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Of all the students in New York City public high schools, about 60 percent end up with diplomas. And of those graduates, about 60 percent — roughly one in every three that start high school — eventually graduate from a four-year college.
Those numbers are an improvement from the turn of the millennium, when only half of city high school students graduated, despite less stringent requirements. But one group of city schools routinely outstrips these less-than-lofty numbers. The 28 schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium network boast graduation, college-going, and college retention rates that routinely top city, state, and national averages, with a student body that is as diverse in income and ethnicity as the city as a whole. And they do it almost entirely without standardized exams, substituting student portfolios and oral presentations for most of the required state Regents exams.
"The [portfolio] system is designed to look at what kids need in college and designed backward" from there, says Martha Foote, co-founder of the nonprofit Time Out From Testing and director of research for the consortium. "Consortium schools ask, What do students need to do in college? And how do we get them there?"
The concepts that underpin consortium schools were first devised by Ted Sizer, the late Harvard Graduate School of Education head, who outlined a system of small schools where teachers have great autonomy and great responsibility. Starting in 1997, a group of high schools in New York state, mostly in New York City — including Beacon High School, School of the Future, City-as-School, the Brooklyn International School, and Urban Academy Laboratory High School — banded together to adopt Sizer's ideas and form the consortium.
Teaching challenged students — including many English-language learners — the skills to succeed in college takes a lot of time. So does a broad survey course, which the state expects students to complete in advance of Regents exams. In most schools, it's not possible to dive deep into a subject while also covering a lot of ground.
Instead, consortium schools favor depth of study over surface-skimming breadth. Assessments, from pop quizzes to oral presentations, are diagnostic: Tests are designed to reveal what students know and expose gaps. But high-stakes standardized tests like the Regents, with sharp lines between success and failure, were never a feature.
At most city high schools, students must sit five Regents exams between ninth and 12th grades in order to graduate: U.S. history, global history, English, and at least one each from several math and science subject areas. Consortium schools obtained a waiver from New York state allowing them to replace all but one of the standardized exams, English Language Arts, with presentations in literature, science, mathematics, and social studies, developed over time in order for the student to cultivate and then demonstrate mastery of a subject.
For example, an 11th grader at Brooklyn International might conduct, document, and present an original science experiment on water pollution and microorganisms. A senior at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx might write and defend a research paper on the effects of slavery in New York. An 11th grader studying at East Side Community High School might spend a month doing independent research into the Gulf of Tonkin — and, with his history teacher, develop a 15-page paper presenting his research and analysis, sharing primary documents and maps with other students and adults via PowerPoint.
"Consortium kids do a lot more research and revision," says Laura Zingmond of InsideSchools, who serves as Manhattan's representative on the city's Panel for Educational Policy. "They understand layers of challenge and they don't panic. All of these skills work for college."
Apparently, the approach works. Consortium graduation rates exceed city averages by 10 percentage points, and well more than that for black and Hispanic students, who have long trailed their white and Asian peers. Among English language learners, four in 10 graduate from traditional high schools; seven in 10 graduate from consortium schools. Half of all students with special needs graduate from consortium schools, double the rate at conventional DOE schools.
Of these graduates, 85 percent attend colleges ranked by Barron's as competitive or better. And once they get there, for the most part, they stay put: While 75 percent of students nationally return to their four-year college for a second year, 93 percent of consortium grads do so.
"Consortium schools build a sense of intellectual and cultural commitment to inquiry and persistence," says Michelle Fine, a psychology and urban education professor at CUNY's Graduate Center. "They learn how to develop a thesis and conduct research. They know how to make strong arguments. That's what we teach in the doctoral program I run. People start with a good question and learn to inquire."
Critics assert that some consortium students may have a patchwork general education, especially in areas like advanced science and math, where options can be limited, given many schools' small size and relatively tiny cohort of kids eager to delve into, say, advanced placement physics. But supporters say that motivated kids know how to "bootstrap" their learning where there are gaps.
Researcher Foote says that three differences define consortium graduates: "One, they can write whatever's thrown at them: essays, research papers — any length, they know how to do it. Two, they know how to form an argument and collect evidence in support of those arguments. Three, they know how to give oral presentations. They have so much experience with presenting and defending their work that they're comfortable defending their work orally."
While the network's local profile remains low, education leaders out of state are paying close attention. Educators as far afield as Kentucky and Vermont have imported consortium practices, such as developing individual education programs for each student and adopting the portfolio model in lieu of multiple-choice, one-size-fits-all exams. One hundred school districts in Kentucky now follow portfolio-assessment models, says consortium network co-founder Ann Cook, and Vermont's legislature recently voted to reconfigure all of its high schools along the portfolio-assessment model.
Consortium schools differ in other ways from garden-variety high schools. Because New York City principals maintain control over their budgets, they can opt for small class sizes and the experienced faculty to teach them by rejecting other expensive investments (well-equipped science labs and sports teams, in some cases). Classrooms look and feel more like college seminars than traditional chalk-and-talk schoolrooms: Discussion is the norm, not the exception. Curricula, often developed by teachers in response to student interest, address specific areas of study — semester-long studies of Gothic literature or the civil rights movement, for example — and go deeper than a conventional approach permits.
"It's the difference between studying World War II two periods a day for a month and 'covering' World War II in five days," explains Lori Chajet, co-director of College Access: Research and Action, a New York–based group that advocates for students who are the first in their families to attend college. If that tight focus necessarily means that some content gets short shrift, says Zingmond, it can be worth it to develop "deep knowledge in some subjects to the exclusion of others."
"There's a real difference in the way kids are taught to think and the way they approach learning," says Chajet. Students learn how to approach any topic, she says, using the case-study approach. "It's antithetical to Regents prep."
The schools themselves are often filled with the sounds of busy young people — sprawled on sofas eating sandwiches in a common meeting space; practicing mock Q&A sessions with classmates ahead of a panel review; making models of honeycomb cells to see how they fit together in a hive, as part of a lesson on geometry in nature.
"The consortium approach is not for every school, and not for every student; it's not a cookie-cutter kind of thing," says Foote. "We never said it is for everyone. But it works."