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Higher standards in action: History project spawns idea for Federal Way schools

For her history project assignment, Sequoyah Middle School student Bailee Hintz, 13, addressed the question: Could Lewis and Clark have been successful without Sacajawea? Bailee said the project required more research than a typical report and earned high marks from judges on Thursday. “I think it’ll stick in my head,” Bailee said of the report’s contents. She is pictured in front of a U.S. history timeline exhibit on loan from the Gilder Leherman Institute of American history. - Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror
For her history project assignment, Sequoyah Middle School student Bailee Hintz, 13, addressed the question: Could Lewis and Clark have been successful without Sacajawea? Bailee said the project required more research than a typical report and earned high marks from judges on Thursday. “I think it’ll stick in my head,” Bailee said of the report’s contents. She is pictured in front of a U.S. history timeline exhibit on loan from the Gilder Leherman Institute of American history.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

As new policies have reshaped education and grading in Federal Way schools, one middle school's history project demonstrates an application of the district's higher standards.

On March 22, about 200 eighth-graders at Sequoyah Middle School will be judged on their research in U.S. history.

Students pick from a list of more than 150 questions, then develop PowerPoint presentations to explain the answer. Each report requires multiple sources, opposing views and ample background information.

Questions explored by students include "Why were the three branches of government created?" and "John Brown: hero or heretic?" Some students wrote their own questions, such as "When did the Civil Rights Movement really begin?"

The project is no cake walk. Each student's 15-minute presentation must meet certain standards before being allowed in front of judges.

History teacher Chris McCrummen facilitates the project, now in its second year at Sequoyah. He said the project, armed with its own particular standards, is well-suited to the Federal Way district's new power standards system.

"It's not a typical report. They're answering a deep and essential question about U.S. history," said McCrummen, who first encountered the program while teaching at Illahee Middle School. "It's rigorous."

The school district's controversial standards based education (SBE) policy requires students to meet certain power standards. Each power standard contains learning targets. Students who reach all targets in a particular course of study will pass the power standard for that course.

The system is intended to create more uniformity in instruction and provide clear guidelines for grading. A primary motivation behind SBE, as cited by school district officials, is to improve Federal Way's graduation rates.

Critics say SBE creates an unfair playing field that reduces test scores, raises the failure rate and discourages students from trying. Supporters praise the system for focusing on specific goals and challenging students to improve.

According to school district officials, SBE is meant to ensure that students master required skills, and that a clearer picture of a student’s progress can be developed. SBE coincides with an accelerated academics policy that allows more students, including students of color, to enroll in higher-level courses.

For now, Sequoyah is the only school in the district with this particular history project, and all of the school's eighth-graders participate. McCrummen is eager to spread it across Federal Way's history classrooms.

"I really pushed for it (at Sequoyah) because it aligns with power standards," he said. "I would love to see it in all the schools."

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