This month, Envision Education’s CEO, Gia Truong is our guest blogger, writing about our Portfolio Defense assessment model, it’s impact on students and the work we are doing collectively to improve it. We know that our model is transformative for some, but not yet for all and not consistently for the most marginalized. In order to truly serve our black and brown students, we must find ways to center their experiences and eliminate racist structures within our system, so that all students have access to transformative learning experiences. Read on to learn what we are doing…
Envision Schools’ mission is to transform the lives of students – especially those who will be the first in their families to graduate from college – by preparing them for success in college, career, and life. We accomplish our mission through our Portfolio Defense assessment model, which authentically measures the most important things students need in order to succeed in college and career. Portfolio Defense gives students the academic, social-emotional and leadership skills they need to get into college and persist. One of the biggest problems facing underserved students is educational inequity. Because of this inequity, poor students are far less likely to receive an education that will transform their life trajectory. We know that only 1 out of 10 low-income students earns a 4-year college degree by their mid-twenties, significantly limiting their income potential for their entire lives.
The signature practice of every Envision school is the Portfolio Defense. In 8th, 10th and 12th grades, every Envision student stands before a panel of teachers, peers, family and friends, and delivers a comprehensive presentation that demonstrates how and why they are ready for the next academic challenge. Every defense is both an authentic academic assessment and a celebration of what students have accomplished. The essential outcome of the model, above and beyond rigorous academic preparation, is the agency our students can develop: they graduate ready to take charge of their educational future and advocate for themselves on the path to receiving a college degree.
We also know that our model is not yet building that agency for enough of our students. It is transformative for some, but not yet for all and not consistently for the most marginalized. We know that in order to truly serve our black and brown students, we must find ways to center their experiences and eliminate racist structures within our system, so that all students have access to transformative learning experiences.
Last year, Envision Academy (EA), our Oakland California school’s 11th and 12th grade teachers observed that too many student defense presentations felt like pro forma exercises, lacking authentic student engagement and falling short of the potential of Portfolio Defense. They could see that the Defense — a model designed to empower students — was not working for enough of their students. EA teachers hypothesized that students would be far more engaged and their agency would increase if their identities as learners were more central and if the Defense process were more inclusive and culturally responsive. We hypothesize that with these improvements, students will be better prepared for college, less likely to confront imposter syndrome, and more likely to persist until they earn a degree.
As a result of the EA teachers’ inquiry, in 2018-19 Envision Academy changed the driving question of the Defense to one that asks each student to describe who they were, are, and want to be as a scholar, the kind of person they want to be, and the role of education in shaping their identity. The teachers also found ways for students to bring more of their culture and community into the process, including giving their presentations in their native language. As a result of these changes, other aspects of model changed as well: the senior Advisory curriculum shifted to focus on the Identity Statement, with significant time dedicated to writing and revising; new strategies were put in place to align the Identity Statement with each students’ portfolio of academic artifacts; teachers developed tighter frameworks for assessing projects and calibrated with each other to ensure consistency. These changes led to stronger, more personal defense presentations, richer connections to academic content, and clearer reflections from students about their identities, their goals for the future, and their awareness about their areas of growth.
The improvements we have piloted at EA have already had a strong, positive impact on students. In the words of one graduate: “I was able to express more about myself and my passions in my defense presentation, especially where we explained who we are, who we used to be, and who we want to be. That was very powerful because the presentation wasn’t just academic but also about the student and their goals; it felt more authentic.” Teachers also noticed important changes: “I’ve always thought Portfolio Defense was amazing, but last year was just incredible. The new process really put our students at the center. It was rewarding to see them, in the 2019 presentations, be more engaged and invested; presentations were more personal, and so many more of them presented like scholars. That’s how I know these changes have made a huge difference.”
Anecdotally, these quotes represent what we know is possible: with a more student-centered Portfolio Defense system, our students will be more invested in their education, they will actively develop a scholar-warrior identity, and they will be more prepared to meet the challenges of college and persist through them. With a college degree, they will be positioned to change the economic trajectory of their lives. As these students gain financial autonomy, they can break the cycle of generational poverty, positively impacting the individual student, their families, and their communities more broadly.
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