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Why High Schools Need to Ditch Exams

As a school that strives to cultivate a culture around authenticity and engagement in deep, enriching feedback, we are lucky enough to see our practices extend beyond just our school to friends and family. We received a thoughtful reflection from Amy Jester, a new CSCS parent, on her first experience of our end of semester, Presentations of Learning, that we would like to share. Amy's note reflects the voices of many parents and community members who attend our Presentations of Learning and remind us all of the critical importance of empowering young people to be learners and thinkers, and the necessity of providing both the opportunities and the skills for students to develop and share their voice.


A letter from Amy Jester, Clark Street Community School Parent

Students in high schools around the country were busy last week taking final exams to prove to their teachers that they had met the objectives of their classes. They demonstrated how they have adapted to this system by calculating exactly how well they had to do on each exam, and spent hours memorizing and worrying about the impact of their final grades.

Students at a different school spent last week reflecting on their last semester and choosing and crafting a “Presentation of Learning” (POL) to share with their community. Just like other high school students who spent the week preparing for the end of the semester, Clark Street Community School students were academically busy; however, their goal was different. Rather than regurgitating the content of their classes from the last semester to display to the teachers that they learned, students were asked to display a meaningful message that illustrated their learning journey that semester.

As a parent of a first year student at Clark Street, I was not exactly sure what to expect from the POL. As a former public speaking teacher, I always enjoy watching student speeches because I know that for many students it requires courage to get up in front of peers, teachers, and strangers to give any presentation, much less one that is a personal reflection.

I came for my own kid’s speech at 8:30 am and ended up staying for two more sessions. I saw fifteen presentations in all and I stayed because watching these students filled me with hope. One of the things that struck me was how different each presentation was from the others. Each student had a clear message, unique voice, and personal experience that shed light on how the innovative education at Clark Street Community School engages students in their education.

While I only saw the POLs of a small sample of the 100+ students at the

school, three broad themes about the students’ CSCS experience emerged: students at Clark Street have an impact on themselves, their school, and their community.

Students are learning about themselves as learners.

Students at CSCS see their learning as a process rather than a product. Several students mentioned a particularly challenging text and how they moved from a state of confusion to understanding. The impact of that understanding was not that they could pass a test about the book, rather that it changed the way they viewed their place in the world and they were interested in sharing this new outlook with others.

A student described their transition from a “scared nervous freshman to a strong independent sophomore” and reflected on their growth in managing their time, their needs, and their confidence. Stretching themselves into more challenging goals, this student provided examples that illustrated how these changes manifested during the semester.

Students felt empowered to advocate for their own learning. A student who asked to alter a historical fiction writing assignment learned that he would be supported in tailoring work to make his own vision a reality. He learned how to “persevere even when I doubted myself” and got the support that now allows him to see himself as a writer with ideas of his own to explore.

Students learned that acquiring new skills requires dedication. A student who experimented with composing music and film-making was discouraged by a gap between his skill and the vision for his work, but he described how he stuck with it and knows that he needs to continue doing more work to improve to where his visions can be realized.

Students experienced exercising their voice. In a response to the question: how is Clark different than a traditional high school? A student explained that in a traditional H.S. the goal is for teachers to fill students with knowledge so that ‘someday’ they may go have an impact on the world. At CSCS, real experiences engage students with the world and through those experiences they gain knowledge. Clark street students have a voice right now. “We don’t have to wait.”

Students are able to see learning as an exploration rather than a acquisition. A student shared her experiences in learning about synesthesia. She was able to explore with art and music as a way to integrate knowledge about this perceptual phenomena.

Students are connected to and support each other.

● Students at CSCS speak positively about their connection to Clark: “I feel like I can trust this community”, “I feel like I am part of the community”, “I took personal risks here.”

The connection was palpable in the in-between speech moments. I overheard many words of encouragement (“You got this!”, “Your first POL done - you did it!”) and words of genuine appreciation (“She’s so powerful”, “I feel more connected to her after hearing her POL.”).

● Speeches encouraged each other to engage in learning experiences. Students encouraged others to try something new, “even if you have doubts just try it. It may have a huge impact on your life.” and to take advantage of “experiences that will allow you play a role in your community.” One student said “I can make a difference in my world with my voice. You can too. Your voice matters."

● Students at Clark see themselves as teachers as well as learners. One entire

POL was dedicated to reflections on a college application journey, in an attempt to guide others who will consider this option. It was complete with tips on navigating the application process including how a CSCS student conveys their unique experience as thinkers, communicators, and learners using their portfolio to show what their authentic empowered learning experiences offer to institutions of higher learning.

Students are engaged in their community.

A student observed that Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin was an amazing community resource, but that they don’t have an “abundance of young people”. This student highlighted his great experience being allowed to produce a short film on the grounds of Taliesin and spoke about how this work laid groundwork for a pilot internship program with Taliesin preservation society and Clark Street that will benefit both institutions by infusing fresh interest in preservation into Taliesin and opportunities for students to explore and extend the ideas of FLW in an authentic environment.

Clark students have many connections to the University of Wisconsin.

For example, the School of Education and the Greater Madison Writing Project run a program called Rise Up and Write. The program gives students the opportunity to use writing as a way to raise awareness and create change. Several Clark students have attended the program and these students bring back to Clark Street a desire to use their newly developed skills in their Clark classes. For instance, one student spoke about a Space for Learning Research project that followed up on an advocacy campaign exploring the impact of grades on students’ lives. Another student co-taught an Activism 101 class and shared with Clark students how to use their influence through letter writing to change makers like new Wisconsin governor Tony Evers. Students from the Rise Up and Write program bring skills back to Clark and make the experience richer for all students.

Students made genuine contributions to the community through programs like Root to Rise, which places students of color into leadership roles to serve as academic and behavioral mentors for elementary and middle school students. A Clark student talked about how this program allowed him to see himself in a “role as more than a high school student”. This student was able to be valued as a member of the teaching community for middle school students and this experience gave them a reason to stay engaged in their own learning.

Students value learning that occurs in partnership with the community. One

student spent their entire POL detailing all of the community partnerships that comprised their seminar. Six different community partnerships allowed students to learn the science of dementia, to be trained as dementia friendly advocates, and to interact with seniors through the Middleton Music and Memory program. This student took time to share the impact of his experiences with these community partnership in hopes that other instructors would be encouraged to develop rich community partnerships and that perhaps other audience members would see the value of their own organizations working with students at Clark.

One student titled his POL “How have I grown?”, and quipped that he had never been asked that before. When he said that, I realized that in my high school, college, and (too many) years of grad school I’d never been asked that, either.

How might we all be different if we took the time to stop and reflect on our ongoing learning experiences? What if we all were accountable for our own development several times a year? What if we had to stop and integrate our experiences into our outlook on the world and take the time to share and connect with our communities through a Presentation of Learning?

I am glad that there is a place where a hundred kids get to find out. I wish there were more.


As members of the CSCS community—those of you who have just recently joined our ranks, as well as those of you who have been with us for many years past—we invite you to join the conversation and converse with us, with each other, in the comment section below.

Does this reading spark any thoughts or questions for you?

Do you have your own reflection to share from previous POL experiences?

How do you monitor, and reflect on, your own growth and development? What inspires you to remain a lifelong learner?

Looking for more?

Be sure to join us for our second, and concluding, round of POLs for the 2018-2019 school year! They will take place on June 7th—the first Friday of the month.


(608) 829-9640

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2429 Clark St, Middleton, WI 53562, USA

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