“More and more, we were noticing this disconnect between what we’re teaching in K-12 and what students are expected to do beyond school,” said Casey Lamb, the chief of operations and development for Schools That Can. “We were hearing frustration from schools that were interested in trying real-world learning, but lacked the confidence and resources to pursue it.”
In May, the nonprofit released a rubric for integrating academics and internships, covering topics such as external partnerships and the public exhibition of student work.
The document also covers assessments for interpersonal skills and habits of mind. According to Lamb, “assessment is one of the biggest challenges in this,” not only for tracking student progress, but for vetting the long-term value of real-world learning itself, about which there is very little direct research to date.
But there is some indirect evidence. Studies suggest that standardized tests, such as the ACT and SAT, are fairly poor predictors of college persistence compared to high-school grades, while a nascent body of research has found that the “soft skills” that real-world learning seeks to foster—such as a can-do attitude and a resilient “growth mindset”—are strongly linked to college success.
ChiTech’s recent academic measures are encouraging, but it is still a mixed bag. On the one hand, students now seem far more engaged in school and committed to college. From 2014 to 2016, the percentage of ChiTech freshmen on track to graduate in four years rose from 63 to 78 percent. Meanwhile, administrators report, the school’s four-year graduation rate climbed from 57 to 77 percent in 2017, and college enrollment rose from 48 to 68 percent (with about 80 percent of the 2017 class expected to enroll this fall).
On the other hand, ChiTech’s standardized test scores have remained stagnant and well below district averages. For example, from 2014 to 2016, the school’s average ACT composite score barely ticked up from 15.4 to 15.6, compared to a district-wide average of 18.4 and the ACT’s “college ready” threshold of 21.
Some, like Laura McBain, the director of external relations and the Education Leadership Academy at High Tech High, say standardized tests are the wrong focus.
“If you’re thinking, ‘God forbid, the school’s test scores are dragging,’ if that’s the basis of your decision-making, then your decision-making is wack,” she said, “because you’re thinking about your school and not your kids.”
As her colleague Riordan put it, “We’re trying to do learning 2.0, and so it makes no sense to evaluate it with assessment 1.0.” Nevertheless, the test scores and other traditional measures will play a big role in the evaluation of ChiTech’s turnaround, and its continued survival as a school.
The willingness to keep taking interns, as all but one employer from 2017 have said they would in 2018, is another metric of Real-World Learning success for Pavlov. After each internship, he surveys employers about how it went and what could be improved. Last year, ChiTech also asked several corporate partners to form a Tech Advisory Committee to meet periodically with teachers to enhance the collaboration on projects and internships. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Pavlov and Garrett plan to infuse preparation for the Real-World Learning experiences into every class in every grade.