The students filed into a sleek conference room at a high-tech San Francisco company, dressed in business casual. With no small amount of excitement and trepidation they gazed at the six "Sharks" waiting for them - real venture or philanthropic investors ready to hear their pitches. It was "Shark Tank" day, the culmination of a month-long project in which each student, solo or in a team, designed a business concept and a "pitch" complete with Profit & Loss Statements, organizational structure, and no small amount of ambition. They had readied pitches to address the crisis of homelessness or to make hilarious t-shirts, and everything in between.
Now was the big moment: 3-5 minutes, recorded, in front of six investors who would then fire away with questions. They were anxious but focused, some using their new mindfulness skills to calm and center themselves, everyone taking one last chance to read through their notecards and scroll through their slides. Soon their names would be called and they would walk up to face the Sharks.
2 hours later, as Sharks, students, teachers and parents were chatting and laughing after the event, all acknowledged that something remarkable had happened. The students had seemingly lifted themselves to a higher level of performance. Uniformly we heard from the Sharks that they expected to hear "cute" presentations from 6th graders and instead were stunned at the depth and skill they saw. Parents were amazed at what their children could do. Faculty breathed immense sighs of relief as they realized that students had not only met their high hopes but often given their best performance ever during "game time." How did this happen?
We believe one of the most important approaches at Millennium School is the concept of authentic assessment. This means that most of our Quests - the core interdisciplinary classes students take in six-week terms - culminate in a presentation of learning in the real world. In the story above, students had done a Quest on Entrepreneurship, developing skills ranging from math for their financial calculations to persuasive arguments for their pitches, and the authentic assessment was to meet these investors in the same way an aspiring entrepreneur would. The six investors were the "authentic audience," whose expertise was unquestioned, and who had more objectivity than the students' peers, teachers, or parents.
The term before, students had completed a deep investigation into the legacy of slavery and racism in America, and their authentic assessment was to present to a panel of African-American community leaders, among them an historian, a civil rights lawyer, and an elder who had lived through segregation in the South. Once again, the students' "game" was raised beyond any adult's reasonable expectation - their focus, nuance, and maturity amazed all of us.
When students know they're facing an expert, objective audience, they tap into a greater motivation to demonstrate learning. They may be aware, consciously or unconsciously, of the many biases that teachers and parents have; in some cases they may be aware of an unconsciously lower bar because the teacher or parents knows how they've struggled with something. The objective audience knows none of that, and so with the right preparation, students apply themselves more conscientiously. The same works on us as faculty, recognizing that an objective group of experts is about to evaluate our students, pushing us to work harder and to not let students 'slide' for any reason.
There are many reasons why a great middle school connects with the real world, making it a bridge to adulthood and not an island. This is one of them - with authentic assessment, students surprise themselves with their performance and then witness, through the eyes of strangers, how capable they are. They take the resulting evaluations seriously, more so than subjective teacher ratings. And they gradually weave their interests, their academics, and the realities of the world together, making learning memorable, formative, and confidence-building. How would you feel if, after 8th grade, you could look back on more than 20 major presentations to investors, historians, scientists, and political leaders?