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Three Powerful Examples of School Districts Using Capstones and Portfolios

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By Amy Spicer, former teacher and current senior program lead at the Colorado Education Initiative

For the past year, Colorado Education Initiative (CEI) has supported schools and districts through the Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) in designing and refining capstone and portfolio systems under the state's graduation guidelines. Colorado is unique in that the state offers guidelines for graduation—a menu of options that local school boards can pick from. This results in each of the 178 school districts choosing among both traditional ways to demonstrate college and career readiness such as SAT and ACT scores and performance-based demonstrations such as portfolios and capstone projects.

During the 2018-19 school year, CEI is supporting eight districts and 15 schools to design or enhance capstone and portfolio systems, and it's exciting and inspiring to see the progress that schools and districts are making by fundamentally rethinking the role that assessment should play in our K-12 system. For a portfolio, students can collect artifacts over their four years in high school that show they have met standards and competencies. On a capstone, they might engage in a rigorous project over the course of their junior or senior years. Both these performance-based pathways to graduation provide students with more options to show that they have mastered academic content as well as developed additional skills and competencies necessary for success in school, work, and life.  

Here are just three examples of inspiring progress in Colorado, showing the depth of experience that students can have when they are given the opportunity to engage in meaningful and relevant learning that is designed to equip them with both academic and nonacademic skills.

  • Cañon City School District is a rural school district in southwest Colorado that is diving into career pathways and project-based learning (PBL). It starts freshman year, providing students opportunities to explore career options through a series of guest lectures, field trips, and research projects before choosing a career focus for the next three years. The school district has partnerships with nearly 100 community businesses, which offer every student a quarter-long internship. Cañon City links these opportunities to a capstone option for all students under the state's graduation guidelines so that students can use their career pathway experience to demonstrate that they are ready to graduate.
  • Jefferson County Public Schools (Jeffco) is a large district just west of Denver that allows each high school to design a capstone experience for their students that aligns with the school's mission and vision. At Arvada High School, the school developed a profile of a graduate (see image), as well as creating both a capstone process and a career pathways option this year.

ArvadaHS_visiongraphic.png

  • Jeffco Open School, another high school in Jeffco, has leveraged the school's emphasis on self-direction and learning from experience to engage students as consultants to revise its graduate profile and redesign its capstone system. They are also working with parents and community members to support them: pilot tests are already underway on technology solutions that will enable students to capture and communicate mastery of competencies outside of the school walls anytime, anywhere.

Colorado's flexible graduation guidelines have allowed districts to rethink assessment practices to be more inclusive and empowering of students who have been underserved by our traditional systems. When done well, performance-based demonstrations of college- and career-readiness can show more of what students know and are able to do than the SAT or ACT. That said, there is also an inherent risk of widening equity gaps: capstones and portfolios could be used as a less-rigorous pathway or pass-through option to ensure students can graduate on time without a real assurance of college and career readiness.

It's up to educators, families, students, and the wider community to hold the bar high for graduates. The world is rapidly changing, and what students need to be successful in college, a career, and in life require additional skills like collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving—all things that students cannot show with a single test score. Portfolios and capstones in Colorado are proving they can be that rigorous alternative for showing mastery and readiness for life beyond high school.

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