Phil Farnham, Teacher, UHHS

Note: this interview took place in 1997. Changes to the structure and Domains of Learning have been made at UHHS, since then. However, as a historical document and a "moment-in-time" of the culture of the school, this remains relevant.

REPORTER : I would like to interview you for our news program on the Educational Channel. Could I ask you some questions about this thing you call "assessment?"

UHHS : Sure, what would you like to ask?

R: A lot. To start with, you don't have grades or credits or regular classes in the regular subjects like math and English and science.

UHHS: Right. We have a curriculum at UHHS of seven DOMAINS:

UHHS students graduate when they have demonstrated that they have mastered the several outcomes or goals under each of these domains. Their work will make up a graduation portfolio.

R: Please stop right there. How did you cam up with these domains and outcomes and portfolios? They didn't just drop from the sky onto UHHS here in the Bronx!

UHHS: Not exactly. In fact more and more schools are trying to find better ways to set up the curriculum and evaluate or assess students work. We've been here about seven years and for the last four or five we have been trying to develope a real alternative curriculum and assessment process.

R: So did you start with the regular grades and credits and then just decide to change?

UHHS: We started with a point system instead of traditional grades,. Students got points for work completed and those points added up towards credits. The new thing about that was that the student was always credited for the work done, it was not a pass or fail situation. If it took 200 points in a semester to get a full credit in math towards the New York state requirement of 40 credits to graduate and the student in the semester turned in work worth 100 points that student got a half credit. In the next semester that student had the possibility of doing more than the required 200 points and make up part or all of the half credit they didn't earn in the first semester. The student never "lost" points or credit for their work. We "saved" everything possible.

R: What was better about this than the traditional grading system?

UHHS: We think it was much better because it encouraged students to do the work rather face an arbitrary pass or fail, or grading on tests and routine assignments. It might sound simple but it was a positive approach which gave more responsibility and respect to the student and depended much less on an initimidating judgmental system that for a lot of students had not worked.

R: OK. So why did you change to these domains and portfolios?

UHHS: Because for all of the differences and advantages that the point system had over the traditional grades, there was still a lot of similarities that didnt fit the way we wanted our school to operate, and how we wanted assessment to happen. For example there. was still a tendency for students to focus on the points and not on the work they were doing, what they were leaning and how they were progressing. We wanted an assessment process that helped students to take hold of the work as their work, their projects.

Also we had known from the beginning of the school that the traditional way of teaching, separate classes in separate subjects taught by teachers specializing in their one subject matter, was not what we wanted. From the beginninj we had teachers working in teams in seminars. And we wanted a curriculum and assessment which would fit with an integrated way of teaching and learning.

R: So how did you come up with then seven domains and all these outcomes and portfolios?

UHHS: Not that easily! We started four or five years ago asking teachers of all subjects and disciplines, what they thought UHHS students should learn, what skills students should have to graduate.

What struck us was how much the teacher�s responses had in common, no matter what their particular subject areas. They wanted students to be able to communicate effectively, use numbers in powerful ways, to develop their creative ability and be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, act responsibly and plan for the future, to think critically and work hard to solve problems, to work well with others in the school and community and society at large, to know their culture and history, and make ethically sound decisions.

And we found that parents wanted these things too, while emphasizing responsibility and having the skills necessary for success in life.

R: That makes sense. But what did you do with this?

UHHS: We spent a lot of time, in large and small sessions, over the course of several semesters and summers working over the lists of goals and objectives and putting them into seven categories, or areas, the seven headings listed as DOMAINS.

This is the UHHS curriculum, or course of study. Under each domain are a group of outcomes or goals that the students work to achieve which will demonstrate that the student has reached a certain level of mastery of that domain.

R: And how does a student graduate and got a diploma?

UHHS: By working on and completing projects that will show that the student is ready to graduate. All of this work by the student goes towards a graduation portfolio that will contain concrete examples of that student's work that shows that they have mastered all seven domains and are ready to graduate.

(a long pause)

UHHS: I know this is a big jump from what people have traditionally thought of as grades ... it took us a long dwe to get to where we are and we really have just started. You look a little confused?

R: Really! Well for starters I don't me any specific math or English or, science or other subjects like that. Don't you teach that here?

UHHS: Yes, but not in the way you am used to thinking about how it is taught. We know it is not easy, but you really have to leave behind the traditional way of understanding. We�re talking about individual, separate subject areas or disciplines.

Remember what I said earlier about what we learned about what all teachers and parents wanted students to learn? Things like math, English, science and the others are integrated into the projects students do organized under the domains and outcomes. They are not taught as separate skills but as part of learning how to master the whole domain, and all of the domains together.

R: Slow down here or our viewers won't be able to follow this. Tell me how for example math is integrated into a domain?

UHHS: Fine. And I'm glad you said math because that is one of the traditional disciplines that frequently coms up when people first hear about out system. But I have to ask you to try to suspend, or forget temporarily, the traditional way. vie.. were "taught math or these other separate disciplines. OK?

R: Forget? That is hard and easy for me. Math was my worst subject and I'll never forget how hard it was for me to get through it!

UHHS: You aren't the only one. of course. Maybe it will.; help -if: we focus on the student, how the student learns or doesn't 'learn, "math", rather than on what we remember about how it was taught.

And right now pretend you are a student in a seminar at UHHS. You have selected a project which involves finding out and reporting on the different views on abortion. In fact this is a project several students have done at UHHS.

The work of this project might fit under more than one domain, eg EFFECTIVE EXPRESSION AND COMMUNICATION, or CRITICAL THINKING AND PROBLEM SOLVING and/or possible others. Part of your work is to figure that out.

R: But where does the math come in?

UBM: You will see, but try to think, "PROJECT, DOMAINS, OUTCOMES, PORTFOLIOS." It really does call for a break, a rupture with traditional thinking. OK!

Art part of the project the student may survey a couple hundred people on campus and in the community about different attitudes and experiences and opinions about abortion. In reporting and interpreting that the student may use several graphs, perhaps more that one type of graph (circle, bar, line, etc.)

Now in doing that this student figures out, with the teachers and other students help, how to use the fractions, percentages, proportions, coordinates and more that is needed to make these graphs and present the information and interpretation in the best way.

This project becomes part of the students portfolio of work, demonstrating that this student is mastering the relevant domains and outcomes.

That is just a quick explanation of how our system of domains and outcomes integrates what is traditionally known as math or other separate disciplines. And we think this "teaches math" or helps the student "learn math" much better than the traditional way.

R: Interesting. But why do you think it is better?

UHHS: The traditional way of teaching percentages, fractions, graphs and 2 other skills involved in this project is by rote, memory , drill and repeated practice. The idea is that if the student does it enough times they will retain enough of it to be able to do assignments, pass tests, move on to higher math. And for some this is true, for many it is not. What did you say about your math experience?

R: I hated it mostly, I finally passed the RCT, but I use a calculator most of the time now.

UHHS: Right. We think our student who has learned how the math skills work in the process of completing this project on abortion has a better chance of really understanding how "math works"and how it can work for him or her in school and work and life overall.

This was an example using "math" but we think it applies generally, that is to all what has been known as the "traditional disciplines.",

R: I see what you are getting at. But how do you grade this. or assess it as you would say? You don't give it an A or a B or a 90?

UHHS: Right, we don't. This project is one of many the students will do in the course of a semester, year ... while at UHHS. The project itself might be assessed as incomplete, satisfactory, or excellent. But that will feed into an overall assessment of the student's work on that domain overall and all the domains.

Right now the school has agreed that there will be three levels of assessment overall:


R: So you do have levels of assessment?

UHHS: Right. To graduate every student must demonstrate a mastery level in each domain. That means the students graduation portfolio will contain work that shows that that student has completed projects and other work that concretely shows mastery.

R: I know this is another big question but if you could just breifly answer it ... who does this assessing, who decides that the work is mastery?

UHHS: That is a major question and we, have a lot of other materials that should help explain that and other very important questions. But very briefly, along with everything else in our school all of us are working on this. The teachers in the students seminar of course are very important in all of this including the assessment. But the ' students assess themselves, and they help assess other students work, and parents are a ' vital part of this and as much as possible other teachers in the school and other friends.

R: How does all that happen?

UHHS: That is another big question. Just one way is the Roundtables where students, especially seniors, present there work to a number of other students, teachers, parents and guests. The roundtable will discuss with the student the work, make positive or "warm" comments and "cool" constructive suggestions.

Preparing for, presenting and evaluating these roundtables have in two or three semesters become an exciting, challenging and creatrive part of our assessment process.

R: ROUNDTABLES, DOMAINS, OUTCOMES, PORTFOLIOS: this is a different language about grading all, right...In closing what would you want to say about this?

UHHS: We think we are making real progress, but we don't claim to have all the answers by any means. In fact the more progress we make the more questions there are. None of this is set in granite ... we welcome all feedback and suggestions.

Our domains, outcomes, projects, portfolios are part of an ongoing, changing effort to develop a curriculum oriented to outcomes, goals, a school where "the tasks shape the tools rather than vice versa." And a key part of that is developing an assessment process that serves the students real learning experience and progress.