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Grades, Goals, and Group Projects: Shifting Assessments at Head-Royce
Studying for finals. Waiting for SAT scores. Worrying about AP exams. These are anxiety-inducing activities for most students—and metrics that are meant to indicate their preparedness, their intelligence, their capacity for learning. But do they really? Does cramming, memorizing, or drilling facts reflect “real” learning—the kind that is visible when a student deeply understands a topic?

As evidenced by our Strategic Plan goals, we take these questions seriously at Head-Royce. It’s why we are revisiting our assessment philosophy and refining our roadmap to ensure that our curriculum is student-centered, and provides opportunities for real-world problem solving, creative thinking, and intellectual engagement.

For many years, testing standards such as those mentioned above, have been touted for their ability to demonstrate excellence—not only in students, but also in the schools that prepare them. Yet, more and more, these high-stakes assessments are, themselves, being put to the test. Assessment-based learning is shifting throughout the K–12 system, and it is to the benefit of students. 

Many factors are driving the need for change. For high school students, it is rooted in seat-time—namely that the number of hours of classwork and homework equates with the amount learned. Further, the notion of “teaching to the test,” of replacing educational hours with rigid testing curriculum and preparation, places more value on the test outcomes and less on the classroom instruction. But more broadly, summative assessments focus students of all ages on rote learning rather than on the meaningful engagement of complex challenges.

So, how do we change? 

Where one-time final exams and AP tests were once the norm, schools across the country are beginning to see the value of frequent formative assessments––including exit slips, polls, self-evaluations, games, and low-stake quizzes––to collect regular feedback on each student and to gather data that teachers can use to develop their lesson plans. 

More radical concepts, such as the Mastery Transcript—that demonstrates the achievement of a competency, through collaborative projects, social-emotional learning, and real-world application, over the notion of assessing students by evaluating a single number (i.e., GPA)—are also gaining momentum. While the idea is not ubiquitous, it is growing in popularity among secondary schools and colleges; Harvard, Georgetown, CalTech, and other prestigious institutions have admitted students based on a Mastery Transcript.

Notably, the shift in assessments is about developing whole students—teaching them to use reasoning skills and work collaboratively to solve problems. And nowhere is that more apparent than at Head-Royce, where our Strategic Plan focuses our K–12 curriculum on competencies, such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and cultural capability. 

In the Lower School, where students share family history, create self-portraits, and discuss their identities, project-based experiences have always been a main tenet of the curriculum, and qualitative vs. quantitative feedback has long been a norm. Throughout their time in elementary school, students are introduced to academic concepts that become more complex as they gain both knowledge and skills, such as independence, constructive feedback, self-expression, empathy, and collaborative storytelling. 

Or consider 7th grade science, where the pandemic gave teachers the opportunity to rethink their approach to grading and put some of the Mastery Transcript principles into practice. Based on mastering competencies—such as embracing challenge, visual representation, data analysis, or even growth and development—students are encouraged to gain proficiency rather than earn a specific letter grade. Focusing on four or five competencies each quarter has shifted conversations from “What do I have to do to get a 90%?” to “How do I develop and demonstrate my proportional reasoning skill to solve this problem?” This question’s depth proves how meaningful this type of learning can be. Veteran science teacher Kristin Dwelley, who is celebrating 25 years at Head-Royce this year says, “I’ve never had 7th graders that are so interested in revising, getting feedback, and taking on more work to do things better!”

By building courses that offer experiential learning, students are able to solve real-world problems in real-world ways. Take History 10, where students use standard skills, like doing research, conducting interviews, and finding sources, and then pull that information together—not in a more traditional essay, but rather in a web page, that gives them an opportunity to use images and storytelling to convey their learnings. While useful in this context, developing these skills is also a meaningful way to prepare them for future careers.

One of the best examples is the Global Online Academy (GOA) Catalyst for Change Conference that our 10th graders participate in each year. This core part of the curriculum gives history students an opportunity to address an issue in modern America, analyze the root causes, address the historical underpinnings, and synthesize their learnings into a research project that is relevant and timely. These capstone projects—which often offer meaningful avenues for change in the community—are shared in a public, online forum and receive actionable feedback. And awards. Over the past few years, numerous Head-Royce GOA student projects have been given nationwide recognition. Addressing issues such as poverty, police brutality, anti-vax movements, and other current day societal issues, HRS students think critically and present their points of view powerfully.

Experiential learning is not limited to the humanities. Students in a recent Head-Royce calculus class produced podcasts based on research and interviews with non-white male mathematicians, while also covering the curriculum. Will this course prepare them for an AP exam or for college-level calculus? Absolutely. But the podcast will be an experience the students will never forget because it allows them to see the application of calculus out in the real world—while exploring their own interests, addressing the problems they’d like to solve, and applying unique solutions.

All of this is not to say that traditional assessments don’t hold any value. Quizzes and exams can help show teachers what students understand and what they still need to learn. But at Head-Royce we don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all method of assessment. Rethinking our assessment practices allows us to align our teaching practices with the diverse, individual needs of each student.