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Aurora Institute

Show You Know it: Scenes from a Performance-Based High School

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Janaisa Walker

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

Janaisa Walker
Janaisa Walker

This post originally appeared at SparkAction on May 11, 2016.

Many students switch to a new building for high school. In my case, I also had to switch to a totally new approach to learning.

My public high school, the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (BCS), is a New York City Outward Bound expeditionary learning school. Outward Bound schools focus on teaching students how to think critically and creatively and to apply their learning to real world situations. That means that instead of multiple choice exams and standardized tests, BCS is a competency–based school that uses Performance-Based Assessment Tests (PBAT) to determine when a student has mastered a skill or subject. We call them “p-bats.” These PBATs approved by the Board of Education as an alternative to the Regents, the state test required for graduation.

PBATs are like thesis papers. Students do independent research and write a long, original paper that we then present and defend before a panel of teachers, students and others who are familiar with the subject area.

When I started as a freshmen at BCS, I was shocked to learn about this approach. It seemed like extra work to me—why couldn’t we just focus on the Regents? Was it even possible to write papers that long?

This was the mindset I had coming from middle school, and I was not a lazy student: I spent Saturdays in classes to prep for Regents.  Many of my peers had the same initial reactionsto PBATs.  Some, preferring a more traditional approach, decided to leave the school.  I decided to stay at BCS; I was up to the challenge, and the teachers seemed supportive.

“How Can I Write About That?”

At BCS, we have to complete at least four PBATs in English, Social Studies, Math, and Science during 11th and 12th grade. The first PBAT I was required to do was on trigonometry. I was ahead in math, so I actually had to do my first PBAT during my sophomore year.

My initial reaction was:  How am I going to write a paper on a math problem? I resisted the idea very strongly. Until this point, all my success in school, including math, had been based on study skills and strategizing. Suddenly I had to write a 15-page paper on math. How could I manage the time needed for that? I was nervous about handling the workload.

However, I learned that the writing was basically the mathematics strategies and process in words. We had to connect the problem to the real world, and show its relevance. I used graphs and charts, and before I knew it, my paper was longer than I thought it could be. It wasn’t just long, it was good. The review panel questioned me about my decision-making and I was able to answer every question confidently. It felt great, like a real accomplishment.

Stretching—Literally and Metaphorically

In 11th grade, we had more freedom to pick the topics we wanted to write about. For my science PBAT, I chose to focus on Bio Mechanics and conduct an experiment on how yoga practice affects your body and ability to exercise. I picked this topic after attending a fieldwork trip to Pace University during one of our “expeditionary Thursdays”—which is where students go out and learn things related to class work in real-world settings.

During this trip, I participated in a class and learned that yoga was not just about stretching. It requires a lot of body strength and muscle. This class was my first time doing yoga, and I enjoyed it. My body was sore the next day, but I felt better spiritually and physically. So I decided to use this experiment to help me academically and personally.

For the PBAT, my classmates and I tracked our progress doing yoga during the school year. My classmates and I all found that our physical strength and endurance improved. As part of my presentation to the panel, I demonstrated yoga poses.

In addition to the science PBAT, I did a history PBAT. (U.S. History was my favorite class and it also is the reason that I’m so interested in social issues and criminal justice.)  Because I was writing two PBATs at once, I often gave up lunch periods to work. I didn’t mind that. These writings made me a more reflective person.

Real-World Tradeoffs

The PBAT approach has advantages and disadvantages, in my opinion.

Writing so much helps prepare us for life beyond high school. My classmates and I often talk about feeling more prepared for college, where writing papers is a weekly requirement.  When alumni come back and share their stories, every single one says that the PBAT process helped them be more confident about writing, they also said the college assignments are a breeze because they are so used to writing so much they’ve adapted to it.

For me, the PBAT method does feel like preparation for the real world. In addition to being a more confident writer, I think it has helped me become a person who is better at reasoning, thinking logically, and communicating my thought process, as well as better prepared to speak in front of others. I improved my diction, my vocabulary and even my ability to argue my ideas and opinions in professional ways. (For these papers, we have to acknowledge opposing arguments.) I am definitely more willing and able to understand others’ points of view.

I won’t lie: The workload is stressful. Yet what I took away in terms of skill feels more than worth it. It’s a great alternative to testing. Taking tests is not everyone’s strong suit, and PBATs give those students a chance to show what they learned in another, maybe even more effective way.

That may be the downside, though. I suspect that the PBAT approach might hinder our ability to do well on the SAT. Personally, I did not feel confident taking the SATs. Many of my friends and fellow students felt the same way.  Our scores reflected this. (I have been unable to get data to confirm whether this is a school-wide trend, but lower SAT scores is a concern that many of my peers and teachers express.)

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Janaisa Walker, the SparkAction Journalism and Advocacy Fellow Spring-Summer 2016, is currently a senior at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, a public high school. In the fall, she will become the first member of her family to attend college.