirements and assessments are comparable across schools.

It was important, said Choi, that the teachers created a shared vision of what high-quality research, writing, and oral presentations looked like. “What the performance assessment system requires is a high degree of collaboration and everybody being aligned to a common mission and purpose as a school community.”

A Focus on Revision and Growth

Throughout the process, students have opportunities to get feedback and revise their work. Students and educators alike see the emphasis on growth and improvement as integral to the yearlong performance assessment. A low or even failing grade on a paper or presentation is not considered the end of the road, and many students appreciate that the assessment allows for a second or third opportunity for them to incorporate feedback, revise their work, and further hone their knowledge and skills.

 One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence.
—Matin Abdel-Qawi, Principal, Oakland High School

“One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence,” said Matin Abdel-Qawi, principal of Oakland High School. “They don’t believe they can write a paper of that length. They don’t believe they can do that amount of research. They don’t believe they can stand up in front of a group of adults and present their findings and their research. … The beauty is we have such amazing teachers here who continue to remind them and encourage them and watch them go through that productive struggle from ‘I can’ to ‘I did.’”

Teachers find that in teaching the skills that are essential to successful completion of the Capstone Project, they grow, too—both in their ability to support independent student learning and their ability to step back and let the students put their developing skills to work.

“Incorporating performance assessments in my classroom has changed the way I teach,” said Fremont High School English teacher Johanna Paraiso. “I’m a much more courageous teacher, not only in keeping up with new technology, finding ways to incorporate rubric skills throughout the year, and being responsive to students’ questions and dilemmas, but in being part of a teacher team willing to openly assess whether their teaching methods are working and to change direction if they’re not.”

That willingness to continually reassess happens at the administrative level, too. Abdel-Qawi said he and the teachers continue to find ways to make the projects more rigorous, more relevant, and more related to the goals of the Linked Learning Pathways and the school.

The district, for its part, supports teachers and school sites through regular professional development, assistance with changes in the master schedule to allow for more collaboration time, and convening teachers so they can make ongoing revisions to the rubric. Just as students are encouraged to do, Choi says the district is “constantly trying to assess, ‘What can we learn? How can we get better?’”