The Capstone Project: How One Middle School Replaced Final Exams with Authentic Learning

The Data-Driven Race
As school administrators continue to find ways to balance attempts to educate the whole child with demonstrating progress on high-stakes assessments, many have begun to re-examine their practices in order to determine if they are an effective means to accomplish that goal.  At Lionville Middle School in Chester County, Pennsylvania, we have spent the last decade stressing the importance of improvement using student performance data. In addition to looking at instruction, we have used every available minute to attempt to help “bubble students” move to proficiency with PSSA preparation activities and various benchmarks.  As the proud principal of this school, I was overjoyed when we saw these efforts move the needle, albeit slightly since we were already above 90% proficiency. When the PSSA tests were “realigned” to reflect common core standards, our scores took a hit like most everyone around the commonwealth. As years passed and we failed to see improvement, we grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of growth using our data-driven initiatives.  As we continued to attempt to find ways to course correct, I was reminded of a saying one of my administrative mentors told me years ago, “The only good thing about banging your head against the wall is that it feels good when you stop.”
This frustration coincided with an invitation from a friend to join him in viewing a documentary about the state of education.  The movie, entitled Most Likely to Succeed, was a companion to a book written by Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner.  While a couple of sentences will not do it justice, the gist of the work is to convince educators, parents and politicians that our schools should stop operating under a model created over 100 years ago if we expect to prepare students for the next 100 years.  They stress the need to expand our definition of student success beyond that of scores on standardized tests. According to the authors, what our children need is authentic learning activities based on collaboration, creativity and problem-solving. These so-called “soft skills” are what is lacking in today’s graduates and what will be needed in tomorrow’s workers.  Needless to say, less than ten minutes in to the movie, I was already texting colleagues and taking copious notes thinking about how we could apply this information in our school. It was time to get out of the data-driven race to meaningless scores and place our focus on helping students develop skills that they cannot retrieve from a smartphone. If effective, these efforts would be a more meaningful use of the time previously spent preparing for standardized tests and finals and could actually help our achievement scores by fighting test fatigue and helping students go deeper into the curriculum.
Soon after purchasing a copy of the book for every teacher, we began to get great feedback on what they were reading.  Our initial goal was for everyone to read it over the summer and come back with ideas for application the following year.  We quickly discovered that would not suffice. A committee of teachers volunteered to come back in to school in late June to discuss our next steps based on the novel.  In my wildest dreams, I would not have imagined what would happen during that summer day of work. Within a few hours, this team of teachers had come up with the framework for a project that would change our school by improving the entire experience for our students to one that was student-driven and future focused.

“There’s No Turning Back”
Inspired by Most Likely to Succeed the teachers decided to dispense with final exams in all core subjects.  While this may seem last a drastic decision, the idea of middle school students taking finals had never made sense to many of us.  When we read Wagner and Dintersmith’s description of the folly of final exams, the idea of removing them made even more sense. Not only did the authors support our notion that finals only proved how good students are at memorizing content and were not worth the time and effort put into them, but they actually shared an example of research that destroyed any notion of validity in final exams.  An elite private high school in New Jersey studied the efficacy of finals in their school by having students retake a simplified version of the exam when they returned in the fall. The discovered that, “When student took the final in June, the average grade was a B+ (87%); when the simplified test was taken in September, the average grade was an F(58%)” (Wagner & Dintersmith, pg 41). Why would we continue to spend so much time and create such stress when all that our students were doing was regurgitating the facts we had told them to memorize and then forgetting them.   If we were going to create meaningful learning and downplay the importance of high-stakes tests for middle level kids, we needed to lead by example and remove these stress-inducing summative assessments that had little to no impact on learning. They knew that this would be a hard sell for many, but also felt strongly that it would help get buy in from our students for the new initiative that would be called, the Capstone Project.
The goal for the project was to have students develop the skills for success in the 21st century that were identified by Wagner and Dintersmith as, “ask great questions, critically analyze information, form independent opinions, collaborate and communicate effectively” (p. 20).  These skills would be correlated to work and instruction from the content areas. The Capstone would provide students with a chance to extend their interests and cultivate a passion beyond the core curriculum.  If they were inspired enough, many would have the opportunity to connect their learning to resources in the community either in the workplace or through voluntary charity work. The best part was that all of this could be done using advisory time during the school day previously used for standardized test preparation.  Not only would there be no need for students to take even more time away from their families and interests to complete this project, it would be discouraged. The possibilities of topics and depth of learning were limited only by the imagination and passion of the students. What we knew we would not do, is spend time reviewing for finals or scurrying to administer test preparation activities hoping, at best, to move the needle a point or two.  As one member of the committee said while this idea was being hashed out, “There’s no turning back”.

Creating the Framework
Given that so much of the work was to be done by students on their own, a timeline for project proposal, feedback and production was established.  Beginning toward the end of the first month of school, each timeframe provided opportunities for collaboration, reflection and problem-solving to help students work toward their final product that they present in multiple formats to an audience.  The first marking period was used to help students explore topics and narrow their focus for the actual Capstone presentation. After a few weeks of this work, students then had to submit a proposal to be approved by their Capstone advisor. In this proposal, students had to not only explain their project topic, but also describe how this will challenge and help them to grow.  Students also had to make connections between their project and the various content areas in order to demonstrate rigor and relevance. 
The second and third quarters were used to develop the Capstone digital portfolio.  As work was completed and collected by the students, they compiled a portfolio to document their efforts and help prepare for the final presentation.  Additionally, students completed two reflection journals that helped to not only identify areas of need but also celebrate successful efforts toward their goal.  By reviewing these reflections, advisors were able to detect student difficulties and provide guidance on how to overcome their struggles.
As the end of the year approached, students were asked to submit a final presentation plan that helped them organize their resources and provided the advisors with an idea of the space and materials needed to present.  Students were also asked to submit their digital portfolio for review by their advisor before presentations. This included a final reflection paper covering the entire year of work done on the Capstone project. In previous years, the last week or so of school was a combination of culminating events along with the preparations and administration of final exams.  Our new plan also required a flexible schedule in order to provide time for student presentations. Each student project would be presented to a combination of seventh and eighth grade homerooms. Students would have about five to ten minutes for their prepared remarks. This would be followed by a question and answer period, led by the advisors who had some prepared scripted questions focusing on both the process and the product.  Student presentations were rated by the advisors using a “thumbs up”, “thumbs down” or “thumbs sideways” scale on a variety of basic required elements. These presentations were also an opportunity for parents to come in and see exactly what their child had been working on all year long. The final, culminating event was the Capstone Fair. Each team (we have four in seventh grade and four in eighth) had time to set up in our cafeteria or gymnasium to allow the other teams a chance to “Gallery Walk” through all of the presentations.  Many students loved this portion of the project because it gave them the chance to share what they created with teachers and friends from across the school.

Learning for Both Students and Staff
Throughout the year, the Capstone committee solicited feedback from teachers and used that information to address concerns and gaps in details.  This helped by demonstrating the committee’s responsiveness and genuine concern for everyone to understand what was taking place. As the year progressed, even the most ardent objectors to the Capstone Project, became fans.  By the end of the year, we had easily the most memorable learning experience for many of our students and staff alike. The kids absolutely crushed their presentations, with many surpassing even their own expectations. Were there students who underperformed?  Certainly there were. However, by our estimation, there were far fewer than would have underperformed on final exams. Countless parents contacted our team to express their delight in both the product created by their child and the skills that they developed over the course of the year that will help them in the future.  As I said to many on our team, we could not have possible scripted a better experience and outcome for the first year of this project. It would be impossible to try to properly summarize the myriad of projects created by our students. The overwhelming majority were tied directly to curricular areas and promoted a deeper understanding of content that they would not have received in the traditional curriculum alone.  Several students had direct content with relevant areas in the workforce, getting hands on experience that could not be replicated in the classroom. Now, we are even more excited to fine tune some of the processes and take this to the next level for our kids, knowing that the work they will be doing will help them in the present and the future.

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