What's in it for the Kids?

Reaction to the Oregon State Board of
Education Framing Policy Issue #3
April 2002

Bob Pearlman [1]
Former President, Autodesk Foundation

The Oregon State Board of Education is seeking to 1. “Ensure that the public education system responds to the diverse needs of all students; 2. Integrate the Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM), Certificate of Advanced Mastery (CAM), the Diploma, and Oregon university admissions standards (PASS); and 3. Determine accountability measures for the various segments of the education system.

The Board is requesting reactions to its “conceptual framework” on (1) Time and proficiency, (2) State policy and local implementation, and (3) Success for all students. In particular, the Board requests reaction on which issues to “be particularly sensitive to” and would “appreciate hearing about current research and schools/models who have established or are working toward a proficiency-based system.”

It’s not an easy task to react to a policy framework in a state for which one has only a tourist’s acquaintance [i] . I spent my 33-year professional educator career in California (5 years), and Massachusetts (27 years), states I know well, and now live in Arizona. The bad news: it’s hard to understand a state’s education system from the outside. The good news: it’s hard to understand a state’s education system from the outside.

The distance forces me to evaluate the “conceptual framework” more from a perspective of the students and teachers and less from the context of the near-term real-life political environment.

While the Oregon Board’s responsibilities range from K to 12 and beyond, the focus of its “conceptual framework” appears to be a student’s high school years.

Reinventing the High School Experience

High School is the “Weakest Link”. Newspapers across the country are filled with stories of high school failure. Typical of this trend was a headline in last summer’s Education Week : “More than Half of California 9th Graders Flunk Exit Exam,” (June 20, 2001).

As states move more and more towards standards-based systems and exit exams that count, there will be high rates of high school student failure everywhere unless states artificially lower the standards, a real possibility, or schools change the high school experience to engage and motivate students to learn [ii] .

The goal of the state in education reform is more than setting high standards for student proficiency and then testing for proficiency. It is to create a framework, or learning environment, in which students strive not just to demonstrate proficiency, but strive to become proficient, to acquire knowledge and skills, both hard skills and soft skills.

Most state systems today, with their standards and tests, are “gatekeepers” to students. They only tell students what they are required to do to mark their passageway to the great “afterlife” of college and careers. What these systems do not do is “engage” the students. They provide no motivation, no excitement, no interest, to students [iii] . What’s in it for the Kids?


In the Silicon Valley region of California local education officials connected to the 21st Century Education Initiative [iv] were perplexed last year at the poor test score performance of local high school students. In California the state Department of Education annually releases a school’s Academic Performance Index (API). The API is made up almost entirely of standardized test scores, although the original state goal was to have it be composed of multiple measures.

The 21st Century Education Initiative asked one of the local district data experts to analyze the scores and discovered a disturbing finding. The scores in small districts and small high schools were significantly impacted by the scores of only a few students, who scored close to zero on the tests. This meant that the students purposely failed the exam. When the data experts looked at larger schools and districts, the same pattern was revealed.

The California high school students didn’t care how they scored, because the consequences were for schools, not for them. Exit exams will get their attention more. But preparing for exit exams will not lead to the kind of student proficiency, and student success, that 21st Century students need, and that some more enlightened states, of which Oregon is one, care about.

For some kids, getting into a college of choice provides all the incentive they need. For some, a high school diploma does it. But for most, neither works very well. Even less successful are the new state standards. Communicating the standards to students, and their teachers, is a challenge, and the standardized tests only weakly communicate the value of knowledge and skills.

In Oregon, what is the student incentive to get a CIM, or a CAM? Neither the CIM nor the CAM is required for graduation. By 2004-5, districts must have in place processes for the CAM. State officials say that students doing CAM activities, not achieving the CAM itself, is the goal.

Where Oregon looks good…from a distance

Where Oregon shines among states is its efforts to achieve more than a state framework of content standards and standardized tests. Oregon has been an exception among states, with its commitment to the CIM and the CAM and its recent incorporation of CIM/CAM activities into graduation diploma requirements.

One state that has followed an Oregon-like path, Minnesota, has seen its high school graduation rule, the Profile of Learning, come under constant attack. Begun in 1998-99 as an initiative “requiring students to prove they can apply what they have learned” [v] , the rule, known by many as the “show-what-you-know initiative”, barely survived an attack in the Minnesota Senate this week.

For most states the reform formula has been setting of standards, state testing, and a high stakes test for graduation. Most, like Arizona, retreat before the exit exam kicks in and reveals high failure rates. Others lower the standard, as many believe Massachusetts has done.

Arizona’s “solution”, which both marks a retreat and has merit as well, postpones the test until 2006 and allows for locally developed “equivalent demonstrations” or “equivalent courses” to substitute for passing the state exit exam. In Texas last week in a meeting with educators, gubernatorial candidate and challenger Tony Sanchez said that more than tests are needed to judge student proficiency. [vi]

An important step in Oregon is the recent incorporation of CAM activities into the new diploma requirements:

  • Develop an education plan and build an education profile
  • Build a collection of evidence, or include evidence in an existing collection(s), to demonstrate extended application
  • Demonstrate career-related knowledge and skills
  • Participate in career-related learning experiences as outlined in the education plan

These CAM activities, if incorporated effectively by local districts into curriculum and student personal development, could lead to more proficient and successful students. But the activities have to be more than requirements that local districts impose upon kids. The real question is will kids experience the new requirements in a way that will engage them to become proficient, and demonstrate their proficiency?

  • Do the kids care about authoring their own education plan and profile?
  • Do the kids care about collecting evidence to demonstrate application?
  • Do the kids care about demonstrating career-related knowledge and skills?
  • Do the kids care about participating in career-related learning experiences?

The challenge facing the Oregon State Board of Education is to provide high school students with an educational experience that motivates them to learn, to direct their own learning, and to demonstrate their career-related knowledge and skills.

The Oregon Board Challenge

In Oregon the education model is not a state-dictated system of programs. Instead state policy aims to establish a framework for local program design, implementation, and assessment.

Local execution means what districts and high schools do. So the challenge for the local districts and local schools is enormous:

  • Communicating standards to students and teachers
  • Expanding standards to include content, technical, and soft skills
  • Embedding standards into curriculum
  • Communicating student and school progress to parents and the public
  • Developing new curriculum and providing professional development to teachers
  • Developing tools to support the new environment (assessment tools, evaluation rubrics, course gradebooks, skills-based and standards-based databases, learning logs, student portfolios)
  • Developing a new school culture of independent learners

How can the state assist local districts and high schools in this task? What policies can be set at the state level, and what tools and programs can be developed, that would both inform and support local implementation?

An innovative standards-based learning system, developed at Napa’s New Technology High School, may hold some important lessons for state policy in Oregon. Please note that this author is a consultant to the New Technology Foundation (NTF). NTF’s mission is to support the development and refinement of the New Technology High School model and to disseminate its lessons, learning products and tools to schools nationally.

The New Technology High School Learning System

The six-year old Napa New Technology High School (http://www.newtechhigh.org/) has developed and successfully implemented a unique learning system that integrates standards-based curriculum and assessment on a robust technology platform. The New Technology High School Learning System incorporates these elements:

  • Learning Outcomes -- A clear articulation of the California content standards and expected Learning Outcomes (additional hard and soft skills).
  • Evaluation Rubrics -- Tools that set expectations and measure performance for each standard/learning outcome.
  • Curriculum Units – Curriculum for all courses at New Technology High School (grades 11 and 12). The curriculum is project based and student centered.
  • Assessment Tools -- Tools that capture the data both as authentic assessment and online grade books, peer-to-peer tools, student and teacher databases, including presentation databases, collaboration databases, learning logs, and online testing.
  • Professional Portfolios (Digital) Each student demonstrates proficiency related to the essential standards and learning outcomes through a professional, public, digital portfolio.

The New Tech High Learning System captures 5 years of project-based learning curriculum developed at Napa New Technology High School. The Learning System also includes assessment tools, evaluation rubrics, course gradebooks, skills-based and standards-based databases, learning logs, and student portfolios. All these tools, curriculum, and databases of proficiency reside online and are integrated.

But the Learning System does more than just deliver the curriculum and the tools on a technology platform. The Learning System also provides a technology platform for new curriculum and new tool development from schools that participate in New Tech High’s replication network.

The New Tech High Learning System is an online learning platform for 21st Century High Schools. The Learning System’s curriculum and assessment tools could be used across the country. It is expandable—curriculum can be built out and new tools can be added. And it is scalable—it can be provided to schools through either an Application Service Provider or Managed Service Provider model.

The New Technology High School Learning System is proven and has demonstrated its effectiveness. 353 students graduated from New Technology High School from 1998 to 2001, with an average college-going rate of 96 percent. This compares with a district average college-going rate of 38 percent over the same period. New Technology High achieved a top rank of 10 on California’s Academic Performance Index (API), the only high school in the Napa County to receive a top rank. New Tech High had a 3% suspension rate, 2.5% absentee rate, and 0% dropout rate in 2000-2001.

Starting this August, the first of 9 New Technology High School replication sites in Northern California will start up, supported by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The network of 10 sites will comprise a test bed for the implementation of the New Technology High School Learning System. This will assure continued innovation and quality improvements to the learning system model. Over the next few years the system will be made available to schools nationally.

Implications for Oregon Board policy

Several lessons emerge from the New Technology High School Learning System. One thing is clear in reading the Oregon Board’s CIM, CAM and diploma requirements. The techniques for student demonstration, whether coursework, or work samples, or plans, profiles, and collection of evidence, are all out of the 20th Century. There is no attempt to leverage the tools of the Digital Age (admittedly there is no prohibition, as well), to provide students the opportunity to communicate effectively with their communities, and to leverage a statewide community of interest in student work and student success.

1. Develop an Oregon Learning System for Use by Oregon High Schools

At New Technology High School (NTHS) students see a broader set of standards, called Learning Outcomes. These include content standards, hard skills, and soft skills. As in Oregon, they include career-related knowledge and skills based on participation in career-related learning experiences.

At Napa, these standards are much more than a wall poster. Students see these standards embedded throughout all elements of a rigorous, project-based curriculum, in all curriculum units and assessment tools. They work individually or in groups to create products that they demonstrate, present, and exhibit. Often their projects are PowerPoint presentations or web sites. Their peers, teachers, and outside experts evaluate student work using assessment tools based on the school’s Learning Outcomes. Their grades and their gradebook are tied to proficiency on the standards. Finally their work is exhibited publicly in their Professional Digital Portfolio.

This “system” is possible because all these tools, curriculum, and databases of proficiency reside online and are integrated.

Students in Oregon need a similar learning system framework. Some states and districts are putting standards and curriculum online, but these do not constitute a system. They lack the evaluation rubrics, assessment tools, and online gradebook based on proficiency, and the databases that integrate these tools and curriculum.

2. Motivate Students by Promoting Student Digital Work Products

A weakness in the new Oregon diploma requirements is that the state is agnostic as to how students produce its key components: the education plan and profile, the collection of evidence, and the demonstration of career-related knowledge and skills.

Why not encourage that these student requirements be produced as digital documents, as PowerPoint presentations or web sites? For the student, digital documents can be a work of pride. They can be exhibited, or “published” on the web, and shared with peers, with significant adults, with colleges, and with employers. Such documents are tools for student communication and self-promotion, an important skill for the 21st Century.

Why not encourage that such products be assessed using assessment criteria developed by a statewide panel of students and teachers? Why not conduct this assessment online, and open it up to peers, teachers, community members and outside experts? For an example of online peer and community online assessment, go to the Global Schoolhouse Cyberfair at http://www.gsn.org/cf/rubric/index.html and click on "Peer Review".

3. Promote Professional or Graduation Portfolios (Digital)

The best student work can be captured in a Digital Portfolio [vii] . The Board should encourage high schools to make the Digital Portfolio a graduation requirement, incorporating key pieces of student work and performance.

4. Provide for a local CAM and a Statewide CAM

Oregon tradition requires that the state provide a CAM framework for local CAMs, and not make the CAM a state certificate. But why not provide for both local CAMs and a state CAM that kids could voluntarily compete for?

For CAMs to be recognized as important by students, teachers, parents, colleges, and employers, the CAM process needs to be visible statewide. There also needs to be a statewide standard for what constitutes proficient student work, and not just a standard of proficiency that varies for every Oregon district, just as do today’s student grades and high school diplomas.

A statewide CAM could be judged through online peer and expert assessment. Student CAM portfolios could be posted online, and publicly, for assessment and review.

Students would benefit greatly from this online “publishing” of their work. And such an online community of students and adult reviewers from all walks of life would bring the CAM to life.


These recommendations speak to the key issues facing the Oregon Board of Education. First, time will always be a working standard connected to course completion. But proficiency, linked to standards, can be better judged if students produce products, present them, and defend their ideas. And graduation portfolios make a much better proficiency requirement for graduation than does time on task.

Second, a “personalized, proficiency-based system” for students is a two-way street. It is personal, and engaging, because students do projects based on their interest and experience career-related learning experiences with adult mentors. But it is personal also because students communicate their ideas, and themselves, through work products to real audiences of peers, adults, colleges, and employers.

[1] Bob Pearlman is a strategy consultant for education reform. He is the former Director of Education and Workforce Development at Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network and the former President of the Autodesk Foundation. He can be reached at bobpearlman@mindspring.com and http://www.bobpearlman.org.

[i] It’s a little better than that. 5 years visiting my Reed College student son in Portland, 1995-2000, gave me an opportunity to read the Oregon “education news” and visit with Oregon educators.

[ii] See Bob Pearlman, "Reinventing the High School Experience", Educational Leadership, April 2002, http://www.ascd.org/readingroom/edlead/0204/frame0204el.html.

[iii] See Bob Pearlman, "New Ingredient for Student Success: Social Networks” at http://www.bobpearlman.org/Articles/Student_Success.htm.

[iv] See http://www.jointventure.org/initiatives/21st/21cntry.html. I was the Executive Director of the 21st Century Education Initiative at the time.

[v] “Profile of Learning survives Senate repeal effort”, by Anthony Lonetree, Star Tribune, April 23, 2002, http://www.startribune.com/stories/587/2250295.html.

[vi] “Sanchez meets with educators to try to pinpoint top concerns”, The Austin American-Statesman, 04-12-2002.

[vii] See Napa New Tech’s Student Digital Portfolios at http://www.newtechhigh.com/School/Students_parents/portfolios.asp. Also see the Digital Portfolios web site of John Ittelson, http://www.theidealab.net/. For exemplars of Digital Portfolios, see David Niguidula’s web site at http://www.ideasconsulting.com/dp/index.html.