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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Curriculum-Embedded Performance Assessment: Good Practice in Its Own Right

Whether or not it is the result of the disappointing showing of US students on international tests, college professors’ concerns about the college readiness of students, or other evidence of students’ and graduates’ lack of 21st century skills, there is no shortage of recent initiatives designed to address the situation. These include educational approaches such as competency-based education and project-based learning and new curriculum standards such as the Next Generation Science Standards, the Common Core State Standards, and state standards like them, but with different names.

One thing programs implementing these approaches and standards have in common is the high value they place on performance assessment. While there may be many definitions of this term, they generally involve a requirement that students create a product or performance demonstrating deeper learning – the ability to apply foundational knowledge and/or skills to complete a significant task – often to solve a real-world problem.

It is important to bear in mind that the effective use of performance assessment does not require a commitment to any of these bigger initiatives or new curriculum standards. Performance assessment is good practice in its own right.

Why did the field move away from performance assessment in the first place?

Unfortunately, the demands of the NCLB/Race-to-the-Top era led to over-dependence on efficient, machine-scorable testing approaches that shortchanged higher-order thinking skills. While selected-response items covering foundational knowledge and skills can play an important part in student testing and program evaluation, a balanced assessment system would give equal attention to deeper learning. Past efforts to implement performance assessments in conjunction with state accountability programs, including those of the state assessment consortia PARCC and Smarter Balanced, have fallen short of their original intentions for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is efficiencies of cost and time. Many see the Every Student Success Act (ESSA), recently passed at the end of 2015, as encouraging the reintroduction of performance assessment as local measures of student learning in accountability, however, it remains to be seen what this will look like in next generation assessment and accountability systems.

How can schools effectively use performance assessment in a balanced assessment system?

The solution to this problem is curriculum-embedded performance assessment – not isolated tasks held secure and assigned to students during fixed testing windows a few times during the academic year – but rather tasks that are integral parts of instructional modules or units. In this way, there is NO ADDITIONAL TESTING TIME required of schools and students. Hofman, Goodwin, and Kahl (2015) describe how such an approach can strike balances between formative and summative assessment, between attention to foundational knowledge/skills and to deeper learning, and between local and state components of a state’s accountability assessment program. Marion and Shepard (2010) referred to these instructional units as “replacement units.”

Whether you are ready to adopt a transformational approach, such as competency education or project-based learning, or prefer a more gradual approach to refocusing teaching and learning on higher order thinking skills, performance assessments are an essential piece of the puzzle.


Hofman, P., Goodwin, B., & Kahl, S. (2015). Re-balancing assessment: Placing formative and performance assessment at the heart of learning and accountability. Denver, CO: McREL International.

Marion, S. & Shepard, L. (2010). Let’s not forget about opportunity to learn: Curricular supports for innovative assessments. Dover, NH: Center for Assessment.


* Stuart Kahl co-founded Measured Progress as Advanced Systems in Measurement and Evaluation, Inc. in 1983, serving as vice president during the company’s first fourteen years and as chief executive officer from 1998 to 2011. With 35 years of experience in large-scale assessment, Dr. Kahl is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and serves as a technical consultant to various education agencies. He regularly publishes research papers and commentaries on current issues and trends in education. A former elementary and secondary teacher, Dr. Kahl earned degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Colorado. Prior to co-founding his company, he worked for the Education Commission of the States, the University of Colorado, Clark University, and RMC Research Corporation.