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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Performance Assessment Can Be an ‘Equity Strategy’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 27, 2017 11 min read
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(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What is “performance assessment” and how and why should I use it with students?

In Part One, Mike Kaechele, Allison Zmuda, Bena Kallick, Elizabeth Leisy Stosich, and Jennifer Borgioli shared their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Mike, Allison, and Bena on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Joshua Dragoon, N. Chaunte Garrett, Travis Bristol, Kristina Doubet, and Eric Carbaugh contributed their answers.

We’ll wrap-up the series today with ideas from Lee Jenkins, Shane Safir, Andrew Miller, Matt Renwick, and Barbara Blackburn.

Response From Lee Jenkins

Lee Jenkins is author of Corwin’s Optimize Your School: It’s All About the Strategy. His website includes the blank graphs and sample rubrics mentioned in this blog:

Every subject has two basic components: background knowledge and performance. The common vernacular is what students “know” and what students “can do.” The focus upon one component and then the other, back to the first, is the story of the American pendulum in education. There is absolutely no reason for the pendulum as experts (adults and children) have a great deal of background knowledge and have evidence of amazing performance.

The first step in all assessment is to inform students what they are to know and be able to do by the end of the course. Assessment tells the teacher if the methods utilized are giving the desired result, which is evidence that end-of-the-year standards will be met. This is the why of assessment.

There are three types of performance assessment: counting, check marks and rubrics. Examples of performance assessment by counting are reading fluency, fitness, and keyboarding speed. Examples of check marks are checking off acquired skills in a technology or other career based courses. Rubrics are used for all other performance assessments.

The biggest obstacle to overcome with performance assessment with rubrics is having rubrics that students understand and accept as accurate. When students turn in their work, they should be 85 percent or higher predicting their rubric score. I suggest dichotomous rubrics with yes/no questions. On my website are sample dichotomous rubrics for writing, history research, mathematics and science. Free.

After the performance assignment is assessed two graphs are completed: the Student Run Chart and the Class Run Chart. The student graphs how many words per minute typed, how many skills approved by the teacher or the number of rubric points. In all cases, both student and teacher know if they are on track to meet end-of-year standards. The second graph is the class run chart which is merely the total for the class. This addition is key for students to perceive themselves as a team working together to outperform their prior best. Blank graphs for performance and background knowledge are free on my website.

Response From Shane Safir

Shane Safir is a coach, writer, and facilitator who has worked in public education for 20 years. She was the co-founding principal of June Jordan School for Equity, an innovative national model identified by scholar Linda Darling-Hammond as having “beaten the odds in supporting the success of low-income students of color.” She is the author of the forthcoming book The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2017). Visit Shane at shanesafir.com or follow her @ShaneSafir:

Picture this... a formerly struggling learner has prepared for his senior defense for weeks. To earn a diploma, he must not only pass all required courses, he must successfully complete a performance assessment, which means defending his best work to a committee of peers, his advisor (like a homeroom teacher), a parent or significant adult, and teachers. Today, he will present an original research project and a mathematical application piece to the committee. He is dressed to the nines, has rehearsed at length, and takes a deep breath before entering the room.

In the next hour, he delivers a 15-minute presentation on each piece, accompanied by a polished slide show. He responds to probing questions from committee members who are gauging how deeply he understands the content. He closes his defense with a heartfelt reflection on why he thinks he is ready to graduate from high school and move on to university. In the final 15 minutes, he steps into the hallway while the committee deliberates, and re-enters to a formal announcement that he has passed his defense. The young man begins to cry and walks out to a gaggle of friends hugging and high-fiving him to thunderous applause.

Does this sound fictional? In truth I witnessed this very scene dozens of time as the co-director of June Jordan School for Equity--a small public high school that uses performance assessment as an academic rite of passage at the end of tenth and twelfth grades. I saw firsthand how transformative this process can be, especially for historically marginalized students.

Here are a few ways to get started down the path to performance assessment:

  • When planning a unit, consider how you will measure three types of competencies: habits of thinking, habits of heart, and habits of work. First consider the question of inter-disciplinary knowledge: what would an artist, historian, mathematician, or scientist need to know, and how would they demonstrate their knowledge? Then consider the relational habits, like empathy and collaboration, and the work habits, like time management or use of technology, embedded in this task.

  • Develop a rubric that reflects your answers to the questions above. At June Jordan, we developed one around the acronym PROPEL, which represented six habits of mind we valued in every classroom: perspective, relevance, originality, precision, evidence, logical reasoning.

  • As you design the performance assessment task, be clear about your expectations, develop supports for different learners, and share exemplars of the final product.

  • Build time into your class for students to prepare for the performance. This is also an opportunity for you to engage in formative assessment, or assessment for learning—to quickly diagnose and address student misconceptions.

  • Value audience. At first, your audience can be as simple as another class down the hall. Eventually, you might consider inviting parents or designing a formal process like the June Jordan committees I described above. Regardless, students need the real-world component of presenting to real people.

As a final note, I want to reassure you that this process doesn’t have to replace traditional assessments. After the performance task is complete, you can do a paper-and-pencil test to cross-reference results or to assess for mastery of specific content. By coupling different types of assessments, you will get a much more well-rounded view of what students know and are able to do, and build their confidence in the process.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller (@betamiller) is an instructional coach and educational consultant who focuses on project-based learning, assessment and student engagement. He is on the faculty for both ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. He is the author Freedom to Fail and also writes regularly for Edutopia and ASCD:

Performance Assessment is something we have already been doing. Teachers and students have done amazing oral presentations, visual products, demonstrations, projects and writing tasks. These tasks allow students voice, choice, and creativity in how they show their learning. They also allow students to work together and collaborate on an assessment to learn from each other. If designed well, performance tasks allow not only for student engagement, but also for demonstration of mastery of content and critical thinking skills. There are so many reasons to continue to use performance assessment in your classroom.

As we continue to use these performance assessments, we still do need to ensure they are not just engaging, but focused on learning. Teachers can design and co-design these assessments with learning in mind, whether those are course outcomes or state or provincial level standards. In addition performance assessments should be focus on the “bigger picture” learning and assessing what matters most. Whether these are enduring understandings or transfer goals, performance assessments are best used to focus on priorities for learning. Lastly, performance assessments allow us to see a “photo album” of learning, a larger picture of what students know and are able to do. They can show a different type of learning. Performance assessments—like tests, graphic organizers, etc—are a part of this photo album and allow us to see the journey of learning, not just a snapshot.

Response From Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Mineral Point, Wis., and author of multiple books, including 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How do we integrate digital tools to truly enhance learning? (ASCD, 2015). Learn more about Matt on his website, mattrenwick.com, and by following him on Twitter @ReadByExample:

Performance assessment is an alternative approach for measuring student knowledge, skills, and understanding. It typically comes after a unit of study that focuses on a concept or large topic. The term “performance” connotates that students will present their learning in some demonstrative fashion, and not merely respond to a multiple choice test or a series of short answer questions. Many curriculum frameworks out there, including Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe) and Project-Based Learning (Buck Institute of Education), include performance assessments as part of their respective approaches.

The “how” of using a performance assessment with students is actually quite complex. It is not as simple as saying, “Students will create and deliver a presentation that shows their understanding of ___________________ (fill in the blank).” A high-quality performance assessment has to elicit substantial evidence that a student does in fact understand and can apply the knowledge, skills, and understandings that is the focus for the unit of study. This means planning instruction with the end in mind, or as Wiggins & McTighe put it, “backward design”. By deciding which learning points are most important for students to gain from an instructional experience, teachers are better informed to make creative decisions about the assessment necessary to capture this evidence of learning.

So why should teachers employ performance assessments? Quite simply, this is how we as adults show our own abilities in the real world. When is the last time any of us took a test to show what we know and are able to do? An example: I recently accepted a new position in a different district, also as a school principal. During the interview process, I was asked to do a variety of activities: Respond verbally to questions asked of me; Provide examples of my past work and successes; Examine hypothetical situations which demanded I apply my knowledge and skills to come up with a creative solution. Traditional tests should take a back seat to performance assessments and other more authentic approaches to measure student understanding. Our students deserve the same authentic opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned.

Response From Barbara Blackburn

Barbara Blackburn is an educational consultant and author of 13 books, including the best-selling Rigor is NOT a Four-Letter Word and her latest, Rigor for Students with Special Needs. She writes a blog and can be reached through her website:

Performance assessments are the variety of ways students demonstrate their learning in alternative ways—other than tests. These can be through presentations, portfolios, debates, technology projects, and skits. Performance based assessments provide several benefits: they allow students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the content, they provide an alternative way for students to demonstrate their understanding, which is particularly important if they are not effective test-takers, and they are more motivating and engaging.

Thanks to Lee, Shane, Andrew, Matt and Barbara for their contributions!

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