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Reframing School Culture Through Project-Based Assessment Tasks: Cultivating Transformative Agency and Humanizing Practices in NYC Public Schools

by Maria Hantzopoulos, Rosa L. Rivera-McCutchen & Alia R. Tyner-Mullings - 2021

Background/Context: In the last two decades, high-stakes testing policies have proliferated exponentially, radically altering the broader educational landscape in the United States. Although these policies continue to dominate educational reform agendas, researchers argue that they have not improved educational outcomes for youth and have exacerbated inequities in schooling across racial, economic, geographic, and linguistic lines. Alternative project-based assessments, like ones used by the New York Performance Standards Consortium (Consortium) are one type of practice to have shown promise in aiding in the creation of humanizing and transformative educational spaces.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article examines how teachers and students make meaning of their experiences transitioning away from high-stakes standardized tests to project-based assessment tasks (PBATs) and specifically considers the role that PBATs might play in shaping school culture. Drawing from three years of data collection at 10 New York City public high schools new to the Consortium, we discern how students and teachers negotiate this shift, paying attention to the ways in which PBATs fostered transformative and humanizing pedagogies and practices. We raise the following questions: How can schools that use project-based assessment reinvigorate school culture to address enduring inequities that persist in schools? How might PBATs reframe schools to be more humanizing and transformative spaces?

Research Design: We used multiple methods to understand how project-based assessment shapes school culture and curriculum in these transitioning schools, and drew from qualitative and quantitative traditions. The research involved: (1) a historical inquiry into the role of the Consortium in school reform; (2) a broad investigation of the 10 schools transitioning into the Consortium (including three rounds of annual surveys with teachers and administrators); (3) three in-depth focal case studies of transitioning schools (including observations, interviews with teachers, and surveys with students); and (4) surveys with experienced teachers new to established Consortium schools.

Conclusions: PBATs are a useful tool to engage students and teachers more actively as participatory actors in the school environment, particularly when overall school structures collectively support its integration. Although there were inevitable challenges in the process of transition, our data suggest that the school actors mediated some of these tensions and ultimately felt that PBATs helped create more dignified spaces for youth. By anchoring the assessment process in the concept of transformative agency, we consider how the transition to PBATs might reinvigorate school culture, redress harmful systemic injustices, and serve as a necessary part of school reform and education policy.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 4, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23650, Date Accessed: 5/15/2021 8:00:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Maria Hantzopoulos
    Vassar College
    E-mail Author
    MARIA HANTZOPOULOS, Ph.D., is associate professor of education and participating faculty in international studies, urban studies, and women’s studies at Vassar College. She is the faculty director for teaching development and current chair of the Education Department. Her research and publications broadly focus on school culture, assessment, and peace and human rights education. She is the author of Restoring Dignity: Human Rights in Action (Teachers College Press, 2016) and coeditor of Peace Education: International Perspectives (Bloomsbury, 2016). Her forthcoming book is Education for Peace and Human Rights: An Introduction (Bloomsbury, 2021).
  • Rosa L. Rivera-McCutchen
    Lehman College
    E-mail Author
    ROSA L. RIVERA-MCCUTCHEN, Ph.D., is an associate professor and coordinator of Building & District Leader graduate programs at Lehman College CUNY and is an affiliated doctoral faculty member in the Urban Education PhD Program at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her work focuses on urban school leaders who practice “radical care,” which centers antiracism and equity as part of their leadership work. Dr. Rivera-McCutchen’s forthcoming book is entitled Radical Care: Leading for Justice in Urban Schools (Teachers College Press, 2021).
  • Alia R. Tyner-Mullings
    Guttman Community College
    E-mail Author
    ALIA R. TYNER-MULLINGS, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at Stella and Charles Guttman Community College, CUNY, who focuses on the sociology of education and cultural studies. She cowrote The Sociology Student’s Guide to Writing and “Implementation of an Evidence-Based High Impact Practice: An Integrated Learning Community Model in Action.” She is also the author of Enter the Alternative School: Critical Answers to Questions in Urban Education (Palgrave, 2014).
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