Why performance-based #assessment should have educators on the edge of their seats?

In the September 2015 edition of Phi Delta Kappan, Ruth Chung Wei wrote a thoughtful and informative article entitled, Measuring What Really Matters.  The authors make the case that performance-based assessments should be used more widely as a tool for getting feedback on student learning.  Their use could enhance our understanding of whether students are learning what we expect.  They write:

Performance assessments can tap into students’ higher-order thinking skills-such as evaluating the reliable of sources of information, explaining or arguing with evidence, or modeling a real-world phenomenon-to perform, create, or produce something with real-world relevance or meaning.

This would be in contrast to non-performance-based assessments that most primary and secondary school students are inundated with.  For example, worksheets, multiple choice tests or other assessments, that test lower-order thinking skills, are used as a default assessment tool by many teachers.

In their article, they explore what we can learn from past mistakes, especially the technical, practical, and political mistakes that hampered previous attempts by schools to use performance-based assessments as a tool.  Their recommendations are:

  • state assessment and accountability systems should be based on multiple measures of student learning, including locally developed assessments.
  • assessment systems should be coherent (they imply improved teacher professional development geared towards improving practice)
  • systems of assessment should support shared accountability and whole-system improvement (they write about reciprocal accountability)

By reciprocal accountability they mean:

all levels of the system-state, local, school, teacher, and student-are responsible for and must be actively engaged in building the capacity of educational systems to be responsive to the learning needs of all students.

It is interesting to think of the student as a stakeholder in the assessment system.  It seems totally reasonable because assessments are administered to give information about what a student learns.  Shouldn’t the student be in the assessment conversation?  Shouldn’t students take ownership and responsibility for their assessments?  It is their learning we are talking about.  If the answer is yes to these and other questions, then students need to be active players in assessment practices not simply passive participants.

In a Center for Teaching post on assessment, I wrote:

Assessment is a powerful tool in the teachers’ toolbox. It has been shown that effective assessment strategies can influence student achievement more than any other tool at the teachers’ disposal.

I also referenced an article, The Quest for Quality, by Stephen Chappuis,, in which the authors make the case for five elements that go into building a quality assessment program. The five are:

1. clear purpose
2. clear learning targets
3. sound assessment design
4. effective communication of results
5. student involvement in the assessment process

The authors argue for a balanced system of assessment in which the users, teachers and students are assessment literate.  These goals are also embodied in the piece by Chung and her colleagues.  They write:

For such local assessments to become a viable and trustworthy component of multiple-measures assessment system, they require well-designed systems to support technical quality, including design tools-design frameworks, task templates or shells, common rubrics, task specifications, task quality criteria-and an effective system of peer review for validation.

While they argue for this approach at the national and state level, I would argue that these design specifications should be required within every school and every classroom.  To achieve that end, we would have to help teachers learn how to become more effective designers of assessments, as was indicated by Chappuis in their article.

Performance-based assessments, commonly used by teachers who are engaged in project-based learning (PBL), are more authentic because they ask students to utilize a wide variety of learned skills, as well as their knowledge.  They often require students to read critically, think aloud, analyze sources, communicate their understanding, and collaborate with peers.  This example from Edutopia shows how a chemistry teacher uses performance-based assessment in his classroom.



There are numerous examples of performance-based assessment as part of PBL instruction at High Tech High and New Tech Network schools, as well as schools like Illinois Math and Science Academy that focus on inquiry-based instruction.

As Wei and her colleagues write in their conclusion:

But clearly, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders are telling us we need a change.

The change we should not be afraid of puts students at the center of the assessment conversation and teachers in charge of building high-quality, performance-based assessments.



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