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More States Are Creating a ‘Portrait of a Graduate.’ Here’s Why

What does it mean to be a successful graduate?

Most states officially define it as someone who completes the correct number of courses, demonstrates a high GPA, is admitted to a college, or gets a head start in a career.

But at least 17 states have pushed the definition beyond those traditional expectations, outlining their goals in a guiding document that influences education policy—often called a portrait, or profile, of a graduate.

According to such portraits, students should leave high school with a set of agreed-upon skills, such as communication, teamwork, creativity, and civic engagement.

“Upon graduation, we want to make sure that students have a set of attributes, skills, that they possess in getting them ready for college, career, and civic engagement,” New York Commissioner of Education Betty Rosa said in an interview. “Once we have [students] in our space, we want them to build these skills of cooperating and collaborating. We want them to become communicators … We want them to be ethical and global citizens.”

For over a decade, 17 states have adopted such portraits as they have worked to raise academic achievement, close learning gaps, and respond to employers’ needs. New York is on track to become the fourth state to adopt a portrait of a graduate in the past two years, joining Kentucky, North Carolina, and Wyoming. Far more districts have adopted their own portraits, more localized versions that guide schooling based on the community’s goals.

On Dec. 11, the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, launched its Portrait of a Graduate Academy in partnership with Battelle for Kids, a nonprofit that helps districts develop portraits. The program will help guide districts in developing their own comprehensive visions for student success.

“States and districts and schools are redefining success and thinking about what is it that young people need to be prepared for success, both in post-secondary education, the workforce and in civic life and society,” said Laurie Gagnon, program director of CompetencyWorks at the Aurora Institute, a nonprofit organization that advocates for competency-based education.

What is a portrait?

The idea behind a portrait is simple. Rather than deciding that a student is a successful graduate based on the amount of time they’ve spent in the classroom, the portrait presents a more well-rounded view of what success looks like.

In Kentucky, a successful student is an engaged citizen, critical thinker, effective communicator, empowered learner, creative contributor, and productive collaborator, according to the state’s portrait of a learner.

In South Carolina, successful students should be able to read critically, express ideas, investigate through inquiry, reason quantitatively, use sources, design solutions, learn independently, navigate conflict, lead teams, build networks, sustain wellness, and engage as a citizen, according to the state’s portrait of a graduate competencies.

And in New York, the proposed portrait, which the state’s Board of Regents will vote on in an upcoming meeting, describes a successful graduate as someone who is a critical thinker, innovative problem solver, literate across content areas, culturally competent, social-emotionally competent, an effective communicator, and a global citizen.

The portraits blend together as states outline similar goals and competencies associated with a successful student. That’s by design. The portraits are supposed to be the first step in a state or district’s efforts to transform learning, said Robin Kanaan, director of teaching and learning at Knowledgeworks, a nonprofit that helps states and districts implement personalized learning strategies, like competency-based learning and portraits of a graduate.

“It is an artifact or an evidence of a shared vision,” Kanaan said. “The portrait of a graduate isn’t really about strategies and methods or instructional practices at play or pedagogy. It’s really about the knowledge, disposition, and characteristics that we are saying a graduate from our district is going to embody as they move forward in the world.”

A successful portrait is developed with input from a wide range of voices, including district leaders, teachers, parents, business leaders, and students, Kanaan said. The idea is for everyone to have an agreement on what makes a successful student.

In New York, state leaders started developing the portrait in 2019. The first step, Rosa said, was having conversations with the state’s 37 district superintendents, and then moving on to principals, teachers’ unions, the state’s labor department, parents, community organizations, and finally students.

“We wanted buy-in from different parts of the state, different constituents, different individual school districts, small school districts, middle-sized school districts, rural, urban, suburban,” Rosa said. “But the most important piece here was that we wanted our students to share with us what they imagine [for] their education.”

More than a poster on a wall

The development of a portrait isn’t a difficult or high-cost undertaking for most states, and if states aren’t committed to it in a meaningful way it will likely not lead to any actionable change, experts say.

That’s because it can be easy to say students should think critically, but measuring such a skill is much harder. In order for states to make the portraits mean something, they need to tie them to student progress, Gagnon said. That can mean more formal competency-based learning, when students’ academic progress is measured based on mastery of competencies, or it can mean more pathways through schooling with career and technical education programs that help students build the competencies.

“Taking research and building it out into a student-friendly, learning progression where we can actually create learning experiences, like opportunities to learn and practice, and then demonstrate those skills is a really important tool for moving a profile from a goal or an aspiration that feels out of reach to something that’s really concrete and built-in,” Gagnon said.

As one of the first states to adopt a portrait in 2012, South Carolina has become a case study in making the portrait meaningful in schools, Gagnon said. When Stephanie DiStasio became the state’s director of college and career readiness in 2017, she had a mission in mind—turn the state’s portrait of a graduate from “a poster on the wall” to an actionable document that can be used to measure and evaluate student progress.

At the time, the portrait had been around for five years and codified into South Carolina law for two years, but many district leaders didn’t know what they could actually do with it, DiStasio said.

“Everybody knew what the profile was but what we had at that time were lots of great work happening but no way to really articulate that, report on that, or capture that in a systemic, unified way,” DiStasio said. “So when I came to the agency in 2017, a big charge of the office of personalized learning was to quite frankly make the profile actionable.”

The state’s portrait identifies three main areas for student success: world-class knowledge, world-class skills, and life and career characteristics. Under each of those areas, it outlines characteristics schools and students should have, such as integrity, creativity and innovation, rigorous standards in language arts and math, and STEM education.

The state developed a set of competencies to help districts adopt the portrait. Those competencies include action statements.

For example, under the “read critically” competency is the statement “I can make meaning from diverse media to better understand the world around me.” The idea is for districts to strive for students to be able to make each statement by the time they graduate.

The state has also provided districts with an implementation guide to adopt the competencies and a research and evaluation toolkit. Districts in the state can use the competencies to do full competency-based learning, in which student success is measured based on mastery of skills rather than seat time, or they can just act as more support in districts’ efforts to improve student achievement.

“What the competencies we have in South Carolina allow us to do is really, quite frankly, what we set out to do,” DiStasio said. “We can actually say, what does it look like to demonstrate these skills and characteristics across any content area, any knowledge area in South Carolina.”

DiStasio sees the competencies becoming a tangible credential or badge for students to demonstrate their skills to colleges and universities or potential employers. The state has not yet taken any official steps to develop that credential, but it is headed in that direction, DiStasio said.

So far, portraits are not caught up in political divisions

Unlike many initiatives in K-12 schools, the portraits have managed to avoid getting caught up in political divisions.

States with both Democratic and Republican majorities have adopted portraits, many of which look similar to each other. And, within those states, the portraits have managed to avoid any real political debates.

DiStasio said it has helped that the South Carolina portrait was codified into state law in 2015, before the current political climate, in which schools have become an increasingly divisive place. Even so, the portrait remains a reflection of what South Carolinians want out of their schools, she said.

“Everyone recognizes that these concepts, skills, and characteristics are what our business and industry and communities say that they want to see in our graduates,” DiStasio said. “These are those time-tested things.”

Rosa, the New York commissioner, said that the process has been similarly nonpartisan in her state. That’s because it’s rooted in finding common ground, she said.

“When you think about common ground and building common unity, [you] really build that around children,” she said. “People want our children to be successful.”

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