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: Fostering the Learning of Teachers and Students
Recently, CCE was pleased to enter into partnership with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform to co-produce a June 2017 issue of their Voices in Urban Education (VUE) print and online journal. A primary goal of the issue is to place a spotlight on the window of opportunity to replace the harmful effects of standardized testing over the past twenty years with assessments that place teachers at the center of assessment design and engage students in curriculum-embedded, robust performance tasks that advance meaningful learning.
Two themes run throughout the issue that are critical to the success of the performance assessment movement in transforming school, district, and state cultures of learning and assessment, rather than merely replicating the current system in different clothing. Both have to do with notions of power.
The first is one of cultural empowerment. In his article, Identity Affirmed, Agency Engaged: Culturally Responsive Performance-Based Assessment, Ricardo Rosa states:
“If we begin . . . from the perspective that institutions, including schools, are designed in the image and interests of those who rule, we must be very cautious about re-creating an educational reform environment where people of color and the poor will continue to be marginalized. If performance-based assessment is considered in the same frame as current testing regimes . . . it becomes just another reform fad . . . that re-inscribes the power of systems of categorization and the conferring of rewards to those who are already materially, racially, and culturally privileged.”
Put another way, if we construct performance assessments without any meaningful connections to students’ lives, cultures, languages, and experiences, without any opportunities for students to have voice, choice, and agency in how they demonstrate their learning and proficiency, and without opportunity for students to examine the world in which they live with a critical lens, then we are not fundamentally altering the education equation. In all likelihood, such a scenario would result in the same patterns of disparate student performance by race, income, language, and disability that we see in today’s inequitable educational system.
I recall an early conversation in the New Hampshire Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) initiative that speaks to this concern. In the first year of PACE cross-district performance task development, a fifth grade English language arts performance task asked students to write an argumentative opinion piece about whether it is safe or too dangerous to join the circus. The task was designed by teachers representing mostly white, homogeneous, middle class communities. In reviewing the task, the Concord Public Schools assistant superintendent noted that her Somali refugee students would fail as none of them would even know what a circus was – it was outside their realm of experience. This was an important moment in PACE’s early evolution; the realization that cultural relevancy was a critical element in performance task design.
Speaking on the second, related theme of student agency, Ricardo Rosa returns:
“Performance-based assessment, pursued correctly, is not just a technique or routine, but essentially a way of being that allows democracy to be lived on the bones. To be more vigorous . . . performance assessments must be critical in a dual manner: in the sense of provoking imagination and in unmasking and intervening in relations of power.”
Living democracy “on the bones” requires a culture of placing students in the driver’s seat of their own learning and engaging them in deep investigations that raise questions about the world in which they live, across all of the disciplines. Living democracy “on the bones” also means creating a community of learners, in which trust and respect are shared and lived values, something that a performance assessment culture can achieve that a stand-alone standardized test cannot. As related by a Chelsea High School teacher in the article, Case Study: The Capstone Project at Chelsea High School, “I believe that Capstone is a renewing experience for teachers and students alike. Personally, I’ve found that it helps me to get to know students on a deeper level as learners and as people, and it has helped to build a sense of community and support in my classes.”
In the article, The Future Is Performance Assessment, Villegas-Reimer reminds us that “Citizens must develop democratic abilities and skills, moral values that reflect democratic ideals and principles, motivation to get involved and act, and knowledge of democracy, its principles and practices.” She advocates that schools are best situated to engage students in acquiring and practicing these skills and values of global democracy. What better way to acquire these skills and values than through curriculum-embedded, project-based performance assessments in which students have agency to engage with the world in ways that develop and promote democratic practice and actions?
What all these articles remind us is that the performance assessment movement will only be successful if it adheres to a vision of a socially just and equitable world. The movement must ensure that every performance task is designed to build on the assets, experiences, cultures, and languages of diverse learners. It should empower students to take control over their own learning, to question and challenge assumptions, and to make the world a more just place for all.