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Teaching Opinion

Response: Performance Assessments Are ‘Absolutely Worth the Effort’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 21, 2017 16 min read
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(This is the second post of a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

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

Assessment is an obvious key part of our work as educators. There are many different types, and one, in particular, has been generating a fair amount of interest lately. It’s called “performance assessment.” This series will explore its advantages and disadvantages, and how teachers might use it.

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.

Today, Joshua Dragoon, N. Chaunte Garrett, Travis Bristol, Kristina Doubet, and Eric Carbaugh contribute their answers.

Response From Joshua Dragoon

Joshua Dragoon has been a school and district administrator in New York City public schools for the past eight years, focusing on teacher professional development in mathematics. Before that he was a New York City teacher and mathematics coach for seven years. He is a co-author with Charlotte Danielson of the recently released second edition ofPerformance Tasks and Rubrics for Upper Elementary Mathematics:

What is “performance assessment”?

Performance assessment is a process in which students apply their knowledge, understanding and skills in authentic contexts—to create or construct an answer to a question or a solution to a problem—and receive feedback from teachers, peers, and themselves about that performance to improve subsequent performance.

Why use performance assessment?

Performance assessment differs from many other types of assessment in that it is fundamentally about learning and growth. When students perform—whether that performance is a tennis serve, an art critique, or the solution to a math problem—they and their teachers gain insight into how they understand what has been taught. And we can use that insight to provide feedback that helps students grow. The opportunity students have to learn in the process of creating or constructing a response to a question or problem and improve upon that performance as a result of feedback makes performance assessment an essential part of our work as educators.

How? Clear standards for student performance and authentic contexts

Before using performance assessment, you will have to define two critical and complementary things. The first is a set of clear standards that define what students should know, understand, and be able to do. In many subject areas and grade levels, state departments of education define content standards (e.g., Common Core State Standards for mathematics and literacy in ELA, science, and social studies). Even when clear standards exist for the grade level, subject, and/or course being taught, you’ll need to select those with which you’ll use performance assessment. In addition to the standards that define what students know and are able to do, you’ll need to define what aspects of performance serve to demonstrate students’ mastery.

Once standards for performance have been established, the process of identifying, adapting, or designing tasks that elicit student performance can begin. Those tasks can be found in a variety of sources and are often inspired by problems and questions encountered in everyday life (e.g., wondering about the best deal when shopping or how to fix problems such as long lines in the school cafeteria). Alongside a quality task, you will need to identify, adapt, or create a rubric that defines student performance across several dimensions critical to the performance required by the task (e.g., communication, organization, use of evidence).

To the extent possible, students’ performances should reflect authentic applications of their learning and provide opportunities for you, as the teacher, to gain meaningful insight into students’ thinking so that you can offer feedback that grows their thinking and understanding. Because these tasks typically don’t have a single right answer or approach—a key difference between performance assessment and large-scale multiple-choice tests—they offer teachers the opportunity to gain insight into student thinking and use that thinking to guide future instruction.

It’s impossible to provide a complete guide to implementing performance assessment in 600 words. But my hope is that this brief introduction provides a starting point for teachers who have been asked by administrators to implement performance assessment or are interested in diversifying the kinds of assessment they already use in their classrooms to gain deeper insight into how their students understand what they’ve been taught—not merely whether they understand what they’ve been taught. In our book, “Performance Tasks and Rubrics for Upper Elementary Mathematics: Meeting Rigorous Standards and Assessments,” Charlotte Danielson and I provide a clearly defined process for implementing performance assessment in mathematics. This book as well as many other high-quality resources, both print and digital, can help you begin the process of transforming your classroom with performance assessment.

Response From N. Chaunte Garrett

N. Chaunte Garrett serves as the chief academic officer for Rocky Mount Preparatory School, a consultant and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. Her work in education includes curriculum and instruction, leadership, accountability, and school transformation. Connect with Garrett on Twitter @drncgarrett or on her blog:

Performance assessments are tasks designed to allow students to demonstrate the mastery of the content authentically; not on a traditional paper/pencil or standardized assessment. This is important because often the standardized assessments used to measure student learning and success do not allow students to demonstrate all the subskills learned. Performance assessments provide educators with a wealth of data regarding students conceptual understanding of the content, how to apply what they have learned and extend their learning.

Often, performance assessments will come in the form of labs or short-term and long-term projects. These can be embedded in one lesson or span over multiple lessons. When implementing performance assessments in the classroom, the following should be considered:

  1. Begin with the end in mind. The goal of the assessment is to allow students to demonstrate what they know. Clearly defining the outcome of the assessment and learning objectives measures is essential. From defining the outcome, teachers must think backwards to ensure that all the necessary subskills are included in the assessment in order to give students the opportunity to build the skill while engaging in the assessment and help the teacher to understand where student learning misconceptions may occur.

  2. Performance assessments should be designed to build skills. Once the subskills for a concept are identified, the assessment should be designed so the building of the skills are sequenced appropriately. Engaging in performance assessments is just as much as about reinforcing learning as it is about measuring what students have learned.

  3. The performance assessment is designed in the context of a real world problem. Students need to be able to relate what they are learning in the context of what is happening around them.

  4. Plan for differentiation and guidance through the assessment. Our students are often at various levels of understanding of the content. Just with any lesson plan, there are times when teachers know they will need to guide students through certain activities or understanding topics. In addition, differentiation will allow teachers to ensure the assessment meets students where they are and give students the opportunity to express learning in a way that is meaningful to them.

  5. Establish mini-assessment points throughout the performance assessment. It would be tragic for a student to spend an entire class period on a performance assessment, to find out at the end it was completed incorrectly. Engaging students throughout the assessment, having models of a product at its various stages or discussions about progress along the way allows students the opportunity to self-correct or seek clarity.

  6. Practice the performance assessment before it is implemented. Students deserve the opportunity to maximize their time when engaging in the assessment. If there are multiple errors, or worst case, the intended outcome is not attainable, students will grow frustrated and disengaged. Practice will identify any hiccups prior to sharing and engaging students.

Performance assessments are a valuable and necessary addition to every classroom. It provides the teacher and students the opportunity to authentically engage in the curriculum and grow stronger in conceptually understanding the content. Standardized assessment scores provide a snapshot of what student have learned—implementing performance assessments in the classroom provide and opportunity understand how students have learned and correct any misconceptions in the context of their world. Performance assessments are powerful instructional tool.

Response From Travis Bristol

Dr. Travis Bristol is an assistant professor of education at Boston University. He is a former high school English teacher in New York City public schools and teacher-educator with the Boston Teacher Residency program. His research focuses on the practices that support teacher and student learning and the policies that enable and constrain teacher workplace experiences and retention. The National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the American Educational Research Association awarded Dr. Bristol fellowships for his study on Black male teachers. The Washington Post, Education Week, NPR, NBC News, and Fox News have all highlighted findings from this study:

Informed by the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, Django Paris defined culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) as “teaching and learning that seeks to perpetuate and foster linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling and as a needed response to demographic and social change”. In May 2016, Django and I co-edited a two-part series in “Education Week Teacher” that featured current classroom teachers describing how they enact CSP. As I began to read teachers’ submissions, I found myself wondering how I could support preservice teachers to enact CSP.

Inspired by the work of Pam Grossman and her colleagues in the Core Practice Consortium (CPC) who are investigating teacher education pedagogies, I set out in the fall semester to document how preservice secondary teachers across content areas in my year-long Foundations of Education course grappled with the principles underlying CSP to develop high cognitive demand performance-based assessments. As a scaffold to support preservice teachers in the course to design their performance-based assessments, I required them, first, to select a case-study student. Drawing on course readings, novice teachers conducted several observations and then wrote a 2-3-page reflection that responded to an assigned prompt. For example, after reading excerpts from Prudence Carter’s Keepin’ It Real: School Success Beyond Black and White and Jean Wing’s “Beyond Black and White: The model minority myth and the invisibility of Asian-American students,” preservice teachers had to reflect on the role of culture and racial/ethnic identity in their case-study student’s life. Other reflections focused on gender and class. For their final project, the novice teachers had to design a performance-based assessment that incorporated their observations of their case-study student as well as reflections, assigned readings, and class discussions.

In this document, I have highlighted several of my students’ performance-based assessments from a range of content areas. Shereen Velupillai’s physics unit required her case-study student to investigate projectile motion in basketball, and Kristina Capuzzi’s physics unit required her case-study student to explore Newton’s Three Laws of Motion in relation to Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt. In Logan David’s math unit, his case-study student had to create a musical rhythm using sine and cosine functions by employing transformations. Through a poem and a persuasive essay, Dana Amico’s case-study student described the importance of discussing queer themes in Walt Whitman. Finally, in Ricardo Cuadra’s social studies unit, his case-study student participated in a structured-academic controversy and attempted to answer if U.S. intervention in Latin America was justified.

While I believe many of these performance-based assessments can serve as an important resource for practitioners, it is important to note that preservice teachers designed these assessments for their case-study students. The tasks should not be viewed as a model, but more as a window into how a teacher might design a culturally sustaining performance-based task. Finally, in making my teaching public, my hope is to contribute to the ongoing work around developing common practices in teacher education.

To follow more of the class’s ongoing thinking, see tweets using hashtag #BU502. At the end of each class, students share lingering questions/comments in an “exit tweet.”

Response From Kristina Doubet and Eric Carbaugh

Kristina J. Doubet, Ph.D. (@kjdoubet) and Eric M. Carbaugh, Ph.D. (@emc7x) teach in the College of Education’s Middle, Secondary, and Math Department at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. They are faculty members for ASCD Professional Learning Services, co-authors of the Corwin book, The Differentiated Flipped Classroom: Practical Strategies for Digital Learning, and they work with teachers across the nation and abroad on the topics of curriculum, assessment, differentiation, and digital learning:

A performance assessment asks students to transfer what they have learned to new and unique situations (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Its benefits are numerous; first and foremost, a performance assessment can reveal whether or not students, indeed, mastered the lesson’s/unit’s learning goals. Unlike a closed-ended assessment method, a “performance” renders memorization meaningless without the ability to make sense of and use information and skills in context. Further, in using information and skills in new and unique situations, performance assessments solidify learning for students; it remains in their memories far longer than information that is simply regurgitated on a test.

So what does a performance assessment look like? It can be a short, lesson-level formative “task” or a lengthier, meatier summative assessment. Formative performance tasks require students to respond to prompts in an open-ended fashion. For example, a performance exit prompt in an English class may require students to review a movie online utilizing both pathos and logos in their responses (as opposed to writing definitions and isolated examples on an exit ticket).

Similarly, a social studies teacher may present students with a news site’s polling-results and ask students to assume the role of a candidate’s campaign manager and provide implications for campaign strategy. Such prompts allow the teacher to see—immediately following the lesson—who truly grasps the content well enough to apply it, eliminating “false positives” of learning often presented by closed-ended, low-level exit ticket questions. Because student answers will vary, they can provide rich fodder for discussion the following day.

Summative performance assessments, on the other hand, take more time for teachers to craft and for students to complete. They are usually complex tasks tapping into multiple higher-order skills. Teachers frequently use the GRASPS format (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) when designing such tasks, proactively planning the Goal of the assessment, the Role students will assume, the Audience they will address and in what Situation, as well as the Product or Performance they will produce. For example, math teacher Mr. O’Malley assigned the following performance assessment to his students:

“The EPA has recruited you, an environmentalist, to help control an oil spill in the Atlantic Ocean. Two ships carrying oil have crashed into each other and are leaking oil in two separate locations. Using the diagram and data provided, along with your understanding of area and perimeter, determine where to place an oil containment boom to stop the oil from spreading.”

Of vital importance with both formative and summative performance tasks is that teachers are clear on the criteria by which they will evaluate student Success. For a formative task, a criteria checklist may do; for summative assessments, teachers must develop clear and encompassing rubrics that are both teacher- and student-friendly. These rubrics must focus on the learning goals assessed in the task and not on how “pretty” the product is. Mr. O’Malley, for example, evaluated students’ work on their use of equations, mathematical methods/procedures, and accuracy.

Even as we “assess” students through performance, we are also helping them make sense of, internalize and remember required knowledge, understanding, and skills. This doesn’t mean we throw out tests; most assessment experts advocate collecting multiple measures of students’ grasp of learning goals. Further, tests assess discrete knowledge more efficiently than do performance assessments, while performance tasks assess enduring understanding and complex skills better than most tests. There is a place for both. But using performance assessment increases the likelihood that students will both grasp and retain what they’ve learned in an enduring manner. Therefore, while performance assessment is not quick or easy, it is absolutely worth the effort.

Thanks to Joshua, N. Chaunte, Travis, Kristina, and Eric for their contributions!

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