An Alternative to Standardized Tests: PBATS

This winter, I attended University of Pennsylvania’s Ethnography Forum where I was able to hear one of my academic heroine’s, Angela Valenzuela, speak. Valenzuela’s text, Subtractive Schooling, is one of my favorites. She conducts research at a large high school in Houston, Texas, and posits that the Mexican immigrant students are not resisting the school (as folks who employ the deficit perspective argue), but that the school is resisting the students through an assimilationist curriculum. She talks about the American high school as a colonizing force that aims to discount (at best) and dismantle (at worst) the Mexican students’ cultural backgrounds. This idea is exactly what I saw happening while teaching high school in Brooklyn, and this correlation of her academic work to my professional life as a teacher made me a big fan of hers.

At this conference at UPenn, Valenzuela spoke about many things related to public education, and one thing she gave accolades to was the Consortium Schools in NYC and their use of PBATS (Performance Based Assessment Task System). Of course, I knew about these schools and had heard about PBATS, but most of my knowledge came from my current community college students who attended these schools and completed PBATS as a requirement for graduation. Quite honestly, the college-readiness and overall skill levels of these students varied from pretty weak to cases of educational neglect. For example, I have had a handful of students in the past few years who successfully completed all their PBATS but who could not write a paragraph (yes, you read that correctly) on their own. It seemed–to me–that the PBATS made it even easier to push low-skilled and/or learning disabled students through the system without getting them the help they needed.

From my end of the educational spectrum, as much as I am against standardized tests, I was not sold on this PBAT process.

Then I went and sat on two full days of PBAT presentations at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (BCS).

And my mind was BLOWN.

Beth Mowry, an super Science teacher at BCS, and I “met” through her past and my current student, Lupe, who is a incredible academic, rabid social activist, good human being, and overall bad ass (and currently our Student Body President!). I offered to come to BCS to sit on PBATS, and Beth took me up on it. Let me say, when the day arrived I was not super thrilled to spend my first two days of my annual summer leave getting dressed up professionally, schlepping to a high school, and spending five straight hours per day listening to presentations, but it was worth it. Let me explain why:

I sat on Science PBATS. These 11th grade students had conducted a year-long study of climate change (Earth Science) and alternative energy sources, specifically wind turbines (Physics). They developed their own research question regarding the design of a wind turbine (again, Physics), they built their own wind turbine, they collected original data from their turbine related to their research question, they analyzed their data, drew conclusions, and proposed future research questions based on their findings. This work took the entire academic year, culminated in a research paper and a final presentation with Powerpoint to a panel of individuals (this is where I came in). During the presentation, they dressed nicely, spoke eloquently, presented their entire research process, answered questions on demand, calculated math on demand, and thought critically on demand. The student then left the room, the teacher and I evaluated him/her on a rubric, the student came back in and received feedback (and took notes on what changes had to be made to pass), left the room to make those changes, and most came back later–changes in hand–to deliver to Beth for PBAT completion.

It was the most rigorous academic work I have ever seen done in a high school setting.

However, let me be clear that not every student was a total rock star. A few fumbled around and obviously didn’t have a firm grasp of the Physics concepts that were allegedly a key part of their research, therefore their grades were lower. There was a bell curve to the student’s performances, for sure. But there were a couple of students who I am still thinking about, weeks later, as exceptional young thinkers.

I also keep thinking about how–amid all the hype about college and career readiness–PBATS, when done well, are the perfect preparatory work for both college and career. As I explained this experience to a good friend of mine who is an Art Director for West Elm, she said, “That’s exactly what I do at work everyday!” Right?! Me, too! These tasks are real intellectual academic work, and the skills transfer directly to most workplaces. They are very much a magic bullet for educational assessment.

But….(you knew there’d be a “but”, right?) after two days of this work I turned to Beth, gushed about how amazing the  evidence of learning was, and said to her, “This must be SO MUCH WORK FOR YOU.” She laughed, nodded, and without hesitation said, “But it’s worth it. It’s real learning. It’s worth the extra work on my part.” Of course, I think this woman should be canonized as the Patron Saint of PBATS at this point, but when speaking to any/all of her colleagues (about half a dozen) at BCS and asking them, “Isn’t this so much work for you?” They ALL gave me the SAME answer, “Yes, but it’s worth it. It’s real learning.” Either they have all drank some PBAT Kool-Aid or they really mean what they say (or both!), but they–as a faculty–were all on board with working hard for authentic student learning experiences.

Again, I was floored.

My take away:

1. Throw away all these ridiculous standardized Regents and Common Core tests. They’re all bullshit. They’re not about real assessment of student learning, they are about making money for corporations. Each and every school should invest in this PBAT process. It is real, inquiry-based, rigorous learning. That is what education, for all kids, should be.

2. Start this PBAT process young. Brooklyn New School’s (the downstairs neighbor to BCS) PTA just voted to begin PBATS in third grade in lieu of the state standardized tests. Can you imagine the long-term outcomes if all schools began such inquiry-driven instruction, data collection practice, and presentation skills as young as 8 years old?! The results could be amazing.

3. Hats off, I bow down, big props, endless awe to Beth and the teachers at BCS and all those other teachers out there working diligently to promote alternative forms of assessment besides the standardized tests. What you are doing is  teaching and learning I can rally behind, and you are my heroes. Truly.

As for my life at community college with my students who somehow squeezed out of the PBAT process with very low academic skills, there’s a bigger issue at hand besides the PBAT versus standardized test debate, and that’s for another post. After seeing PBATS in action and how they can work, I’m convinced it’s the better way to promote and assess learning over the standardized tests.

Pass me the PBAT Kool-Aid. I’m in.