05/30/2011 12:44 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2011

Test Season

I'm not a hunter, but when I was living in Vermont years ago, I couldn't help but take visceral note when deer hunting season posted each fall. This must be how our colleagues at Codman Square Health Center (with whom we share our site) must feel when state standardized testing season begins in our school each spring. The MCAS testing guidelines require us to post scripted notices on doors and, during the testing "season" we monopolize our shared conference room space. Dr. Phillip Severin's office as Medical Director, for example, is next door to one of the conference rooms we use for testing. Director of Facilities, Alex Washington, is across the hall. "MCAS testing in progress." We all feel it, we all take it seriously because we must, and most of all the students have laser focus. Students' performance on these tests determines whether they get high school diplomas, if they will qualify for state college scholarships, and also impacts how their school, their community of four years, will be publicly judged.

I always say MCAS scores are like knowing a student's blood pressure. It's important to know, and if unhealthy, should be addressed with specific measures and interventions. But the number itself -- whether MCAS score or blood pressure, doesn't tell the person or the world anything about who the student is as a person or whether that student has grit. If we are interested in ensuring that students are successfully launched through higher education and into careers that are rewarding and meaningful, then what are other assessments that would help prepare students for these challenges and inform us about how well we're actually preparing students for life?

Concord Academy, a private school in Concord, Massachusetts, has a long tradition of senior "chapel talks." My younger daughter became friends with a Concord Academy student, Daphne Loring. When Daphne was a junior, I heard her excitedly describe her plan for her "chapel talk," and this gave me the idea to adapt this concept when starting Codman Academy Charter Public School. As a consequence, our original charter approved in 2001, clearly states that every senior will be required to write and deliver a Senior Talk before the entire school in order to earn a diploma. This is our seventh graduating class to complete this formidable requirement.

In 2007, the senior Humanities teacher Aaron Schildkrout, expanded Senior Talks into a Socratic Apologia, or defense of one's life, and he extended curricula to scaffold that study. "Know Thyself," the words inscribed over the temple at Delphi, became an invitation and inspiration to seniors as they accepted the authentic challenge of figuring out who they are, what matters most to them, and what lessons have been most important to them during high school. Subsequent teacher Kim Parker and now David Liebowitz have each strengthened that curriculum, so this year's Senior Talks are consistently the best we have had. The gathering of the entire school community to listen to a senior stand up and speak his or her truth has become a much anticipated and respected hallowed time and space. Senior Talks are now in our culture.

This week, on the one hand, we had sophomores taking MCAS exams in mathematics. On the other hand, a senior delivered her Apologia to the entire school. She acknowledged that she had been thinking about what she was going to say since hearing her first senior talk when she was in the ninth grade.

An honor roll student, she eloquently spoke about how she had learned her most important life lessons of empowerment and confidence on the basketball court as a varsity player and team captain. Not one student fidgeted during this talk because she spoke with a commanding intellect and open heart about her own life struggles and lessons she garnered from her experiences. It was a talk about how she had transformed pain into effectiveness in the world. It was a talk that revealed how much she had grown to trust that her personal growth -- as all growth is -- would be respected and appreciated by her school community. She was well prepared for this graduation requirement: a test that was a measure of her as a person, encountering and engaging in the challenges of life. She -- and we -- will long remember.

An open response question on the mathematics section of the MCAS has to be answered. It counts. "What makes your life meaningful?" is a different kind of high stakes question. Let's make it count, too.