WESTBROOK – It’s not often that one sees a teenager stand up in front of a small group of people to say what he did wrong.

But Noah Collins, who this week finished his freshman year at Westbrook High School, admitted to some of his peers, educators and an American Journal reporter on Monday that he flunked a couple of tests during the school year, and doing so taught him the importance of studying.

“If I hadn’t failed, I wouldn’t have been as good a studier as I am now,” he said.

Collins, along with each of his freshman classmates, spent the past week giving presentations on what they learned during the year. The effort is part of a pilot program educators in Westbrook hope will become a supplement to standardized testing as a measuring stick for assessing student performance.

Students gave presentations that included slides and multimedia discussing what they retained from their lessons during the school year. In addition to looking at why they didn’t do well, they also talked about why they felt they did well on some subjects or some tests.

“It made me (see) that I understand what I learned, as opposed to a test, which shows the teacher what we learned,” said Jacob Webster, another freshman.

Students talked about new work habits they’ve learned, too. Amber Wallace said she often uses online tools like Google Docs to take notes in class, but sometimes, if the teacher was not monitoring the built-in chat feature that accompanies the software, the online tools distracted more than helped.

“I’ve learned that when my teacher does a lecture, (sometimes) I should get out paper notes,” she said.

Brian Flynn, who teaches English at the school, started the program last year with a smaller group of 80 freshmen. This year, he said, the entire freshman class participated, all 160 students.

Part of the goal, he said, is to encourage students to dig into certain aspects of the lessons they learn, instead of just focusing on the broad-based approach they are exposed to on a daily basis.

“They stay right on the surface a lot, until they’re forced to reflect,” Flynn said.

The students’ presentations represent a portfolio of work they choose, based on what they did well, understood best or learned something meaningful from.

“They’re able to revisit things that had relevance for them,” he said.

The other major purpose, Flynn said, is to offer the public another method to assess the depth, not just the breadth, of what the kids have learned.

“There are multiple ways to demonstrate learning,” he said. “It’s not fair to only test kids in one way.”

Right now, Flynn said, students are evaluated in two ways: standardized testing, which for high school kids is usually the SATs; and in-class testing, measured by passing or failure, grade point average and other numerical data.

Most of the attendees to the presentations consisted of staff members, but, Flynn said, the goal in coming years would be to encourage parents and community members to come in to witness the exit performances.

“You’re going to (be able to) do more than just take our word for it,” he said.

Jessica White, who teaches freshman world studies, said she likes the concept, and hopes it will come to be a permanent part of the assessment process.

“This is a format that many of (the students) won’t see until college,” she said.

Interim School Superintendent Marc Gousse said the program will not replace standardized testing, but can serve as an excellent supplement.

“This is another dimension that tells us, ‘This is how I learn,’” he said.

Peter Lancia, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said the students are reminded of the end-of-the-year event throughout the school year, which makes them more aware of what they are doing in class.

“They start to look at what they learn, every year, and build on that,” he said.

The program may be new in Westbrook, but the idea, especially when it comes to supplementing standardized test scores, is gaining ground, both in Maine and nationally. Dan Hupp, director of standards and assessment at the Maine Department of Education, said this week that many districts, both in Maine and other states, are employing similar projects, with similar goals in mind.

When it comes to standardized tests, Hupp said, he and the department are open to new ideas on how to supplement the traditional assessment tests.

“It makes for a more complete picture,” he said.

And the state Legislature appears to agree. Hupp said new laws passed in the recent session are mandating that his department come up with new assessment methods to supplement testing.

The timeline is allowing the department to produce new models within the next five years, but, Hupp said, the department is ahead of schedule. Maine now is participating in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a collection of 30 states that is pooling data and ideas on the subject.

Hupp said working supplemental assessment models may be ready to appear in select school districts for trial runs as early as the 2011-2012 school year. When asked if he felt those models would include portfolio projects and presentations similar to what is already being done in Westbrook, Hupp said, “most definitely.”

Flynn said the freshman project in Westbrook is the answer to those new needs. He hopes in the future to extend the project to all high school grade levels, and even into the middle and elementary schools.

“It’s not going to be just standardized testing anymore,” he said.

As for students like Amber Wallace, the project offers a new way to look at the day-to-day classwork.

“I would have never thought of looking back at what I’ve learned,” she said.


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