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Equitable Assessment in a Pandemic: Pasadena Unified School District Embraces Virtual Senior Defenses

May 27, 2020 | Ava Marinelli

It’s that time of year again: students, teachers, and administrators are preparing for year-end assessments. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, assessments have become even more top of mind for those in education. With state tests and the SAT/ACT being shelved for the time being, how can educators juggle the benefits of maximum flexibility and the potential pitfall of unclear and lowered expectations that diminish student motivation? In Pasadena Unified School District, students are still able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills thanks to the district’s commitment to transitioning their senior defenses to virtual settings.

Pasadena, CA, located about 17 miles north of Los Angeles, is most famously known for its annual Rose Bowl Parade. However, there is much more to the city and its population than the affluence that is on display each January. With 82% of its students identifying as students of color, 68% qualifying for free/reduced lunch, 14% classifying as English Learners, and 14% qualifying for special education services, Pasadena Unified School District serves a diverse student population with a variety of assets and unique needs. In order to increase student engagement, improve high school graduation rates and drive better post-secondary outcomes, Pasadena Unified has embraced Linked Learning as a strategy for high school transformation since 2014.

Linked Learning is a proven, systemic approach to college and career preparation that creates opportunities for students to learn and grow through real work experiences. As Linked Learning took hold across Pasadena Unified, educators were especially excited to use Linked Learning as a tool to approach student assessment differently.

Students in Linked Learning pathways are required to publicly demonstrate their mastery of interdisciplinary course content connected to a career theme, as well as the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind necessary for success in college and the workplace. This is accomplished through formative and summative performance-based assessments (e.g., an internship project, capstone project, exhibition, and/or defense of learning). “That’s when the whole idea of senior defense [came] in,” said Sofia Valadez, Pasadena Unified College and Careers Pathways Coach. In a senior defense, students present a culminating project where they demonstrate and reflect upon their academic, work-based, and social-emotional learning. After observing other school districts’ processes and creating a vision for senior defenses for Pasadena students and teachers, the Class of 2019 became the first required to deliver a senior defense to graduate.

At first, there was some hesitancy, especially around making senior defenses a graduation requirement. But the Pasadena Unified community grew to embrace the process. Teachers and site coordinators worked tirelessly to support students through their senior defense experience. Parents were invited to sit in on panels and saw firsthand the value of the experience. Students thrived in an assessment process that made their learning relevant. When graduation arrived in May of last year, one hundred percent of students eligible to graduate completed their senior defense and received their diploma. Not only were students graduating having completed a robust cumulative assessment, but they were graduating with deeper skills in reflection. As Dr. Kristina Turley, Pasadena Unified School College and Career Academies Coordinator explains, “it’s not just the presentation, but it's their thought process and the change in that behavior.” Students graduate having already engaged in learning behavior and critical thinking skills some don’t engage in until they are already in college.

The senior defense process has contributed to a significant culture shift within Pasadena schools. So, when it was announced that the district would transition to distance learning on March 13 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Pasadena Unified School Board approved a process to move senior defenses online.

Through online senior defenses, students present their projects to a panel of educators, industry leaders, and post-secondary partners and answer panelist questions. Dr. Turley feels these virtual senior defenses could be “the North Star as a district, saying that we expect our seniors to be able to push out into the real world with all of these expectations and qualifications, and this is our way of ensuring that.” Even if learning looks different right now, “if we know that [students] can present material, that they've done a research piece, that they are creative and critical thinkers, then we can kind of collectively do that sigh of relief that, we've done our job,” Dr. Turley adds.

While Pasadena Unified has elected to “hold students harmless”, meaning they will not suffer a loss in grades during distance learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pasadena educators still believe strongly in the virtual student defense process, and encourage other educators to consider it as a valuable assessment tool during this time and well into the future. When educators approach virtual defenses with a compassionate, open mind, students benefit. They thrive when they have access to meaningful, relevant academic opportunities. For young people, many of these learning opportunities have evaporated with the shift to distance learning, but virtual senior defenses provide students with a platform to demonstrate both what they know and what they can do amid the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has created untold levels of uncertainty in our school systems – for students and educators alike. The impacts of the pandemic will be felt by communities for years to come. Now more than ever, assessing students’ college and career readiness should be approached with greater levels of flexibility and innovation. Based on the experience of Linked Learning, we know that students work harder and dream bigger when their learning and assessment opportunities connects with them and connects them to the world. If we are to ensure young people are prepared for the next steps in their educational journey post-pandemic and beyond, a summative performance assessment, such as the senior defense, provides a rich opportunity for students to demonstrate to their teachers, their families and—most importantly—to themselves, that they have designed a path towards their post-secondary dreams and aspirations.


If you are interested in learning more about the virtual learning defense process, visit Envision Learning Partners' virtual portfolio defense toolkit. Do you have a student story to share about the virtual learning defense process? Share their story here.