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Inside a Performance Package
by Tim Pugmire
February 8, 2000

To navigate their way through Minnesota's Profile of Learning graduation standards, teachers and students use roadmaps known as "performance packages." Inside a package you'll find what the state expects students to know in a specific subject area, and the ways students should be able to demonstrate that knowledge. State education officials created examples of performance packages for each of their 48 standards. Many schools are using those examples. But local teachers are encouraged to develop and use their own.
Like like many teachers, Nonie Peterson Kouneski finds most of the state-written packages difficult to work with. She says the standards themselves are cumbersome, poorly worded and often confusing.
Photo: Tim Pugmire

AT ROOSEVELT HIGH SCHOOL in Minneapolis, Nonie Peterson Kouneski teaches two sections of tenth-grade world history. That course, in the Minneapolis school district, is now home for three of the state's graduation standards: world history, diverse perspectives and human geography. Under current law, this year's tenth-graders must complete 24 of the 48 standards before graduating. Kouneski, who's taught at Roosevelt for eight years, says she supports the concept of standards and also the use of performance packages.
Kounseki: These standards are written in such a way that giving them a multiple-choice test isn't going to be appropriate. You have to give them a performance-demonstration test, where they're showing you instead of telling you. And so that is what people call a package.
But like like many teachers, Kouneski says she finds most of the state-written packages difficult to work with. She says the standards themselves are cumbersome, poorly worded and often confusing. Take for example the state's requirements for meeting the human geography standard.
...a student shall demonstrate an understanding of human geography by: identifying the location of major places and geographic features on the surface of the earth, the physical and cultural characteristics of places, the physical processes that shape patterns on the earth's surface, how movement of cultural characteristics interconnects various places and how the physical environment is modified by and modifies human activities...
Some teachers are repulsed by such perplexing state directives. Others have taken time to decipher the state goals and create their own plan for meeting the requirements. Kouneski teamed up last summer with a teacher at Southwest High School to write a local package for the human geography standard, one that better fit the tenth-grade curriculum in Minneapolis.
Kouneski: So we looked at what it said in the standard, this is what the students need to know and be able to do by the end of our unit. How are they going to show us that they got it? And we decided they would make an atlas, they would write a paper and they would give an oral presentation on the topic we had chosen.
And the topic they selected was a case of modern-day slavery in the eastern African nation of Sudan.

As a starting point for her package, Kouneski used newspaper stories written in 1996 by Baltimore Sun reporter Gregory Kane, who documented slavery in Sudan and the practice of purchasing slaves to set them free. Over the next four weeks, her students researched Sudan, drew maps of the country and talked with each other about the topic. They also presented their findings to the rest of the class.

Kouneski's students used map transparencies and an overhead projector to share what they'd learned about Sudan's physical features, cultural characteristics and the locations of slavery. They also made a presentation and wrote a paper on ways they would address the slave trade issue. But the key task for demonstrating their geography skills was the atlas project.
"Nobody knows how this will end up. How serious are the students about this? Not very serious at all."

-Andrea Jacobsen
Roosevelt High School sophomore

At a table in the high school's media center, first-hour student M'Angelo Harris uses colored pencils to fill in a blank map of Sudan. Harris and other students must interpret the geographical and cultural information they've discussed in class as they create their atlas.
Harris: I'm working on the map that shows different climates. Like up here will be desert, this is forest land and this like where rain land is. Then I'm going to work on present-day slavery trails.
Harris says he likes the map-making and other hands-on activities. He says the topic of slavery in the Sudan is interesting.
Harris: I didn't think it still existed, that slavery still existed. Then when we started reading the story I stared to get into it, like - dang - slavery still does exist, and it's serious.
Nonie Kouneski says most of her students have deep feelings about injustice and oppression. She says the topic of modern-day slavery was a way to tap into those passions and lead students into other learning experiences. Student Antonio Riley says he thinks he learned a lot.
Riley: At first I just thought of Africa as a big place with a lot of heat and a lot of people. But it's like, you know, there's a lot of stuff you can learn about Africa that I really didn't know or care about. It's like the more I come to class the more I learn.
Under the Profile of Learning philosophy, students should take longer and deeper looks into certain topics. Theoretically, students can then take the lessons learned through a standard and apply them to any number of learning situations. But several students in Kouneski's class aren't buying into that theory. Danielle Minksey says she grew tired of the long, deep look at Sudan.
Minskey: I think it's a lot of work for one subject. Like you should just do a couple maps and write a short essay and that would be it. But she kind of drags it on into this big project. So it kind of gets boring after a while.
Instead of simply remembering information for a test, the new graduation standards emphasize the importance of using information to solve problems, analyze results and evaluate alternatives. Student Rachel Schuda says she thinks this applied learning- approach will stick with her longer.
Schuda: When we were making our atlases, we had to learn certain things about Sudan, and so we knew what to put in our atlases. So I could pretty much tell you almost anything you want about Sudan right now, the kind of people, that are there, the agriculture, the past and present political powers, all that kind of stuff.
In the new world of the Profile of Learning, teachers must abandon the traditional letter grades of A, B, C, D and F, and instead use numbers, from one to four, to measure student achievement. Teachers throughout the state are struggling with the scoring system.
"The standards were probably given by a bunch of people who weren't good at taking tests, so they want to make us suffer at school."

-M'Angelo Harris
Roosevelt High School sophomore
I don't understand it. I don't feel I've had an opportunity to really understand what they're looking for with four, three, two and one.
Kouneski says overall she's pleased with the quality of the student work. But a few students failed to hand in anything and will get a zero. Those who made a minimal effort will get a one. She says most of her students will score a two, a few will get a three. None earned the elusive four, which state law says is supposed to represent advanced comprehension of the subject.
Kouneski: In this standard in my two classes, I'm not giving any fours. There will be no fours. And I'm comfortable with that. I don't think anybody went way beyond the standard. Nobody just blew me out of the water to that degree.
As she works her way through the stack of papers and maps, Kouneski is already looking at ways to adjust her Slavery in Sudan performance package for next year. She says one change will be scheduling the standard later in the school year to give students time to develop more geography skills.