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.
Performance Assessment Snopes: What’s True and What’s Nonsense
Performance Assessment and Project-based Learning have similarities, but are notably different.
High quality project-based learning experiences allow learners to engage with the world and to share and understand their values. They are culturally responsive, they are flexible in process and product, they're engaging, and they adhere to the elements of Universal Design for Learning. Quality Performance Assessments have all those things too! The big difference is that Quality Performance Assessments are a system of assessments that work together to help teachers understand and communicate where a learner is on a continuum of skills and knowledge. These higher-order thinking skills cannot be assessed using standardized assessments such as tests and quizzes. In project-based learning, you can engage in real-world learning and still give a traditional assessment to see if students have mastered what you wanted them to learn. So it really comes down to philosophy and how you're using project-based learning in your system and how those projects are interconnected to help build a body of evidence that demonstrates what students know and are able to do.
Performance assessments challenge the real purpose of assessment and why we are doing it. The standardized assessment culture we are in is a joyless culture. The emphasis is not on learning; it is on accountability. A Quality Performance Assessment system can hold school systems accountable as well as eliminate this extra time spent on joyless tests that don’t assess the most important skills our kids need: communication, collaboration, moral literacy, media literacy, creativity, critical thinking and self-direction. Project-based Learning is great; just make sure you are also capturing the resulting learning in a meaningful and manageable way to communicate student growth and to reflect on your practice.
Performance assessments can only be given on a large-scale.
Many folks think that performance assessments can only be really big year-long or semester-long assignments. But, in fact, educators can use performance assessments in a variety of ways, both big and small, in the middle of a unit or at the end, to see how students are communicating their new understanding or how they are approaching new problems.
Using a simple example, if I am teaching a fractions unit, at the middle of the unit after we’ve already done addition of positive fractions, I probably want to check to make sure that learners can apply that skill or do some strategic thinking around how to solve questions that require that skill before moving onto subtracting fractions. So, I might give a small, performance-based task that allows me to see where students are right now in that discrete skill and also assess how they are communicating as a mathematician. I can see how students are thinking about problem solving. Are they using mental math? Are they drawing factor trees? Who is struggling? Who isn’t? Why? Smaller performance assessments can provide real-time feedback and actionable data to support teaching practice and student learning.
Of course, some performance assessments are really big. I might have a year-long task in which students are engaged and getting feedback along the way. Capstones, gateways or learner designed assessments are really big. It’s not about big or small; it’s really about how they are used on the learning journey.
Performance Assessments are too subjective for reliable scoring.
This one is an interesting myth, because it comes with the assumption that standardized tests are 100% reliable. Educational assessment is a human act. The SAT and other standardized tests were created by humans, using expectations that are defined by test makers who are not connected to our local communities. Our culture tends to look at the results from these tests as absolutes, but they are not. We posit that a Quality Performance Assessment system can be more reliable than traditional assessment systems. A performance assessment system engages learners in what is meaningful to them, is connected to learning outcomes that are meaningful to the local community, and allows teachers to be actively engaged in the assessment process. Through conversations and calibration exercises, teachers in a Quality Performance Assessment system develop deep understanding of the language of the rubric in relation to the student work produced. The more teachers assess, and assess together, the more reliable the assessment becomes.
It’s also important to note that yes, a standardized test can assess knowledge if a student is willing to share what they know, but cannot assess what students can do with the knowledge or what skills a student possesses. Quality Performance Assessments help to create a body of evidence of deeper student learning beyond discrete skill and memorization. Teacher observation, student reflection and student work are more valid, more meaningful pieces of evidence of a student’s learning journey than a standardized test, and can all be used to create a reliable system.